Review by Howard Halle:
In his seminal treatise, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes notes that photography’s power to fix a subject in seeming perpetuity links the medium to death. For example, he calls the photo “a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead,” a form of stasis that makes an image seem alive in the present, when in fact, it records the past, or a “this-has-been” already lost in time.
So, if photography represents “a kind of abrupt dive into literal death,” as Barthes also writes, Daisy Patton’s current show, “Lineages in Bloom,” in the Strohl Art Center’s Arnold and Jill Bellowe Family Gallery, could be described as a long-forgotten graveyard overgrown with the foliage of untended memory. Patton, who cites Barthes as an influence, presents 22 photographic portraits of women, each overpainted with stylized flowers whose petals and winding stems creep and crawl across the photo, framing and obscuring the person underneath. Perfumed with decay, the images possess a gothic floridity not unlike that of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who teased intimations of mortality out of glossy renderings of legendary figures such as Proserpine and Ophelia.
But while Rossetti drew inspiration from Roman mythology and Shakespeare, Patton locates hers in old photographs sourced from eBay, thrift stores and antique shops. Here, they are hung in an array of anonymous mothers, wives, daughters, etc., varying in age, ethnicity and race. Judging from the quality of the originals, the images appear to date from the era before digital cameras, primarily from the early to mid-20th century. Sporting reflexive smiles, Patton’s subjects stare at you like ghosts haunting family snapshots in which familial bonds have long since dissolved.
Having rescued these images from a musty purgatory, Patton reproduces them as prints laminated to a board-like substrate called Dibond. She then applies pigment in thick brush strokes that fill in backgrounds and articles of clothing, though she reserves a lighter touch to cover faces with transparent veils of color. The profusion of flora curtaining the compositions are limned in precise outlines with raised textures (which are sometimes bolstered with abstract dots and dashes). But there is no discernible relationship between plant and subject — or, for that matter, between flower and nature, as Patton’s designs are based on late-19th-century wallpaper patterns, particularly those by William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.
These surreal trellises could be construed as an attempt to deflect the temptation to connect with the pieces nostalgically, and they succeed up to a point: The bold overlay of blossoms is the first thing you notice about the work, after all, but there are other components within the images that allow you to gauge their vintage, and perhaps stir a sense of longing. These include dress, obviously, but also another — previously mentioned — element linked to photography itself: film. There are examples of images taken as daguerreotypes and Polaroids, or with cameras such as the Brownie and Instamatic, all marking the leap from black-and-white to color that divides the first and second halves of the 20th century.
Somehow, within this larger frame of history, Patton attempts to reconstruct the specific families attached to these images — and maybe the idea of family itself — by superimposing untethered memories onto our own. The remembrance of things past, however, can be a slippery business, and in this respect it is worth noting something Marcel Proust, Barthes’ compatriot, wrote on the subject: “The images selected by memory are as arbitrary, as narrow, as elusive as those which the imagination had formed and reality has destroyed.” Patton’s work acknowledges as much, but wishes it weren’t so.
Howard Halle is editor-at-large and chief art critic for Time Out New York.