Off the map 

Marcy James finds her way to No Man’s Land

Listening to Marcy James talk about how she conceived her gorgeous and mesmerizing new photography exhibit is a fascinating exercise in loose association. She knows it, too. She pleads for you not to quote her. She stops multiple times to reiterate this is all in her head. She hesitates every so often, wondering if she’s hit a tangent—she hasn’t, really, because it’s all connected—and then shifts the dialogue back to her last crucial thought. Without exaggeration, the conversation bounces like a ping-pong ball in a Kenmore dryer, from grade school kickball to collecting a rich per diem as a CBS news intern in Dubai during the first Gulf War to the benefits of food co-ops to in-depth conversations with a family of local crows to, somehow, the Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger.

And here’s the thing: It all makes perfect sense. A viewer may not recognize the significance of each of those disparate inspirations immediately upon entering the gallery, or recognize how they stack atop one another to create a sort of delicate and ornate overall commentary, but it almost doesn’t matter.

The important thing is that every fiber of the display—from how the photographs were shot (digital and print), to how they were manipulated (under layers of resin or bees wax, or brushed with coal), to how they were framed (or not), to how they were titled, to even how the backs of the images were decorated—was meticulously thought out and expertly executed.

“I’m curious to see how other people read into this,” says James, a former photography professor at the University of Montana and Rocky Mountain School of Photography, and the recently named curriculum director at RMSP. “I have a very clear vision of what it all means—that of a societal disconnect, a disconnect of what goes on around us—but I don’t expect it to be that way for anyone else.”

No Man’s Land, which debuts with a First Friday artist’s reception at Gallery Saintonge, is about a state of mind more than any literal place. What the images are—“It’s all birds, planes and highways,” James explains —holds some significance, but the real impact comes from how each is presented. There are photographs of snowy roads placed behind thick layers of resin and bees wax, making them look like antiqued illusions. There’s a series of crow photographs that occupy an entire wall of the gallery, and with the birds silhouetted and the colored prints brushed with coal, from a distance they appear illustrated. But up close the detail and unusual coloring, such as the Technicolor green of a tree’s leaves, give off the feeling of a dream, wherein a certain visceral something will stick in your memory and the peripheral context is lost. There’s a different series of square black-and-white photographs presented like alphabet blocks in a long horizontal frame—each looks as if it was taken from the front seat of a moving car, and though the images are clearly from different locations, James has positioned the horizon as a subtle thru-line across them all.

“I didn’t want the images to be naked. I don’t want people to just see a photograph…The image itself is too referential, it’s too much of an endpoint, it gives you all the answers,” says James. “I don’t need for you to know where that image was taken, I don’t want for you to know where it was taken. I want to have something that’s a little more experiential, for the images to take you on a short-lived or extended experience.”

The content and scope of No Man’s Land are a striking departure from James’ last major exhibit. In 2004 she presented an acclaimed study of Butte at Gallery Saintonge that involved her inhabiting more than 50 old uptown buildings and photographing their interiors through an exhaustively patient process. James immersed herself in the subject, gaining enough confidence from building owners for them to hand over their keys so she could spend days getting to know the rooms without a camera—how the wind moved through doorways, how the light bounced off the walls—and hours with her equipment bracketing exposures. But whereas the Butte project was about capturing a literal sense of place, No Man’s Land is about defining a figurative one.

“My work has gotten more abstract,” says James, who also shot most of the images on the fly, without spending days or hours absorbing the particulars. “If I wanted to photograph what’s happening at Wal-Mart, instead of going to and photographing at Wal-Mart, now I’d probably look to photograph things that metaphorically feel like that…I don’t want people to be distracted by the subject.”

And that would be difficult in No Man’s Land, considering that so much of the exhibit is left to the viewer to interpret. While James’ complex path to creating it was precise—the title, for instance, comes as much from the nebulous out-of-bounds area in her elementary school kickball games as the term’s military roots; Cliffhanger comes into play with how she wanted to portray the crow’s flight “as if it was against a special effects green screen”—she’s hoping different people will come away with their own elaborate conclusions.   

“The whole idea is that it’s not one place or one thing. It’s more of a state,” she says. “I found No Man’s Land en route. I sort of went to this imaginary place, a place I had to create with each photograph. I guess I’m just trying to take people to that same place.”

No Man’s Land opens at Gallery Saintonge with a Sept. 7 First Friday artist’s reception beginning at 5 PM. It will be on display through Tuesday, Oct. 2.
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