This month, Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery brings together two artists who can take you from enchanted to revolted, and back again. Both work in a format that creates huge, vivid images that really deserve to be seen in person, if you can.
Boston artist Tara Sellios’ series, “Testimony,” captures a cloud of lacy-winged moths will explode in all directions. Delicate snake skeletons twine together in a dance that suggests the beginning of life, as well as its end. The show also includes some work from her last major series, “Luxuria” — slightly twisted still lifes of fruit and flowers and paired with broken glasses, spilled wine and meat products way too gory for the Dutch masters. She’s also showing some amazing watercolors, bursting with color and organic movement.
Sellios is paired this month with work by Lauren Semivan, a Detroit native. If Sellios gives us glimpses of mortality, Semivan’s eyes are fixed on the great beyond. Her dreamlike photographs are shot in black and white. They’re beautifully composed, with abstract drapery, a handful of everyday objects like mirrors, books, and Semivan herself, draped with fabric and wire. The final effect is full of windblown motion and feeling.
Q&A with Lauren Semivan and Tara Sellios
April Baer: Your photo series “Luminous Matter” includes images that look like constructions of wind and feeling. They’re black-and-white abstracted pictures, many with you placed somewhere in the field, your face obscured. You add wavy textural materials, like wire and fabric, that have a strong sense of movement. What is it about these textures that attracted you? What kind of fabrics are you looking for?
Lauren Semivan: Sometimes I’m looking for things that are basically photogenic. The way they look outside the camera is different when they’re photographed. So through the lens of the 8-by-10 camera, a fabric like tulle, which has lots of tiny individual …
Baer: Like a netting material.
Semivan: Yeah, it’s like a netting material. [It] kind of takes on a different appearance. I kind of like how these things are transformed through the lens.
Baer: When did you start placing yourself in the photos?
Semivan: Very early in my education I started taking self portraits. And it was never very direct, straightforward self-portrait. But it was more of using a body as a prop or indicator of scale or emotion or using a gesture to add some kind of movement to an image or composition. So I’ve been working with myself because it’s convenient, but I also feel pictures are in a lot of ways diaristic or autobiographical.
Baer: Are there things that you learned about your body and using it to get the kind of lines that you wanted?
Semivan: It’s funny, it’s more like something that it takes so many tries to get the photo to work the way I want it, often, especially when going for something very specific. So it’s funny how it becomes the performance of it when I’m working in my studio. Gets very exhausting. I’m usually starting with just an idea and then we’ll shoot the image and then look at it and see how things are going. And then, often I’ll have to redo it several times to get it to all fall into place. And that can be very frustrating but when it actually works it’s worth all the effort.
Baer: How would you describe the kind of motion you’re looking for in the finished composition?
Semivan: That’s a good question. You mentioned wind, but I think about gravity — and I also think about suspending natural laws or physical laws. So I try to create a moment that maybe could only exist in the photograph. Trying to suspend time, gravity, all these things at once in order to sort of go beyond the physical photograph itself. I look at dance. I look at the films of Maya Deren who was a surrealist filmmaker in the mid-20th century. And she seems as though she’s moving through a dreamscape. I think I’ve been influenced by her work. She moves very slowly and makes these broad gestures. There’s this one scene in particular where I remember her unwinding a giant spool or roll of yarn, a ream of yarn. She’s kind of making these repetitive motions and the string, it’s going backwards, so the string’s kind of coming off the roll in this graceful kind of arching motion. But I guess often her films are slowed down too, so there’s a sort of slow motion, suspended.
Baer: In your artist statement, you mention that scientific disciplines tend to classify lines as an event. Sure, it’s a distance between two points but it’s also the movement from one point to the other. That’s a pretty chaotic bunch of events that you’ve farmed into your otherwise graceful and quiet photos.
Semivan: Yeah, I think about the lines. To me, drawing is sort of emotional. And it’s sort of expressive of things outside of the drawing itself. When I think about lines I think about drawing in terms of mark-making. There’s a church in Florence where there was a flood, and there’s a mark along the wall where the water was sitting for you know a certain amount of time, like a bathtub ring. So I like to think about that as a way to compare the lines in my photographs as evidence of something else that happened. Or as evidence for an event.
Baer: Could you think about one of the images in the show? And I’m not picky — it could be one that you really had to wrestle with or one that came really easily — and maybe tell us about an experience or memory that was farmed in maybe as you were working on it?
Semivan: So there’s an image called “Cassiopeia” in the show. And it has kind of a reference to the constellation and there’s a black space in the background. It’s coming out of living for a couple years in Alaska where there was not much ambient light from the city so you could see much more in the sky. I made that image during that time when I was kind of experiencing the night sky in a different way than I had before, living in the city.
Baer: Tara, some of your tableaux play like the remains of a particularly weird feast or dinner party. There’s one with grapes rolling all over the table strewn with dead smelt and octopus arms. Upended glasses are everywhere. I was surprised at how they convey a sense of exhaustion.
Tara Sellios: When I did that series, I was thinking about drinking as well, like why we drink and kind of that frantic search for something to fill us, in a sense. I’m also a bartender. And sometimes I just sit back and like to watch people — the mess and the chaos, and everyone all over each other.
Baer: So your process for making photos is pretty complex. You do pre-drawings in watercolor. And then some sculptural work. And then you get to the stage with the camera. It seems like you get a bit of time to ruminate on each of the images.
Sellios: Yeah, I do.
Baer: And you have some time to play around with how things are going to be positioned.
Baer: How do you balance the composition of the photograph and the repulsion you’re trying to get across?
Sellios: A lot of it, I focus on just sensory things, and try to play those up as much as I can. So color’s a big thing, trying to point out the beauty in the grotesque. So while a plucked chicken can be gross, there’s also an 8-by-10 camera. You can see the beauty and the texture of the skin. Or the wine — just the wetness of it, and kind of the elegance and the forms.
Baer: I don’t want to give people the impression that it’s a complete meat festival of photographs. There’s this one lovely image with two snake skeletons intertwined on a dirt surface. And there are moths floating above. Can you tell us a little bit about composing that piece?
Sellios: Yes, that series is called “Testimony.” I wanted to use bones and insects and whatnot. And I’ve always kind of had a thing for snakes, their presence in art history. I kinda like how they’re these lowly creatures that have both good and bad connotations. It’s very sensual, the two of them are intertwined — mating or fighting, depending on how you interpret it. I actually watched a lot of videos of snakes mating on YouTube, which sounds a little nutty, but it’s very dancey and interesting.
Baer: Where do you get your specimens?
Sellios: I get them online. Over time, I’ve gotten better at finding places. I used to do eBay and whatnot. Even things like InsectWholesale.com, where you can buy in bulk — just, the list is crazy, all these insects locusts, beetles, moths, butterflies. You can buy spiders, tarantulas.
Baer: By the box?
Sellios: Yeah, like 50, 100 quantity.
Baer: You two are both photographers of the 8-by-10 view camera. Could you describe the physical experience of using that camera?
Sellios: It feels very, for me, ritualistic and special; It feels like once I actually get to photographing the thing and I have this big beautiful object transforming it.
Semivan: The 8-by-10 camera is important to me in the way that I work because it’s also a slower process. So working with one sheet of film would take about 40 minutes to develop a sheet of film and you can only do two at a time. And the film is actually much more expensive, so you want to make sure that the thing you’re photographing is — I don’t want to say I don’t take risks with the film — but it’s a much more deliberate process to work with that size of a negative. I’ve also thought about the installations themselves and how they would exist outside of the world of being photographed, as photographic objects. And I think I definitely need to have that 2-D window as a way to experience the ideas that I’m looking for in my work. So installation itself or the performance wouldn’t be enough for me. I need to have that window into an alternate realm. I would also say that the act of going underneath the dark cloth — there’s a piece of dark, black velvet that you put over your head and over the camera, so you can see in order to focus the image.
Baer: It’s the old turn-of-the-century image that you think of with the photographer ducking under and saying, ‘Watch the birdie!’
Semivan: Yeah. I would say that that is a special act within itself because, for me, I feel you’re kinda going into this different mental space that’s very meditative and quiet. You feel kind of alone or in a different space and able to kind of contemplate the image on a different level than you would in a room with lots of noise and other things happening as distractions.