-Reporting by Sara Newman–
Certain artistic elements are nearly universal crowd-pleasers, but photographer Kathy Curtis Cahill does not allow the restrictive standards of popular aesthetics to dim her personal vision. In her previous photography collections, “Culture of Beauty” and “Night Echoes,” Cahill scrutinizes popular ideas of beauty standards and consumer culture. In her latest collection, “Memories and Demons,” Cahill continues to subvert cultural norms by reinterpreting objects in which we should find comfort, tackling discomforting notions about humanity as she turns her lens to the world of childhood.
Cahill’s chiaroscuro style gives each photograph a muted darkness resonant more with the aesthetics of a Caravaggio than with typical contemporary art, yet the images possess a distinct cinematic quality, emphasized by thick, black frames. “Cathartic, unnerving and ultimately healing, the protagonists of Cahill’s photographic mini-dramas are dolls acting out bittersweet dreams and haunting nightmares,” Artists Corner Gallery curator, Phil Tarley, writes of the collection. No matter how unsettling the drama in the photographs may be, Cahill’s images retain a familiar quality, like snapshots of a bad dream or classic horror film.
Cahill’s work drew a small but dedicated audience on opening night, many of whom left with signed, leather-bound books of the photographs. The pieces are few in number but deeply evocative. The hyper-stylized photographs are eerily tinged with both nostalgia and nightmare. Tarley refers to the dolls’ world as one of “childhood wonder, fear, and trepidation,” expressed in the faces of the dolls and in the configurations of their bodies. Even more compelling, however, and perhaps somewhat unsettling, is how the photographs turn the viewer into a voyeur. The cracked, scratched, and discolored faces of the children are likewise unnerving, all the more so as we consider that these scars represent human neglect and the thoughtless shunning of our responsibility to the fragile and innocent.
Despite their disrepair, the porcelain-shell dolls possess a simple, timeless quality that begs the question of how artless play and innocent fantasies have degenerated in just a few decades into the synthetic, high-tech diversions we now see. The big-eyed, rosebud-mouthed dolls of Cahill’s photographs stand in stark contrast to the oversexed Bratz and Barbie dolls that line the shelves of toy stores today. The nostalgia in Cahill’s photographs is palpable; the dolls are a throwback to an era before most of Cahill’s fans were alive, and they are reminiscent of a time when a child owned and cared for just one, or maybe two, truly beautiful dolls that she could cherish forever—not roomfuls of flimsy plastic toys that end up in the garbage heap.
However discomforting one-eyed teddy bears and dolls gripping guns may be, in photographs with titles such as “Where’s Baby” and “Bully,” the images retain an honest sense of humanity that makes it difficult to look away and impossible to deny; they serve as necessary reminders of the need to value and protect the things we hold dear before they vanish into our culture of careless consumption.
Kathy Curtis Cahill’s latest photography collection, “Memories and Demons,” will be on display at Artists Corner Gallery from July 11 until August 8, 2015.