The Valley, (c) Kelli Connell

Kelli Connell’s series “Double Life” seemed special enough when I first saw it online, but I had the sense that comes with website viewing that I’d already seen the pictures.  So why bother attending the physical exhibition?   Giving it the benefit of the doubt, I dropped by Kopeikin Gallery on a weekday.

I wondered whether the photographs might gain something by hanging on the wall?  I should say that this question wasn’t really aimed at Kelli Connell’s work specifically, but really at all photographic work of late. I’d been feeling a creeping sense of image burnout on and off for the last few years.  Professional photo editors see hundreds if not thousands of photographs each week.   In fine art, it’s not much different. The bounty of work available to be seen online along with the sheer numbers of active photographers can sometimes have a numbing effect on the viewer. Keeping abreast of beloved work prior to living life on a desktop was manageable enough with part of my brain devoted to Duane Michaels and Judy Dater, and part of it to Robert Mapplethorpe, Irving Penn and Mary Ellen Mark.  There were many others of course, but the point being, it wasn’t all that crowded a field.

Websites for editorial and advertising photographers offer an instant reference for those in a position to assign or buy photography.  It’s a good thing.  For fine art photography, the net seems to me to walk the fine line of being friend and foe.  While it expands opportunities for awareness and outreach, it also risks a sense of  “been there, done that”.  It’s always been a good idea to put a strong image on an invitation, make a couple of images available to the press and hold tight to the rest of the work to give people something fresh to see at exhibition. Seeing work on the wall is seduction after all.  It’s difficult to feel the pull of the words “buy me” when it comes to art that you only experience in the condensed format of a computer screen.  When we have the opportunity to see every image in a series prior to the show, it diminishes one’s desire to change out of our sweatpants and drive across town for an opening.  We lose that wonderful sense of discovery.

Ponder, (c) Kelli Connell

In spite of all that, it was with great pleasure that I found myself in a room full of Connell’s images.    The dozen or so prints were all pictures I had seen before, yet somehow they moved me in a way I hadn’t experienced in prior small version looks.  Seeing a beautifully crafted photograph, equally well framed is a nicer experience than seeing it with menu bars and a multitude of files on my desktop.  I must remember this.

Immediately I was reminded of another simple fact.  Seeing art in an empty room without the opening crowd can be a wonderful thing.  I was alone here except for Mr. Kopeikin and he was occupied on the phone. I could actually consider the images in peace.

Trying to put two and two together is a pleasure and sometimes a challenge in art and while I like to eventually read the artist’s statement, I always feel like I’ve cheated and looked at the answers before reading the questions if I read it first.  In this case I was glad that I hadn’t read Connell’s statement or any interviews before seeing the work.

Lucky Lou's, (c) Kelli Connell

There have been volumes of compelling work made based on sexual identity: photographs, films, videos and mixed media work in the last twenty odd years including many works by my former school mates and friends from Cal Arts, UC Irvine and UCLA, such as John Di StefanoTammy Rae Carland, Catherine Opie, Millie Wilson, Keith Mayerson, and even by myself.   I pretty much walked away from the topic years ago feeling it had run its course for me at the time.

Young photographers like Kelli Connell find their own routes of exploration, however, and her subjects are depicted with a gentle subtlety.  Each nuanced frame makes a look at a relationship in an everyday life.  The normalcy of the images is their beauty.  Simple arrangements of two women in very utilitarian locations – a couple, but they are an identical duo.  Are they lovers?  Are they identical twins? They appear to be quietly engaged in the details of their lives, two sides of one coin. Bits of gendered behaviors show, but quietly.  I think I tired of the heavy-handedness of the genre in the past, but Connell’s compositions are elegantly balanced and her subjects low-key.  They’re a relief from so much posing in the world.  These are posed, but they just don’t feel like it.  They’re not dogmatic. Her technical skill is flawless and while I’m not generally one to give away the ending before you’ve had a chance to see the film, much has already been written about her casting a friend to play both roles in the relationship.  Connell masters the images together in an ultimate Photoshop embrace.

Convertible Kiss, (c) Kelli Connell

I tried to fathom how it was possible to weave the two versions of her model so seamlessly given the connectedness of the couple.  It only made sense once I read that Kelli Connell herself serves as a stand in or placeholder for one side of the two characters.  This way an embrace feels like an embrace.  More important than Photoshop technique is the way in which Connell filling this role affects the images.  She is in the images and she’s not.  She’s there in the ether.  Her presence appears to make up for her absence in that she occupies the heart and soul of the work, including the minor details: a thumb hooked into a blue jean pocket, a hand cups an ear and the nape of a neck.  “What is really recorded on the film is our interaction together.”

This is solidly beautiful work.  It’s both portraiture and performance. Poetic and banal in the way that real life can be.

Carnival, (c) Kelli Connell

Many years ago I was lucky enough to hear a lecture by the late film historian Vito Russo in which he spoke of wanting to see the day in which gay films didn’t have to constantly deal with coming out, or with characters being killed off for that matter.  He longed for the day when the fact of a character’s queerness wasn’t even mentioned.  They merely existed within the context of a story.  Just like straight characters existed.  They did other things, lived their lives, had relationships, had jobs, were heroes or just regular people.

Kelli Connell’s images do just that.  They live their filmic lives.

Brickhaus Cafe, (c) Kelli Connell

Connell has fielded the question of whether the series has run its course since she began it in 2002.  Artists periodically ask themselves what’s next when consumed by a long body of work.   It is a question only time and the photographer herself will discover.  While I would be fascinated to see what an entirely new body of work might be, it is equally compelling to consider the idea of continuing along this path, allowing her subjects to continue to play out their relationship as we continue to follow along. Rarely in photography do we have the opportunity to see characters develop, change, age and transition in their fictional lives over a long period of time.  When it happens, it’s a rare and special thing.

Kelli Connell’s “Double Life” shows at Kopeikin Gallery, 2766 Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles through April 14, 2012 with J Bennett Fitts “8 Dead Palm Trees.”

She also has work in “Contemporary Queer Photography” at Photo Center NW in Seattle, April 6th through May 12th with a lecture April 13th at 6:30 pm.

Advertisements