Pretty vacant

Postmodern jargon muddies the waters of this visually pleasing photo exhibit

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Photographs by E. Brady Robinson
Cornell Fine Arts Museum

What’s more arrogant: The photographer who compiles a body of work that’s little more than a series of pretty snapshots loosely connected by a vague academic term, or the viewer who observes such an exhibit and thinks: “These aren’t so great – even I could take pictures like these.”

That’s the conflict inherent in Transfer, an installation of the work of E. Brady Robinson, an Orlando/Virginia-based contemporary photographer who teaches at the University of Central Florida. The first impulse upon a quick walk-through of the gallery, which contains 29 images captured by the photographer as she traveled through Mexico, Europe and the U.S., is a pleasant one: The saturated blues and greens and brightness of her daytime shots are soothing, particularly when hung alongside the more brooding images of dark, desolate highways and silhouettes and airports, and despite a decidedly abstract take on her art, the subjects in Robinson’s photos are comfortingly recognizable. A close-up shot of a Kelly green purse is, obviously, a green purse, right down to its shiny polyurethane finish; a blurry nighttime streetscape from Juarez, Mexico (titled, simply, “Juarez Avenue, 2011”), is unambiguously just that. The images are easy to look at and far less complicated, messy or deceptive than the abstracts that hung in this space in March, for The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography. Where some of the images in that show – Ellen Carey’s raw Polaroid-chemical exposures, for instance, or Charles Lindsay’s Carbon, a series of images documenting chemical reactions to electricity – challenged the very notion of what photography can be, Robinson’s pieces are as accessible and unthreatening as your favorite Etsy store. Pretty, artsy, easy to live with.

That said, they are just as soulless, when compared to the rest of the medium, in the same way that Urban Outfitters co-opting Holgas and Dianas and Lomos and reselling them to hipster kids with a passing interest in photography is soulless.

The works of a seasoned and successful photographer ought to move you more than a series of photos on Flickr or a stranger’s landscape shots as seen through the X-Pro II filter on your Instagram feed. But Robinson’s photos, created, she says by combining “mobile image capture” (jargon for camera phone, perhaps? Or just small handheld camera?) to “examine my environment and record fleeting moments of existence.”

Indeed, the images in this show, many of which are taken from the windows of moving vehicles (airplanes, cars), do capture fleeting moments of existence. But that’s what a photograph is and what it’s designed to do – it’s up to the photographer to draw some meaning out of that fleeting moment. Robinson says in her artist’s statement that she’s exploring “the concept of psychogeographic drift,” playing off the definition of psychogeography as defined by French theorist Guy Debord: “the study of precise laws and specific effects of geographic environments, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” If Debord and psychogeography can be captured in a pretty, ephemeral meander through a series of impressions of the world as observed through a handheld device (and, arguably, they can be), then perhaps Robinson has succeeded. She’s re-created the psychogeographical concept of the dérive, an ambient drift through various landscapes that affects the emotional condition of the person doing the drifting. But ultimately, the dérive is supposed to lead the person (or persons) doing the drifting to some kind of new, authentic experience. Where does Robinson’s work, ultimately, leave her? According to her artist’s statement, it leads to “a territory where the social/cultural landscape, personal experience and pure aesthetics meet.” In plain language, to a place where her pretty but fairly mundane images meet.

Where does her work leave the viewer? To contemplate the same question I raised earlier: Which is more arrogant? the high-on-concept, low-on-technique artist or the high-on-opinion, low-on-firsthand-experience viewer?

Perhaps the psychogeography of this exhibit is the dérive.

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