by Adam Beal
In Plain Sight
MARY RYAN GALLERY | MAY 16 – JUNE 16
Retrospectives differ from subjective forms of curated exhibitions in that their narratives are incidental. They exist as a record log—a history of past events contextualized by broad social and art histories, rather than as a premeditated curatorial concept. The latter presents a unique detective challenge for viewers, especially absent any narrative aid from wall texts, as was the case in Jean Pagliuso’s retrospective and accompanying monogram, In Plain Sight. What life events could have caused an artist like Pagliuso to move from photographing Hollywood actors and directors to Malian ruins and fowl? And if the subjects spanning her fifty-year career are so different, why does the exhibition have such uniformity in color, tone, and style? Viewers willing to investigate such questions were rewarded by the leveling effect of Pagliuso’s lens, which humbles the loftiest of icons and glamorizes the fixtures of everyday.
Pagliuso began her photography career working in fashion and stalking the sets of Hollywood movies. The resulting portraits set the tone of the retrospective. The first such picture viewers encounter in the exhibition is of a young Alan Kleinberg, a Hollywood producer and actor, submerged in the soapy suds of a bath, reading a book about Mussolini. Captured with the biography of a tyrant, Kleinberg gives a deadpan stare back at the camera, which is both comical and unnerving. The book isn’t exactly bubble-bath material; is the unlikely combination born out of efficiency—research for a production during his limited downtime—or is it light vacation reading? Pagliuso has a way of framing her portraits as cliffhangers, posing philosophical questions for the viewer to ponder in the few steps between photographs.
Exhibited next to Kleinberg’s portrait is a photograph of a two-story colonial house on a truck bed parked in the middle of a field. Vines crawl up the paneled siding to the second story and hint at a past sedentary life. The viewer is left to wonder at this uprooted house and the family that once lived in it—the circumstances that led it to this unexpected place. The photograph has the feel of a portrait—the house embodies the same deadpan air as Kleinberg’s gaze and both subjects seem to have been caught, in a sense, backstage. They unabashedly reveal their true nature—a theme that is further extended by the adjacent photo of Robert Palmer, who quite literally idles backstage before or after a show. He is seated in a chair with his head tilted back, his eyes are closed, his hands clasped gently in his lap; he is objectively at peace. Behind him, also seated, is a graceful Susan Forristal, wearing nothing but white socks and heels. The viewer notices all of this through blurry, discolored film, presumably from a broken camera. But the picture was too precious to be discarded, as if Pagliuso found the error added truth. The intimate perspective of these three photographs creates an approachable honesty in sharp contrast to traditional larger-than-life portraits.
Pagliuso approaches objects of admiration by stripping away layers to portray a more honest version; conversely, she approaches familiar objects by building them up. Further down the wall from Palmer and Forristal are three portraits of waitresses, taken during Pagliuso’s trips across the US in the seventies and eighties. Each waitress stands proudly in front her respective middle-American, sand-swept establishment, as if they own all of what is behind them. And in a sense, they do: Pagliuso positions them as the unsung heroes who give both a face and a heart to the vast stretches of unmarked land in the middle of the country.
Looking at the waitress photographs in relation to the exhibition as a whole, one senses that after spending years humanizing icons with her lens, Pagliuso was searching for subjects to elevate. This search is at least part of what brought her to photograph chickens. In her retrospective, Pagliuso’s photographs of fowl stand gallantly gazing across the exhibition at the waitresses, with their chins up and their chests puffed out. Each chicken strikes a pose fitting for Vogue, as if making a case for their repositioning from the plate to the film set.
This thematic thread dangles in front of viewers as they encounter Pagliuso’s photographs of ruins spanning New Mexico, Mali, and Egypt. For, in her photographs of crumbling pyramids and temples, it is not the subject she wishes to reposition, but herself. The ruins are printed on mulberry paper that Pagliuso handmade and they hang freely on the walls, their fragility lending an austere weight to the room. In her monogram, she notes, “standard darkroom practices could not express the way I felt about the grandeur I was observing.” The effect she describes carries echoes of Percy Shelley’s poem Mont Blanc, and his preoccupation with the sublime:
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy.
For Shelley, the sublime was a tonic of emotions that did not just exist within nature, but within the viewer as a mixture of wonder and fear, beauty and power. Pagliuso seems to have been striving for such a link. Up until this series of photographs, her process was removed from the subject; she would take portraits on film sets or in front of Arkansas diners and then develop them back home with store-bought paper. But in the sublime presence of these ruins, she felt compelled to capture something more than their appearance. By marrying medium and message and making her own paper, a tedious, accident-prone process, Pagliuso felt she could “get closer to the spirit of [those] ruins that were totally redefined by wind and rain and time,” and hopefully bring the viewer closer as well.
As a term, “in plain sight,” is commonly used ironically, in reference to something that one doesn’t see but should. Walking through In Plain Sight, there comes a moment when this meaning moves from irony to ontology, when the entire exhibition of seemingly distinct images snaps together to become a single view of the world, rather than a collection of photographs spanning fifty years.
ADAM BEAL is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.