"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Imag[In]ing America: a exhibit of photography by Jennifer Garza-Cuen at Melhop Gallery in Zephyr Cove


After wandering alone from photograph to photograph, taking in the staged details, trying to observe with a level of specificity worthy of this photographer’s eye, at last I’m overwhelmed. The images make me uncomfortable. I cannot passively observe. I must feel and respond. The subjects stare at me as if saying, judge me if you will but don’t look away from me.

I sit in a pale wooden chair in the front room before nine square photographs on the wall ahead of me. Behind me the windows are paned in rectangles and the sun is projecting the shadows of clouds onto the floor, as if they float on the surface of water.

To my right, a large photograph captures the black-green rippled water of a pond and the white body of a young woman floating naked, eyes closed, mouth open, auburn hair wrapping around her tricep. On my left, a girl stands alone in a wide rural empty road that curves behind her, like her curling hair, like the curving boa wrapped in her wrists and draping down to tip under the hem of her dress. The girl stares straight at me. 

I’m a poet, and I felt intimidated when Jennifer asked me to write a response essay for her solo show at the Melhop gallery. I’ve known Jennifer Garza-Cuen for many years while we participated together in the Reno Art Salon with a vibrant group of artists of diverse mediums. "I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing," wrote John Cage in his book Silence. As a literary artist I love collaborating with visual artists, seeing through fresh interdisciplinary lenses each other’s work.  I think what poets and photographers share with their viewers is the question, what does it mean? In my own experience as a poet and teacher, people read a poem or listen to a poem and then look up wide-eyed and anxious that they must now be able to answer that question. I don’t know what Jennifer’s photographs mean. 

I’ve always been guided by this idea that a poem is not complete without its reader. The poet, the speaker, and the reader collaborate in a created social space. In these photographs, I feel the presence of the photographer, the subject, and myself. Maybe in photographs of people, we always experience the illicitness of the voyeur. In these photographs, most of the subjects look brazenly at me. Not back at me. They are looking at me first, hand and fingers poised arrogantly with a cigarette. I imagine they have already considered why they are being photographed, and why they want to be in this photograph.

If I look closely, I see my own reflection in these photos I've taken, within the social space of the scene. The poet Myung Mi Kim in Commons wrote, "The poem may be said...to mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in a social space." These photographs loudly protest any attempt to step away from my complicity.

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