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Julio Fine Arts Gallery exhibit: making meaning out of nothing

Marjorie Allen/ The Greyhound

One of the irrevocable truths about being alive is that we are always searching for meaning. Whether writing stories, conducting experiments or inventing the Twinkie, people are always looking for explanations. The way that we look for meaningful patterns and, perhaps more importantly, the way that we invent them when they are not there, is the main thread running through the current exhibit at the Julio Fine Arts Gallery, Cipher, work by Baltimore based artist Stephanie Benassi.

Benassi works primarily with photography, though she does not strictly describe herself as a photographer, but as an artist who uses photography. Nowhere is this distinction more obvious than in (AURA) The Experiment, an installation of 197 Polaroid photographs on a glitter painted wall, illuminated by colored stage lights. One of the main focuses of Benassi’s work involves folklore and the paranormal, and her attempt to weave stories, which cannot be photographed, into a visual medium. In this way, context is not pictured, but remains present.

(AURA) was born out of the story of a man who claimed he could telepathically imprint an image onto Polaroid film; Benassi recreated these circumstances, taking images with the lens cap of the camera still on and concentrating on a single idea for the duration of the exposure. Additionally, she interrupted the developing process for many of the exposures, leading to visible chemical anomalies.

Benassi is equivocal about whether or not the experiment psychically worked; she stresses more the importance of the individual instances as experiences, and the meaning that a viewer finds. Indeed, the order of 197 photographs is not proscribed, and changes every time it is installed.

Cipher as a whole plants itself in the purposefully ambiguous, offering suggestions and nudges but never a simple yes or no. One of the bodies of work in the exhibit contains photographs of places where people have claimed paranormal events have taken place. Warm light filters through the trees of Scape Ore Swamp in South Carolina, where a man once claimed to have been attacked by a three-fingered “Lizard Man.” The scrub-land and mountain range that keep Area 51 a national mystery are awash in the soft pink sun of a cloudy evening. Illuminated only by a barely visible sky and the headlights of Benassi’s own car, the Great Swamp in North Kingston Rhode Island keeps secret the legend that Native American ghosts of King Philip’s War still canoe these waters.

These images are surprising; in the soft daylight, Scape Ore Swamp seems no more host to a Lizard Man than one’s own backyard. The space just outside Area 51, so shrouded in secrecy it seems as though a black veil must loom over it, looks just like any other scrap of American desert—and it’s pink. Not only are there no ghosts in the Great Swamp, the water itself is barely even visible, swallowed up in darkness. It is the trees that command our attention.

The documentation of a legend seems more suited to documentary, or at the very least to portraiture, but the absence of people in these images is purposeful. There is a sense, almost, of being tricked, that if we look hard enough we’ll find Bigfoot, we’ll see the flying saucer or the floating orb. The frustration of not finding anything inspires us only to look harder, and that is precisely the point. It is a uniquely human experience that it is easier to believe in a Lizard Man than to accept that we have no idea what’s out there.

Discussing these legends, Benassi refers to “telling stories to make sense of the abyss.” It is here, then, that her work, conspicuously lacking faces and bodies, becomes especially human. In Cuts from Cipher, Benassi photographed blocks of wood sourced from all around the world, focusing her attention on the latent images in the blocks. We cannot look at clouds without making shapes, or the grain of wood without seeing faces. In complete blackness, our eyes invent things for us to see. What is implicit in Cipher is that the search for meaning is never truly a search, but a manufacture: it cannot be found, it must only be made. Suddenly aliens don’t seem so far fetched.

Cipher will be running in the gallery from January 17 to February 16.

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Julio Fine Arts Gallery exhibit: making meaning out of nothing