The mural-sized photographs of Issac Layman are all produced in his modest Green Lake home. And while his wife and two young children do not appear in the pictures, they are by necessity part of his project. Each time Layman chooses a subject, like the basement dryer, the kitchen sink, or the living room bookcase - the room in question is disabled for the duration of the photo shoot, a complex, high-tech process that can take as long as a month to complete.
The results of Layman's most recent work are currently on view at Lawrimore Project, and KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us with his comments.
Layman takes this idea of control and intentionality to practical extremes. One image in the current show, "Cabinet," required a month of labor and several hundred separate exposures; another involved shattering and photographing a set of favorite glasses from Cabinet so he could investigate them in a different, but equally rigorous way. Each image in the exhibition seems to be the result of a similarly demanding and original process, and each is presented at a scale and in a manner that suggests that its subject has been somehow elevated from the mundane to the sublime.
Take "Fireplace ", one of the most straightforward image in the show. "Fireplace" is on one level a simple portrait of the family hearth, presented at actual size and across from the gallery’s own fireplace, but the contrast with the other images on view is striking. In "Fireplace" a stark, white brick wall frames a dark, soot-stained firebox, the image composed with the same frontal, symmetrical arrangement as all the other domestic imagery on view - the Everyday Object as Icon. But the other domestic Icons are carefully shot and lit so that they challenge us with wall-to-wall texture and non-stop information; here the upper reaches of the interior is allowed to fade to utter blackness in a way that in the context of the show is truly alarming – there is nothing there. Nothing, in an exhibit full of so many precisely detailed somethings.
It’s fitting that Layman should use a fireplace, with its hidden link to the sky and its pattern of dark framed by light, to conjure up thoughts and feelings about the Void, with fire and mystery as its accompaniments. It is a powerful image, elegiac and compelling. We may not want to think about that portal, but we can’t stop looking at it.
The nearby photograph "Oven," on the other hand, is a more typical deadpan portrait, reminding us of hyper-real images of sinks and stereos from earlier shows. Compared to the moody "Fireplace," "Oven" is almost cheerful, or at any rate upbeat, where the thematic climax rises up to white instead of fading to black. The empty electric oven has been brightly, evenly lit and (one presumes) cleaned up for the occasion, the back panel glowing silver against the side wall’s dark grey. "Oven" is the product of Layman’s combining multiple images – each featuring an ultra-high focus, narrow slice of the subject’s full depth - so that the final digital print presents a detailed, mechanically precise view of the subject beyond the reach of ordinary seeing or photography. I say that partly because that’s what I’ve been told, but how much are we really aware that images like "Oven" are impossible outside of Layman’s particular process, and how much difference does it make to our experience?
"Oven" is composed, printed, and presented in a manner that is at least as important to the final effect as the elaborate technique. It’s fully 5 feet across (larger than life), and hung by itself in the gallery’s media room where we look at it from bleachers, like a spectacle. The image itself plays with the idea of theatre, suggesting a giant TV screen in a stadium, or a series of pictures within pictures. The fact that all this fuss is about a kitchen appliance lends an agreeable air of irony to the enterprise, but the extraordinary clarity of each level of depth affects us on a much less conscious level, a precision and crispness we associate with large format cameras (like Layman uses) in general even without the multiple layers here in play.
The extraordinary doorknob close-up entitled "Basement" uses Layman’s digital sleight-of-hand to much more obvious effect. Simplicity itself, the image presents us an enormous faceted glass door handle with an old-fashioned keyhole below in a pure white surround, like a giant nose and mouth hovering in space. Layman has here selectively allowed certain blurred layers on the image to coexist with clear ones, like the fuzzy keyhole occupying an indeterminate place in the background. The nearly monochromatic doorknob, it tiny protrusions looming in and out of focus, takes on a sense of impossible scale, like a small, mountainous planet seen from above. We also get a sense of its being in motion, like the slipping and sliding crystals of a kaleidoscope, or a close-up of the Hope Diamond. And this thing is what we use to open a door?
But the most otherworldly image in the show is not the spectral doorknob, or the gestural cloud of broken glass shards, or the color field Popsicles, it is the even more mundane empty plastic fruit tray entitled (no prizes here for titles) "4 Lb. Strawberries." A shot from the Hubble Space telescope masquerading as a kitchen still life, "Strawberries" is the image most completely unmoored from its original source, the bottom of clear grocery package recently emptied of fruit. Cleverly lit and placed against a black backdrop, the mural sized tray photograph is part astronomical panorama and part swirling, surrealist abstraction, with the vivid UPC sticker hovering somewhere in hyperspace like a celestial road sign - Douglas Adams would feel right at home. It also demonstrates a feature that distinguishes this visionary work from ordinary photography. The picture is legible in reproduction or on the web, but it doesn’t really do its work except in person and at the correct scale, where the hidden world that Layman is teasing out of his chosen household domain can emerge in its full poetry and enigma.