Michael Schreier: Desert's Muse, In Search of a Garden
at Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, February 20 -March 20, 1999
Quebec photographer Michael Schreier makes images of comfortable and personal spaces, capturing complex feelings while denying the viewer complete entrance into them. The work stands as a reminder that the creation of a beautiful thing is among the highest of human achievements.
by MARTIN SPELLERBERG
ART, 03/30/99 REVIEW Artist's Statement: "Desert's Muse, In Search of a Garden offers poetic reflection on the quality of an interior landscape as a search for territory. Such reflection is generated in that forum dedicated to the celebration of "Voice." As the landscape initiates the artist, it is in the quality of luminescent light, that the "self" assures its right to both place and passage." Dedication: "In the quite glow of our beginning, A dance in circled muse. Jennifer this exhibition is for you."
At age fifty-one, Ottawa photographer Michael Schreier is a senior professor/administrator at the University of Ottawa. Images of the comfortable and personal spaces he encountered while travelling on a recent sabbatical have been collected as, "Desert's Muse, In Search of a Garden," and capture those complex feelings in a way that is not only accessible, but infectious. But for all is careful construction, all his openness, certain images in the show deny the viewer complete entrance into Schreier's personal spaces and stand as evidence that each person's private spaces are theirs alone.
The exhibition offers a number of contrasts, but does so in a way that is neither jarring nor disruptive, instead using differences as variations on a theme. There is a strong play between green and architectural spaces, with images containing each element alone and images combining the two. Where both are present images are weighted one way or the other, never matched, one always dominant over the other. The architectural spaces are, by their nature, not just made by man's hands, but also made by his will. There is no evidence of ruin or decay, each space seems very new and very clean, just as it had been designed to be. Similarly, the green spaces can not be described as "natural" as they are in every sense constructions in the traditional garden types. Lawns, ponds, bushes and vines are all neatly kept, implying the presence of a gardener. It is in this way that both types of spaces share an order, a reassuring familiarity based on the knowledge of a higher plan that is comforting in its elimination of the unknown, the wild.
The "landscape" is not portrayed as a cliché, as a grand expanse to be surveyed, but as an intimate personal environment. Nor is it limited to exterior. In fact, interior/exterior is blurred by unusual use of glass and windows so that it implies virtually no distinction. Glass is used as a barrier, dividing both interior and exterior spaces without blocking off their surroundings. Fences made of glass separate the viewer from the background, creating a comfortable private space while, in some cases, also introducing the third element of reflections on the glass. This is contrasted by frosted glass which obscures outside objects but promotes a confidence of privacy, of safety. Widows look, from interior constructed spaces, onto exterior architectural spaces, green gardens, and even other interior spaces. In one case the window leans against a wall in an unfurnished environment - rather than dividing the constructed space, is placed in the middle of it.
The hierarchy of foreground/background/subject is in question as Schreier's approach to it changes in relation to his situation. In the outdoor gardens focus tends to the object nearest to the camera, creating, in what otherwise be too large a space, an intimate relationship to it and it's distance from us. The camera tends to see these exterior spaces with a greater flatness than the interior ones, which tend to explore the play of interchanging planes. The architectural spaces, perhaps in reflection of their more human scale, are seen as a series of interlocking spaces, each projecting a related but unique relationship to the viewer.
One of the strengths of this work is though it portrays the "alone," it avoids a sense of loneliness. Images are of solitary places and, without a human in the frame, are left to be the viewer's. There are, however, two exceptions to this - an image of a woman sleeping in a train car, and a reflection of the photographer's legs in glass, of which the conventions of the exhibition may not apply.
The first frame of the exhibition contains two images, the woman sleeping and an image of interior walls and glass. We immediately question the relationship of the sleeping woman to the photographer, and are alerted to issues of voyeurism and the male photographer's potentially predatory gaze. But by taking into account the mood of the rest of the show, we discover that this is not an example of the photographer invading her garden, but that she is a representation of him in his garden. Sleeping, as she is, on the train car, with no one in the seat beside her or visible forward or behind, she has an expectation of privacy, of a quite alone that will not be disturbed. The space between the seat backs, bordered by the window and the isle, has become her garden in the way the spaces of the other images belong to Schreier.
She seems to be "dressed up," her hair and make up done, the garment she uses for a blanket seems fresh and new. Her presence on a train suggests movement, going forward, that she is headed towards a destination representing a fresh start, or a new her. But she has not yet reached it, she is in the very powerful state of "in-between" and is able to map out a territory of her own in which whatever past she is leaving can come to terms with the future ahead.
The vertical strokes of the seat backs are set at a slight diagonals and are combined with the blurred exterior beyond the window to convey a sense of movement. This is countered by the horizontal line leading us to the look of peacefulness on her face and the symmetrical design, leant weight by the darker tones towards the bottom. Matching horizontals are scattered through the frame, creating depth and excitement for the eye. Headroom, emphasized by the vertical rising from behind her head, is generous and gives her a sense of space, of control, while a lower ceiling (like that of an airplane) might have given the image a claustrophobic and discomforting feeling.
The companion piece opens up the frame, continuing the horizontals and repeating the verticals. The cold colors of the first piece are warmed in the second, blues and purples dissolving into soft, light yellows and browns, and for the two thirds to the right, plays of whites with grays and slight greens. Though of a static object- an interior doorway with a blurry wood floor to the left and shadows on glass to the right, the image is charged with movement, but of a complex type that is restful while not at rest.
The other image with a human presence, that of the reflection of the photographer's feet, is unique in the show for its sense of mystery, of the unknown, and a confrontation that disrupts the serenity of the show. A frame dominated by a series of horizontal strips, each dark to the left and right, their blues softening, becoming lighter towards the middle. The top half of the image is one large strip, a play of light in a great expanse of interior space that recalls, through it's shape, popular representations of light shining down from heaven like a spotlight.
The bottom is dominated by the metallic railing of the second strip, grabbing your eyes, the pattern of reflections on its surface leading the eye to its center, at which point we are led down a tiny vertical running between the reflection of the legs. The stance is curious in that it, while representing the viewer confronting the unknown beyond it, also has the presence of the photographer confronting us. So, while we are given a measure of control over the space, Schreier has given himself a measure of control over us. For all it's emptiness, it's seeming serenity, this one image questions the mood of the show and causes us to question our entrance into the photographer's private gardens.
Leaving the pleasant atmosphere of the gallery I contemplated the purpose of the show and the artist's approach to them. Seduced by the quiet works into a state of melencholy, comforted by a rare appearance of the early spring sun, I realized that while Schreier may not have been able to share his personal spaces with me, he certainly did make me more aware of mine. Work of this nature is a welcome change to what I have become accustomed to in "art", and stands as a reminder that the creation of a beautiful thing is among the highest of human achievements.
ED. NOTE: Two items in this article were changed after we were contacted by the artist. Michael Schreier says although he spent some years in Quebec he does not consider himself a "Quebec Photographer." Also, we had incorrectly listed him as 54, when he is really 51. So if you know of anyone who got their info from the same sources we had, please inform them of these facts.
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