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Driven to Distraction: Beth Lilly at Whitespace

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Beth Lilly, What Is the Right Way 6, 2014; pigment ink on paper, 20 by 28 inches.
Beth Lilly, What Is the Right Way 6, 2014; pigment ink on paper, 20 by 28 inches.

In Beth Lilly’s vision of contemporary society, peace is most often found on long stretches of open highway. Her solo show at Whitespace Gallery, “A Moving Image of Eternity,” captures the peaceful, private, and painful moments we experience in vehicles. Three different parts of her exhibition document these human moments, and each show her mastery of cinematic photography.

Perennial Properties

Lilly considers humans in a perpetual state of movement, and journeying central to our existence. Americans, in particular, have an affection for the “journey.” Our history of immigration, our love of road-trip movies, and our Wild West ethos all speak to the power of journeys in our society. The problem, according to Lilly, is that modern technology has turned movement into restlessness; we’ve lost the time we used to spend in stillness. But the road offers long stretches of peacefulness and solitude. We can get lost in ourselves while driving, and we may become unaware that others witness our private moments.

Beth Lilly mutoscope by Matthew Terrell from BURNAWAY on Vimeo.

“A Moving Image of Eternity” displays these moments in three very different ways. The first room at Whitespace is filled with black-and-white photographs on delicate kozo paper; this series is called Lost in Thought. The images show an array of people at the wheel of their car, each one completely absorbed in their own mind. Backgrounds of rivers, bridges, and roads seem to whirr by, giving the effect of a charcoal sketch to the photos. In The change you have started already has far reaching results (Lilly drew titles from her collection of fortune cookie fortunes), we see a young man zooming down the highway with the windows down and sunroof raised. He stares intently ahead, and drives assuredly with one tattooed arm on the wheel. The image contains no sign to show us where he might be going, but we know he’s ready to get there.

Perennial Properties

In the main gallery at Whitespace, Lilly presents images in color. The first series, The Right Way, is a look at the intense dramas that unfold inside cars. Each work has a primary drama that draws your eye, and a secondary element that amplifies the image. In one, a couple in the front seat is in the middle of an emotional breakdown; in the backseat sits an empty child seat. Another image from this series is my favorite of the show. What draws your attention is a young man with a gauze eye patch asleep in the backseat; look longer and you’ll realize that his brother is sitting next to him, slouched against the window, staring right at you. None of these images is staged. Lilly set up a camera apparatus in the passenger seat of her car, drove for hours, and slyly snapped images as she passed other cars.

Beth Lilly, The change you have started already has far reaching results, 2014; pigment ink on Kozo paper, 30 by 40 inches.
Beth Lilly, The change you have started already has far reaching results, 2014; pigment ink on Kozo paper, 30 by 40 inches.

The third part of this show is a set of three mutoscopes that Lilly calls Driven. Shot from a highway overpass, this series depicts drivers frustrated by their inability to move forward. One of the earliest forms of motion picture, mutoscopes are cute little boxes filled with flipbook-style photographs bound on a central axis. When a crank is turned, the image seems to move. These are fun to play with, and Lilly’s are very well constructed.

All of the photos in this show resemble cinematic moments, and the mutoscopes tie the filmic aspects of the works together nicely. The raw truth of these images combined with Lilly’s cinematic style make “A Moving Image of Eternity” play more like a documentary film than a simple photo show.

Beth Lilly, What is the right way 2, 2014; pigment on paper, 20 by 28 inches.