Of Myths and Men
Art Review: Rosie Prevost, black-and-white photographic portraits. 215 College Street Artists’ Cooperative, Burlington. Through September 7.
“The Innocent” by Rosie Prevost
Rosie Prevost combines figurative imagery with titles that evoke archetypal identities in her solo photographic exhibition, “Portraits: Exploring the Universal,” at 215 College Street Artists’ Cooperative in Burlington. The 28 black-and-white images are beautifully composed, but Prevost’s references to the ideas of Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) add a conceptual dimension and deeper meaning to her imagery.
Jung wrote, “The collective unconscious . . . appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents.” Prevost’s titles, such as “The Mother,” “The Innocent,” “The Angry Cook” and “The Gentle Giant,” touch upon such universal mythic roles.
Two 30-by-26-inch, sepia-selenium-toned photographs, both entitled “The Mother,” hark back to the most primordial images produced by humankind. A round-bellied pregnant woman echoes fertility-goddess sculptures dating from Neolithic Europe. The contours of the female form were lit in Prevost’s studio with strong shadows to accentuate the model’s profound shape. One of the pictures is a frontal shot focused only on her breasts and torso, while the other is a profile showing the model’s long, straight hair and the serene expression on her face. She’s comfortable and confident with her fecundity as an individual, yet is also partly idealized as a Venus of Willendorf for modern times.
“The Mother I and II” are the only studio shots in Prevost’s exhibition. The other portraits were created in the subjects’ own environments, placing them in personal contexts. Prevost also employed natural light in most of the show’s other works.
“The Gentle Giant” is a man on a motorcycle in a parking lot, three semi truck cabs flanking him as he holds a cute Husky puppy. The man smiles warmly, doting on the pup. The figure is positioned on the left side of the composition, and a long, low roofline stretches at an angle along the background. Prevost’s portraits draw much of their effectiveness from sturdy arrangements of large and small forms. Often figures are formally framed by subtle geometric elements, as well as by areas of contrasting value.
Another example of Prevost’s compositional astuteness appears in “The Innocent.” A small boy reclines on his side in a bed with white covers, while a long, black horizon line at the top of the composition seems to reference a landscape. The rumpled bedclothes are deeply contoured into hills and valleys, contrasting with the smooth skin of the child, while the whiteness of the sheet and blanket epitomizes purity.
Most of the photographs were taken with medium-format cameras and measure roughly 25 by 28 inches. But there is also an intriguing collection of smaller pieces that, Prevost discloses, were primarily taken with a Holga camera. The mass-market plastic cameras, considered toys in the West, were designed in the early 1980s to popularize photography in China. Essentially box cameras using 120 film, they have become legendary for producing otherworldly effects, such as odd angles and strange focal points. “The Angry Cook” is a 15-by-12-inch Holga image with distorted lines presenting a frustrated-looking man with a beard and glasses, seen from his elbows up as he struggles with something outdoors — perhaps an errant bit of barbecue meat at a cookout. Again, Prevost frames the portrait with a geometric element. The clapboards of the Cook’s house are seen behind the figure, sloping acutely to the lower right and heightening the narrative’s tension.
Prevost notes in her artist’s statement that she had no particular relationship to most of the individuals in the portraits, and that distance seems to have served her well in her effort to view the people as archetypes. It’s too bad, though, that no one was around to capture Prevost peering into a lens on one of her extemporaneous shoots. Students of Jung no doubt would have recognized “The Seeker,” or “A Visionary,” in the photographer’s portrait.