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A room of her own

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We are quite often interested in artists who have exceptional lives. And if those lives involve scandal, intrigue, or illness, we become fascinated.

            This fascination manifests itself not only in the biographical, but in the work itself. We want to see the life illustrated in the work of these artists --- Vincent Van Gogh the madman, Caravaggio the murderer, Picasso the womanizer. But after closely examining the paintings, sculptures, or photographs, we come to realize there are no obvious clues or answers. Picasso's paintings are not misogynistic revelations of his conflicted feelings about women. And just as Van Gogh's paintings are not suicide notes, the photographs of Francesca Woodman do not provide answers to why such a talented young woman chose to end her life.

            Woodman produced over 10,000 images during a brief photographic career of six years before taking her own life. She died a few months before she would have turned 23. Born into a family of artists --- her father a painter and her mother a ceramicist --- Woodman was encouraged from an early age and had been taking pictures since she was 13. Many of these images are almost exclusively of Francesca herself or Sloan Rankin, her best friend and classmate at the Rhode Island School of Design.

            I first heard of Woodman a few years after her death in 1981. Since then I have seen her work mostly in reproduction and only occasionally. So this exhibition at the Johnson Museum --- consisting of many images never previously publicly exhibited --- could have held the answers to her tragic mystery. Instead, it only leads to more questions.

            Woodman's photographs are hauntingly beautiful and exude a Victorian romanticism. They are also gothic and, at times, surreal. I could feel myself being sucked into the myth of the melancholic, self-critical artist who eventually committed suicide. But what haunts me about the work is not just its dark and mysterious veneer. It's the other "ghosts" in the pictures --- ghosts of the 1970s contemporary art scene.

            Connections to photographers like Duane Michals and his surrealistic photo narratives, with their whimsical and mysterious twists and turns, are clearly evident. Also apparent is the influence of Aaron Siskind, whom Woodman met while a student at RISD. References to Siskind's lyrical abstractions can be seen in Woodman's backgrounds --- peeling paint, worn out wood, and other architectural structures revealing surfaces beneath.

            You can also see associations with the work of artists like Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra. Like Nauman, Woodman was intent on making her work in the studio, which was her living space transformed by constant experimentation into a photographic construction. Ironically, her concern, not unlike that of Van Gogh's, was that the work not be purely self-referential and autobiographical. Indeed, both artists were very much connected with the here-and-now of their respective art worlds. For Van Gogh, it was the idea of how to deal with expressive color in relation to both the scientific and cultural theories of his own time. For Woodman, it may have been a question of how to approach the idea of balance, both figuratively and literally.

            In her photograph Providence 78 (1975-79), she suspends a door, like a black mass cutting across the picture plane. The door is just a shape, but it is holds all the connotations of being closed or open, a barrier, a doorway to somewhere. The door is juxtaposed against the body of a woman, either Francesca or Sloan. The edge of the photograph falls off into darkness --- again, both literal and metaphorical. We can read this image in many ways: One may be a kind of poetic push-pull between the actual and the unknown (or unrepresentable), all balanced within the confines of the picture frame. We can look at it as a purely formal exercise in balance and composition, reducing objects into contrasting forms and shapes. Or, it can be both the poetic and formal in a dialogue of ideas, not unlike the work of the sculptor Richard Serra, whose elegant line is transformed into many tons of raw steel.

            In a very conscious minimalist aesthetic, Woodman gives us a limited amount of objects to see. But, through layered juxtapositioning, these few objects are loaded with all sorts of meaning. As with many artists of the late 20th century, the meaning is ambiguous, fractured, always deferred somewhere else; sometimes, even, back to the viewer in an endless game of hide and seek.

            We will never know what would have happened to Woodman's artistic trajectory were she alive today. But that doesn't matter. Her work stands as a testimonial from a human being caught up in the intricacies of "being" in our contemporary world, and as an artist who did some quite amazing work in a very short time.

Francesca Woodman: Photographs is on display at The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University through October 26. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Admission is free. Metered parking is available in the lot next to the Museum. Info: (607) 255-6464.

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