Don't rock the boat, baby 

Jennifer Fraser's floating meditations on memory

What makes an impression, at first, is the doubleness.

In Jennifer Fraser’s collection of photographs, now on exhibit at the Gallery Saintonge in downtown Missoula, she approaches a single subject from different avenues. “Approach,” actually, is a misnomer, as Fraser deconstructs her subject, this one canoe, until it is rendered into its elemental forces. Shape, color, texture, structure, material, placement—these are the aspects of a single object explored in her show, titled The Uncanoeness of Canoes.

Such a self-conscious title demands explanation. Will we see the thing itself, or will we see the thing artistically? Fraser is pointing out that when the artist is in control, any subject is immediately conscripted by the artist and used on her terms, for her means. In one sense, we could take this “uncanoeness” to be the act by which it is turned from boat to art.

Fraser’s photographs fill the spare Saintonge, which has recently opened on Higgins Avenue as an extension of the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. Big on window and floor space, the gallery offers two respectable walls and a third divided by a door for its show. Natural light works against any exhibit behind glass, of course, and it is worth making a few trips at different times of day to see the collection, when the glare is low or has shifted across the room.

For each print, Fraser has combined two or three negatives into one slide mount to produce a series of layered photographs, each one examining the same 1940s Canadian canoe. A note on the canoe, available in the gallery’s literature, mentions that this aged boat had been refurbished by another photographer who used it in an earlier project called The Uncanoeness of Canoes.

So doubleness will be this artist’s currency, her double images overwhelming the subject and manipulating what we see, her new show with its old name a comment on the inescapable influence of other artists, how we are never under the spell of just one artist, but at the very least two. The pictures themselves are less interesting, individually, than the conversation they arouse. They provide soothing images of autumnal beauty, water, boat, sky. While technically assured, they have a coolness to them. So much over-aware emphasis on technique forces the viewer to think process rather than to feel art. The artist’s systematic proficiency diminishes our emotional response. This utterly commonplace platform of charming natural landscape hardly seems absorbing.

Take a second glance, however, and here’s that doubleness again. Our expectations of prettiness and shapely pastoral are stripped away and the pictures comment on the nature of memory. Fraser has titled many of these prints with nostalgic evocations: “Memory of a Younger Day,” “Rain,” “Silent Launch.” These titles are so innocuous they may as well be absent, unless Fraser means for their weight to lie in how they summon the act of remembering.

The especially interesting feature of this collection is the layering. When viewed from a distance, “Borrowed Hue” seems to be a straightforward close-up of a section of the canoe upon the still water. Close inspection of the same image gives us a surprising texture, the feel and weight of linen, the movement of cloth in contrast to the stillness of standing water. Such deliberate layers speak to the process of memory, how returning to an image or an episode is never a fixed truth but a constantly shifting reorganization, now canoe, now fabric, now deep water, now revealed Other. A memory is not a moment that can be seized.

And that is the territory in which Fraser gets interesting. Photographs, of course, do seize the moment, arrest action and time into a frozen tableau. This happens in photography in a way very different than in painting, where the literal textures always enhance the image to keep the work dynamic. Fraser has toyed with this arrest, and she won’t settle for it. What good is a frozen image when you can have an infinitely varied one, an unexpected series of chapters arising out of the same page?

Taken together, the photos make a jigsaw of this one boat, a puzzle of time and season, the autumnal colors at play with the green, brown, blue waters. The starring canoe is prominent. But taken apart, with each image existing in its own realm, the known quantity of the canoe disintegrates and the process emerges. Those pictures that work best have a certain ambiguity in play. The most successful print in the show is “Forest Ferry,” which rather obviously gives us the bow of the canoe. But then its indomitable triangular shape, the boat’s mass in the foreground, its direction toward forest, conjure the very evolution of wood as a material (this show is preoccupied with material, and Fraser is not content to settle for the “materials” of photography, aching for the variety of paint), from forest to tree to lumber to function to art. How rich a single thing can be when it is not just a single thing but a combination of its whole history.

“Overboard” shows a mostly open color, a pale sky blue with a curved slice of canoe pushing in from one side. In one respect, this emphasizes the architectural pride in structure, the boat’s integrity, its link to, say, the Chrysler Building against a perfect sky. The sky here, which is in fact a composite of two or three skies, has the soft, swirled look reminiscent of Van Gogh; but then—watch out!—it’s only an image, reflected in shallow water, so near to the lake’s sandy bottom we could pick up a rock getting wet no further than the wrist. At once, this photograph has a benign distance and a dangerous closeness, neither one something to be counted on.

Is this another collection of natural images (all too prevalent in the Montana art canon), done up well, printed big, available for purchase framed or unframed? Or is The Uncanoeness of Canoes about revisiting the things we think we know, about the act of laying down memory in our minds? Fraser has done a risky thing: She has banked on complacency in order to stir us up, and we’ll never know if she has succeeded until we’ve walked away.

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