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Brenda Pelkey: Haunts

Review Essay

by Heather Anderson
Graduate Student in Women’s Studies

Brenda Pelkey. Forest II
Brenda Pelkey. Forest II

Brenda Pelkey. Forest II 2001. Ilfochrome mounted on aluminum. 4 panels, each 101.6 x 76.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Brenda Pelkey photographs the landscape at night and dusk employing movie lights and long exposures respectively. Imbued with a dramatic and uncanny quality, her images — a deep and tangled forest; a gravel road disappearing through trees; an expansive seascape — become "psychic landscapes," topographies for the projection of narrative and memory. Curator Ingrid Jenkner has brought together four series of Pelkey’s large format Ilfochrome prints (1996-2001) comprising Haunts, elegantly installed at MSVU Art Gallery and organized in connection with Photopolis, a Halifax-wide festival of photography.

Pelkey lives in Saskatoon and teaches in the photography department at the University of Saskatchewan. Formerly a documentary photographer but dissatisfied with the genre’s "objectivity," Pelkey began to stage her images, redirecting her practice to represent what is "below vision" or "unvisible." By staging her images, I mean she manipulates their construction through lighting, cropping, the addition of text, and arrangement in composite assemblages. Pelkey scouts locations with a Polaroid camera, returning at night with her four-by-five-inch camera, movie lights, a generator and an assistant. The series Momento Mori and As if there were grace, spanning 1996-1999, were photographed near Havre Boucher, Nova Scotia, a former homeplace Pelkey revisited in 1996. Informal stories shared with her by local women are presented through pairing theatrically lit night landscapes and tragic texts, effectively (re)staging personal narratives. In As if there were grace, Path intense lighting illuminates a tire-worn gravel road lined with conifers and disappearing into obscurity. Framed in a panel below the text reads:

His love had been larger than any she had ever known she keeps his boots still lined up by her bed As he was nearing the final stages of his illness her ex-husband shot and killed his dog
In Camera Lucida, Barthes suggests that a photograph asserts "Look," "See," effectively "that happened"; in Pelkey’s work, the narrative link between text and image — the "that happened" — is "below vision," a memory and presence that she inscribes upon the landscape. The restaging of these women’s narratives posits a "psychic landscape," an uneasy interior environment in which the fear and loss accompanying tragedy are manifest: Pelkey’s cropping and dramatic lighting create a claustrophobic space, beyond which lies impenetrable darkness. I eerily find myself optically inserted into Pelkey’s terrains via her use of a reflective Lestex laminate to protect the photographs.

Landscape’s linking of place, memory, and narrative possibilities are, without text, further explored in Bush, from Oblivion (1997-1999). Taken at dusk with a long exposure, a Saskatchewan wheat field is rendered somewhat romantically in a sensual amber glow. Pelkey repeats the same negative to form a triptych, countering the notion of the photograph as document or object, and rather enabling what she speaks of as expanding the possibility for the construction of narrative. Pelkey’s most recent body of work, as yet unnamed as a series, continues the repetition of a single negative to form complex assemblages. In Forest III (2001), a single gnarled and bare tree fills the frame, its sharp twigs forming a claustrophobic web-like panorama as the image is symmetrically flipped in a configuration of eight panels. Harshly illuminated, the tree’s protrusions are in intense relief to the inky darkness of the deep woods beyond. I hear the incongruous sounds of rustling leaves and clamorous voices emanating from twin audio speakers flanking the piece. This subtle dissonance between what is heard and what is seen destabilizes the image’s hegemony, inciting the viewer to perceive what might lie below the horizon of visibility. In this way, Pelkey marks figureless landscapes with presence and memory. Similarly, Ocean is accompanied by the ambient sound of waves: the ebb and flow parallels the gentle undulating pattern created by the five-fold flipping of a shot of shoreline. The long exposure blurs the waves into a mass of motion, yet I hear each distinctly. Ocean is infinite space, a departure from the claustrophobic "mind turning in on itself" of Forest I, II and III. The darkness of the forest and infinity of the ocean are both, I think, uncharted topographies: the self’s interiorized psychic landscape.

Pelkey’s is "pure photography," but the visually complex patterns she achieves through simple symmetrical image repetition are remarkably reminiscent of digital image-making. Her photographic treatment of the landscape also brings into productive tension binary oppositions of culture/nature and self/other; her manipulation of the natural through dramatic lighting, memory and the orchestration of pattern, performs landscape as a stage receptive to the artist’s/viewer’s projections of memory, narrative and self. Traditionally landscape has been the prerogative of the masculine subject and spaces such as the woods exist as potentially troubling for women. In the Momento Mori and As if there were grace series, landscape is gendered feminine: a space is claimed for subjectivity articulated through the coupling of women’s narratives and the physical environment. Intertwining place and memory, Haunts offers a glimpse into fictionalized landscapes, the psychic terrain of the beyond vision.

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Exhibition Images
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Brenda Pelkey: Forest IIBrenda Pelkey: Memento MoriBrenda Pelkey: Orchard   

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