Described by Marcia Vaitsman as a work in progress, her Study of Strange Things at Solomon Projects is a body of photography and video that explores the relationship between art, society, and the individual consciousness. The visual metaphors she employs aren’t just made up out of culturally received symbolism; they’re personal proto-symbols—symbols, however, of nothing besides the elusive images that form the ground of what we construct as meaning.
Vaitsman calls these proto-images, the recurrent flickers of inner imagery that serve as precursors to more developed and reflective bodies of artwork. They probably derive from early childhood experience, combined with visual encounters gleaned over the years by a more adult consciousness.
Vaitsman’s accompanying MFA thesis describes the show as an investigation into the nature of photography as “a spy of subjectivity that at the same time gives the illusion of reality, [and is thus] a powerful tool for abstraction.” (All subsequent quotations in this review are from this thesis.)
This theory underpins Vaitsman’s set of visual explorations, which begin with photograms of objects that both illustrate her personal proto-images and act as meaning-laden analogues for not-quite-visualizable moments coming from what she describes as “a part of my mind that at times remains foreign to me.”
One example of these analogues is a zebra that isn’t one, since it doesn’t need stripes to be a zebra. Vaitsman wove/sculpted the primal horse from her own hair, then photographed the resulting solid black object in situations that would provide the missing contrast of white: It appears as a white outline when laid on photographic paper in the photograms, and is encased in light-reflecting ice in a pair of conventional digital images in a subsequent part of the series.
The most primitively shaped and archaic-looking of her private symbols, this zebra without stripes bears a striking resemblance to one of the oldest known animal sculptures, from Dolni Vestonice. Vaitsman recognizes that this image, when combined with her other private symbols, is analogous to sets of collective symbols—as in Tarot cards or the Stations of the Cross—that “form fragments of meaning to describe complex situations.” Proto-images, however, provide something more like incomplete elements of a personal mythology; appearing together like mythology’s associative narratives, they are linked by an unarticulated logic that is both unique to the individual and related to the structural nature of the human species. They are cultural, psychological, and biological at the same time.
This may be why Vaitsman’s proto-images resonate so strongly with many viewers. There is no intrinsic relationship between us and a close-up of meat on a skewer above mounded salt, or a sculptural presentation of “three imaginary boys,” or the flower-like form that emerges in the video from the simple act of pulling on a stocking. All of these personally meaningful images, however, are presented in visual contexts extracted from science fiction films or art history. One of them, a rock suspended by thin wire above a floor carpeted with eggs, expresses a symbolic situation that is as old in European stories as the sword of Damocles, and equally so in tales from other cultures.
So we have here, in Vaitsman’s Study of Strange Things, an exploration of how our personal imagery is partly acquired from culture, transformed into a set of idiosyncratic underpinnings for creative endeavors, and then transmitted back into culture. It acts as a dialectic or a feedback loop in which individual creativity constantly modifies collective, external imagery at the same time that it mediates it internally. Proto-images stay mostly internalized because they are opaque to other members of the culture (never mind members of other cultures), and because art is usually addressed to an audience other than the artist. They appear in art only when the artist is preoccupied with them to the exclusion of more conventional and collective symbols—what we call visionary art—or when the artist chooses to investigate the nature of proto-images, to explore the dialectic between biology, psychology, and culture.
I have chosen to describe all of this in terms derived mostly from Anglo-American sources, and deliberately used a few terms that have fallen out of fashion. I’ve also made use of relevant ideas that various interdisciplinary sciences in many countries are currently reconfiguring. MFA candidates rightly feel obligated to deploy a particular theoretical vocabulary for fear that without it they won’t be taken seriously. The art world, by and large, arrogantly restricts its approved sources to the few books appearing in the footnotes of the catalogues of global biennials. Everything else is pretty much off limits, but it shouldn’t be.
Vaitsman, on the other hand, uses her own globalized origins and experiences to pursue the nature of consciousness and its expressions in a body of work that is both personal and accessibly analytical. It is also extraordinarily beautiful.
The video alone, which translates personal symbols into a kinetic mix accompanied by an appropriately fragmented soundtrack, deserves long, reflective attention. The photographs deserve even more.