Strange, Dark Places

Anne Arden Mcdonald
Installations and Self-Portraits
(Autonomy and Alchemy Press, 2002)

Anne McDonald is one of the 60 artists living on Water Street in Dumbo that were tossed out on the cold nights of December 17, 2000 at 11pm, by the Buildings Department. That action, directly instigated by the slumlord Josh Guttman, still ricochets throughout the New York art world. Recently that nefarious building went up in flames (surprise, surprise), and it will soon morph into a luxury condo development. McDonald’s book of photos belies that attack of the nasties. It is filled with landscapes inhabited by imaginary ghosts, spirits, angels, and body doubles- crumbling worlds showcased through tour-de-force black-and-white photography and honed, astute printing techniques.

Hauntingly romantic yet neither sweet nor saccharine, McDonald’s photos tread territory similar to master illusionist and lover of the grotesque, Joel Peter Witkin—minus the bizarre or blatantly twisted erotic. Instead she retreats into the personal and mystic, using a lone female figure as her calling card. It’s hard to tell if her installation sites are remains of an earthquake or portraits of a war-ravaged-siren-cum-self-immolating femme fatale. This kind of lyric, devastated and poetic sensibility peaked most noticeably during the fall of Soviet Communism, and it is not surprising that McDonald also specializes in working professionally with Czech artists.

It’s hard to tell if McDonald’s lone subject experiences ecstasy, torture, or an out-of-body experience and it is this ambiguity that makes her work so deeply provocative. The litheness of the composition belies the threat of the gruesome. Doorways lead to light and illumination but reference back to darkness and trapped corners. Does the figure perform sacred rituals, or is she ensconced in a cloak of deep mourning? Was she strung up and raped after the fall of a village, or is she celebrating a druidic moment and communing with nature spirits? Is she lost after the savagery of war has destroyed her home, or is she consciously seeking isolation through her own devices? Does she hide from her pursuers, or does she hide for her own inspiration? It’s impossible to tell. McDonald says her portraits are “part self-discovery and therapy, part performance and escapism and partly a response to the spaces I work in.”

In fields, streams, woods, and rotted-out industrial buildings, barns, rathskellers, decrepit houses, and translucent greenhouses, McDonald mediates experiences that cross the tenuous boundaries between innocence and dread, birth and death and ultimately that murky Freudian Scylla and Charybdis, the realm of Eros and Thanatos. There are ambiguous references to sexuality and threat but also careful steps into subversive reverie, which in certain critical circles is highly passé, though I beg to differ.

These pictures cannot be digested in one quick glance that appropriates a fixed signifier, nor is their surface immediately forthcoming with answers. As McDonald pithily comments, “The closer I get to myself, the more people tell me it resonates with them as well.” The prints draw you into the picture plane and ultimately lead to the most dangerous place that there is- the confines of your own imagination.

Contributor

Ellen Pearlman

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