Can a camera capture pain? I don’t mean an expression of pain, or a body in a painful position. I mean the actual sensation of pain, radiating from an unseen wound like a heat shimmer, or psychic pain, hovering, cloud-like and malevolent, over a subject’s head?
If a camera ever had that capacity, I’m betting that it was made by Roger Sayre. Going before Sayre’s lens must feel a bit like sitting for a nineteenth-century portraitist must have. His images take an hour to make. During that interval, even the most stoic among us will fidget a bit. Subtle shifts made by the sitter generate a kind of blur, an aura, a literal unsettlement around the subject’s face. It can suggest the erosion of identity, or the expression of a deep and complicated inner state. Sayre’s best images always seem to expose something shrouded — a hidden wound, or a secret.
His camera, big as a guard dog but shaped like a box accordion, currently squats in the middle of the Benjamin J. Dineen III and Dennis Hull Gallery at Hudson County Community College (71 Sip Avenue). It’s there as a kind of explanatory note, and an entry point for “Living in the Invisible,” an exhibition that showcases the work of artists beset by ailments that outsiders might not be able to apprehend. Even before a pandemic that has bruised the minds and bodies of millions, countless Americans were already suffering from unseen disabilities. While it doesn’t come right out and say so, “Living in the Invisible” suggests that artists (and their subjects) might be able to inscribe that pain, and the tenacity it requires to cope with illness, in their work. What was once silent and unknowable could, through the expressive power of art, become seen, and perhaps even recognized as a badge of courage.
Thus “Living in the Invisible” is best understood as an act of compassion — and compassion is a quality that the show’s curator is famous for. Michelle Vitale, who works as Woolpunk, is probably best known for the Gimme Shelter Project, a community stitch-in that bestowed blankets on members of Hudson County’s homeless community. Woolpunk’s colorful, knotty thread-bombs hint that there might be something salutary about entropy. The artists she’s presenting in “Living in the Invisible” aren’t afraid of a little disorder, either.
Doris Caçiolo’s “Made for a Party, Sheela na gig, 2021” makes manifest both the precariousness of wellness and the awful vagaries of ill-health. Barbell-shaped objects dangle from the bottom of a bonneted mannequin head in a wire frame shaped roughly like a female body. The ropes tethering theses glittering organs to the head are stained dark red. They don’t look like they’re about to snap — but if they do, a cactus in a terra cotta pot waits to catch, and prick, whatever falls. Sharon Lee De La Cruz’s comic book “The Itchies” is just as blunt. Her characters look cheerful, but they discuss, in frank language, the inequities and stubborn prejudices that make the American healthcare system such a treacherous realm for people of color to navigate. (She’s printed the name of the show on a prescription pad for a dermatologist in the Bronx; this is a serious show, but it’s not a humorless one.)
Other pieces in the show conceal, as too many of us must, hurt behind surface poise. Alison Greene’s “Grief Box” finds a golden bird thatching a container of butterflies. The sky is pretty, but it’s also a sunset pink, and the design on the lid of the box — smack in the dead center of the oil painting — resembles a dark tunnel. In Greene’s “Lovers” series, the artist anthropomorphizes a pair of tree trunks. They bend around each other, caress each other, and appear to be providing mutual support. The choice of wood feels meaningful: it’s birch, with its bone-white bark prized for its medicinal properties. But these scenes happen in winter, the boughs are bare of leaves, and the droop of the branches evokes weeping. The north wall of the gallery blooms with botanical silhouettes, cut and arranged by HCCC professor and cancer survivor Eun Young Choi. “Over the Hudson,” her installation, spills over its natural boundaries and on to adjacent walls. Everything about it suggests explosive growth — it’s beautiful, and alien, and evocative of a child’s first fascinating, terrifying glimpse into a petri dish under a microscope.
Stephanie Tichenor’s “Pain Atlas” applies organic-looking patterns directly to the body. Her human figures are delicate, and so are the markings she makes on them, but each corresponds to a different physical complaint, with aches sewn into the skin like colored stitches. Mary Tooley Parker, a Type 1 diabetes sufferer for decades, loops fuzzy fabric into compositions best described as vertical rugs. The attention to detail is meticulous, and so is her honesty: “Times Square 1976” gets the boisterous abrasiveness of New York City in wintertime right, down to the ruthless press of the advertisements and enticements for x-rated girlie shows, and adverts for “Taxi Driver” looming on the marquee.
Then there are those Roger Sayre photographs: four blown-up, ultra-slow-exposure shots of young people in a time of global crisis, their facial features blurring into the blue-white background, expressions inscrutable, enveloped by shadows. As it always does, Sayre’s big camera amplifies the sitter’s vulnerability. It’s like an x-ray machine that can access emotional turbulence and turn it inside out, externalizing it into haloes, shimmers, and dark radiance.
The photos also make a statement about the body’s existence in time. A Sayre photograph is no quick snapshot. Like Mary Tooley Parker’s hanging rugs and Choi’s elaborate wall-design, its very existence implies a period of concentration and repose. What’s most important (and most clearly captured in the photos) is that stillness is never absolute. The body changes — even when we don’t think it is. It shuffles around, it shudders and shakes on its own. It’s spurred into involuntary action by discomfort, hidden injuries, and organic decay.
And if the careful, gentle, wounded “Living in the Invisible” leaves you wanting something with a bit more flash, all you’ve got to do is step into the next gallery. Jeremiah Teipen’s vibrant “InterExitFace” is busy with light boxes, video screens, monitors, and glowing electric what-is-its. It feels a bit like plunging into the back end of a giant computer, and even more like encountering a roomful of home electronics that have morphed, mutated, and mushroomed into forms beyond the user’s control. I don’t know how much of “InterExitFace” was created before the pandemic — quite a lot of it, I reckon — but as a visual metaphor for the digital takeover of our living spaces during quarantine, it’ll do very well. Not all injuries of the pandemic era are slow-growing. Some of them are immediate, and all too visible.
Both “Living in the Invisible” and “InterExitFace” will be on view at HCCC until March 23. For a college gallery, Dineen Hull is quite accessible: it’s open from noon until 4 p.m. from Tuesday through Friday. The art space is on the sixth floor of the Gabert Library Building.
Featured photo Mary Tooley Parker, “Times Square, 1976”