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John Armstrong

Angela Grauerholz
Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto (and Oakville Galleries' reception foyer)

BorderCrossings 16:4, Fall 1997

"There was detachment in his [her] zeal and curiosity in his [her] indifference."

The Ambassadors, (1903) Henry James


Feeling a bit like a Henry James protagonist, I try to pin down precise locations for Angela Grauerholz's remarkably elastic photographs of European or North American settings. Am I in Europe or not? Does such a question hold water? For me, it evidently does: travel just has to culminate in difference and fixed points. Departures and arrivals. Grauerholz purposefully obfuscates in titles that may or may not be helpful in revealing the photographs' locations. The sites of Chambre d'Hôtel(1997), Beach Culture (1997), and Building Bloc (1997) flip back and forth across the Atlantic according to my being able to ascribe specific cultural patterns to them: the placement of televisions in hotel rooms, styles of bathing suits, evidence of language in graffiti tags. Gegenüber, Strandkörbe and Stadtpark are more easily fixed. Or are they? Rather self-consciously, I am driven to annotate, to compose captions. I peer intently into Grauerholz's grainy enlargements to determine if it is La Côte des Basques, Jersey Shore or the North Sea coast.

If the ten window-scale photographs in the present exhibition — most of which were taken in 1997 — teasingly provide enough information to suggest that specificity is possible, they also rest comfortably as sketchily familiar icons of a populous beach, a passenger line-up on the tarmac beside an aircraft, an Old World city street. These are not the ersatz images of illustrative dictionary photographs (although there is something of this in the pointed banality of many of Grauerholz's subjects); they provoke memories of places seen in a mediated way, in film or in some other photographic source that has attached itself to our overburdened preconscious. The beaches could be sweeping condemnations of the ravages of tourism culled from Koyaanisquatsi; the airplane, the finale mise en scène in Casablanca; and the street, Godard or maybe a photo from the back page of Life magazine. Beyond this immediate gestalt such identification begins to waver: there is none of Philip Glass's frenetic and scolding arpeggios, Ingrid Bergman is not in the queue, Jean Seberg not in the crowd.

What Grauerholz does determine is a chain of dialectical rebuttal. Her carefully composed pictures expound the wobbliness and dissolution of the dawn of photography: the effects of antiquated camera lens are evoked in the slight vignetting that occasionally darkens the corners of her pictures or in the flaring of highlights into lower contrast halos. Yet all the camera shake, long exposures, and other suggestions of anachronism dissolve into an abrupt pop cultural present when we see that one of the many sweat- or T-shirt clad bathers in Beach Culture is wearing the now ubiquitous bulldog logo of the Georgetown Hoyas college basketball team. The human subjects in Grauerholz's images huddle in conversation, stride purposefully across sand dunes or picnic in a park; such interaction is most often coolly observed by the photographer from either a bird's eye or below-eye level. The compression of spatial relationships suggests a long lens, further removing the photographer. The sense of isolation from her subjects may respectfully guarantee their privacy; it also signals her covert surveillance of them. On one of the pages in her 1995 artist's book aporia (which is published by Oakville Galleries, and contains reproductions of two of the photographs in the present exhibition) Grauerholz lists the names of twentieth-century women artists or writers who have taken their own lives: Diane Arbus, Sylvia Plath, Francesca Woodman. These oblique captions are the artist's own, and suggest a melancholy latent in many of Grauerholz's pictures. Even the nostalgia for archaic photographic techniques that critic Susan Sontag reproached in her 1977 On Photography is implicit in this exhibition, and held by Grauerholz in paradoxical, knife-edge abeyance.

Chambre d'Hôtel (1997), although not typical of the exhibition's focus on exterior settings, may explain this paradox. The picture's 35-millimetre black-and-white negative is printed in chilly bottle greens on colour Cibachrome paper in the sort of lustre finish that most closely resembles the surface of traditional fibre-based paper. The colour is not a warm and friendly sepia brown-black, but it inflects antique tinting, in a sidelong manner. At roughly waist height, we scan across a softly focused sea of hotel bed to sheers that partially veil a vis-à-vis façade with two impenetrable banks of windows. Here is intimacy with no human subject other than the implied photographer. Grauerholz's presence is acknowledged head-on in a hotel room with no view, an extinguished television set and an out-of-focus framed artwork above a dresser. It is impossible to really say where this hotel room might be, but the facing building's stuccoed wall and mullioned windows do have a European look. The gallerist tells me that the picture was taken in a German-speaking Swiss city.

In the stairway behind the Oakville Galleries' reception desk hang two prints donated by Grauerholz for the galleries' fundraising campaign and taken by her in the galleries' English garden park. Cast in Grauerholz's hallmark tenebrous haze, the prints depict an ivy-covered stone archway gate and a lakeside promenade. These are places I know well. But I have never been there.

Angela Grauerholz's solo exhibition was shown at the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto from May 3 to 31, 1997. Grauerholz's The Gate (1995) and The Lake (1995) is on view on an on-going basis at Gairloch Gallery, Oakville Galleries in Oakville, Ontario.

BorderCrossings 16:4, Fall 1997

Text: © John Armstrong. All rights reserved.

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