In Lori Vrba’s photography, comfort comes from rich visual textures and poignancy of natural surroundings. Her show Southern Comfort, at Jennifer Schwartz Gallery until January 28, is a mélange of photographs that speaks to a love of the medium. Yet within the works resides a tension and unease between the photographer and the people and places around her.
Her images, painstakingly printed by hand in her basement darkroom on silver gelatin, are a sepia-tinged ode to her surroundings. Vrba shoots with a Hasselblad, the Swedish brand used throughout NASA’s Apollo program and during the first moon landing. Instead of the craggy desert of the moon, however, Vrba’s Hasselblad captures the roughly textured surface of her North Carolina environs, drawing out the otherworldly in clover and grass.
Vrba’s photography seeks the alien in the familiar. Vrba’s children are the subject matter of nearly all of her photographs, often displayed holding totemic items like birds’ nests and moths in An Egg is Quiet (2011) and Moth (2011). The props can border on the macabre, like naked baby dolls with fixed eyes staring nowhere and shroud-like veils in Bitty Baby (2011) and Her Idea (2011). The resulting photographs place Vrba, and subsequently the viewer, on the outside of these charmed yet eerie scenes.
There is a quality to Vrba’s work that vacillates between horror-film fodder and brooding contemplation. The light has a thin, translucent quality that gives a ghostly glow to the grim-faced children, who either glower at the camera or frown at the objects of their scrutiny in photographs like Mummy (2011) and Like a Wish(2011).
Viewers will likely find similarities between Vrba’s work and that of Sally Mann, an artist Vrba acknowledges as an inspiration. Yet Vrba’s photographs lack the overt aggression of Mann’s images: the precocious sexuality captured in Mann’s photographs of her children is apparent in works like Jean Skirt (2009), which offers the viewer a crotch-view of Vrba’s daughter in a cut-off denim micro-miniskirt against a chicken-wire fence, but her daughter’s face has been cropped out, so we are not confronted with the challenging gaze that Mann’s daughters return in works like The New Mothers.
In her photographs of her children, Mann creates tableaus of tension-starring stylized Lolitas with feral gazes. Vrba’s photographs seem more those of an enthralled observer bearing witness to the strange and precocious encounters between her children and nature.
The sculptural works in Southern Comfort represent this encounter with the result of child and nature melding into a chimeralike entity. Miss Francesis a children’s dress form endowed with a skirt of chicken wire and branches woven with birds’ nests and lichen, while scraps of photographs with wide-eyed faces peer out from the tangle. A broad butterfly made of feathers is pinned on the chest, reinforcing the effect of a foundling emerging from a tangled forest, half-man, half-animal.
In the artist talk for this show, Vrba describes the states of being an artist and having children as uncomfortable yet beautiful. This discomfort permeates her works, capturing not only a human wonderment toward life, but also the condition of not knowing. There are insurmountable barriers between us and those we love; we can never know them fully, and we are entranced when they surprise us. Such is the relationship between man and nature. No amount of scientific knowledge can diminish the beauty found in small things, the patterns of a moth’s wing, the pigments of a feather, the glow of dusk transforming a landscape you thought you knew. And in that there is comfort.