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Review: Eileen Quinlan at Miguel Abreu Gallery

Review: Eileen Quinlan at Miguel Abreu Gallery

The Black & White Version of Smoke & Mirrors #233, 2007. Silver gelatin matte fiber print mounted on aluminum.

Nicholas Knight

November 06, 2007

Miguel Abreu Gallery presents a group of Eileen Quinlan photographs, open until December 9, down on Orchard Street. Most of the works are from an ongoing series titled Smoke & Mirrors. Those that do not bear this title are nonetheless very similar visually. As a group, the work inhabits a narrow field, where its vulnerabilities are alternately convincing and disappointing.

The press release for the exhibition quickly points out that the prints are made from large-format negatives without digital intervention, “allow[ing] for slight details.” (Why this is possible with film but not digital escapes me.) Certainly, the most engaging moments for this viewer are found in the black and white pictures, with their big ugly scratches and dust spots, enlarged to radioactivity-induced proportions. In their play between dustiness and surfaceless-ness one finds the clearest statement of the absurdity of this non-referential photographic imagery. Clichés come to the foreground: scratches turn into Modernist drips, jagged planes of light and dark turn to Constructivist fantasies. Are they suggesting a moral imperative? It’s amusing to even be made to think of the question.

The photographs spar with the language in which they are couched (even though there is more floating like a butterfly than stinging like a bee). “Smoke & Mirrors” gets right to the point, and I applaud the clarity of it: in common usage, this phrase is used to mean a trick is taking place that obscures the reality of the situation, and likely that “there is no ‘there’ there”. As this idea is forced to co-exist with the actual referents of the pictures – literally mirrors, their edges, and their reflections of themselves – a pleasant abyss swallows up the directness of the derelict materiality present in these images.

But a sense of insufficiency lingers. The press release offers an over-heated and incomprehensible torrent of language that wants to send this work to the next level. It doesn’t, and the jargony mess just bounces off these mirrors, set at skew angles to legibility, apparently. What’s left unfulfilled for this viewer is a sense of the stubborn kernel at the center of the echo chamber. Something has to generate the cry of “echo”, after all. To stick a can of Goya beans into a couple pictures is rather a let down: I wanted to see either a dogged insistence on the ultimate emptiness at stake (”there is no stubborn kernel”), or some surprising turn towards an actual materiality on the far side of depicted immateriality (”here’s your damn kernel”). That what we get is a can of beans is just not that…thrilling.

Still, a lush color suffuses the gallery, creating a kind of Uta Barth emotional space which is seductive. Abreu is doing an admirable job of cultivating a specific type of intellectual rigor in his programming, and this show provides enough rainfall for the month to keep things growing. (Mixed metaphors are fun.) This viewer looks forward to what comes after the smoke and the mirrors, both for Quinlan and Abreu.

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