New Works By Miranda Pfeiffer and Ginevra Shay at Rock512Devil reviewed by Benjamin Levy

The exhibition, curated by Max Guy, consists of new graphite drawings by Miranda Pfeiffer and photographs by Ginevra Shay. The modest scale of the monochromatic work has a nice parallel with the intimate space of Rock512Devil, a relative newcomer to Baltimore’s art scene.

Shay has been stripping down her photographic process to its essence, with her work taking the form of abstract camera-less photograms. Recently she deliberately added camera and film back in. Shay repurposes vintage photographs—the kind one would see in Life or National Geographic—as raw materials to create new compositions in a studio space to be re-photographed. Utilizing and responding to popular imagery from the past is nothing new, but Shay frames the conversation in terms of the analog history of photography and the relationship with the formal photographic studio.

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In Untitled (Raumbilder #1) and Untitled (Raumbilder #2) the compositions are filled with imagery, flickering between different layers of space. The original clippings depict architecture, sports, nature, figure studies, and photographic experiments, which Shay uses to fabricate another space, where the images make up the surfaces of the floor and walls of a studio, as well as describe ambiguous forms that they are folded around. It appears Shay utilizes a traditional photography studio, until closer inspection reveals the scale is off and one realizes it is a miniature diorama. This doesn’t inform or detract from the concept; it is most likely a realistic means to an end.

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By Untitled (Raumbilder #5) and Untitled (Raumbilder #6) the spaces have become sparse. Where crisp magazine images once populated the pictures we are now left with crumpled overexposed sheets of photo paper and test strips, the detritus of the darkroom. The flickering effect is still present, but less in the form of visual vibration than in the self-referential nature of the photographic object itself. Like the subjects, the final work itself could be cast off, with developer stains and fingerprints punctuating the crisp white diorama. In this digital age these are proof, a kind of badge of honor, of the analog. This is the distressed patina of a battle-worn medium that calls attention, not only to what is being depicted within the frame, but the frame itself, activating the film as a mediating surface through which all analog photography is seen.

The size of Pfeiffer’s graphite drawings have gotten smaller over time, while at the same time the emotional narrative has increased in focus; from apocalyptic devastation on a grand scale in previous work to moments of personal magnitude, poetic compositions with an ominous undercurrent.

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Insects make an appearance in three of the five drawings, and Pfeiffer draws on the whole spectrum of symbolic interpretations: from ladybugs bucolically resting on a bed of leaves—a sign of rebirth and growth nature in harmony—to an aggressive swarm outside the window of a home—pestilence as personified as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, one of the plagues of Egypt.

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In One Hundred Years Pfeiffer renders a paperback copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude tattered and half buried in an empty landscape. At the book’s heart are the themes of cyclical time and the repetition of history. Pfeiffer’s drawing exists in a post apocalyptic setting, not a violent rendition one would expect from Mad Max or Saint John, but a quiet world devoid of humanity where the earth is reclaiming itself, balance having been restored.

Back & Forth Love Song also takes its cues from literature about death and rebirth. Etched in stone is the phrase “It tolls for thee,” which is the last line of the John Donne poem For Whom the Bell Tolls. The bell is a funeral bell, though there is debate as to the exact meaning. Some claim it is a memento mori; a daily reminder that death is inevitable and the bell is ringing for you. Another philosophy is that all life is interconnected and thus continues living even after death. The artist takes the latter interpretation; below the phrase set in the stone, the phase is repeated on a piece of notebook paper, indicating the persistence of life beyond death, and the continuation of knowledge and existence.

Pfeiffer’s open ended narratives are strongly grounded in literary references, which if not easily recalled, require further research. The drawings give some context clues, but the real meat is realized through investigating through the internet, rather than the drawings. Her tight renderings osculate between close observational representation and illustrative style; for a show this condensed these variations obscure her voice.

Shay’s photographs have a tighter feedback loop, the subject matter reflected in the handling of the medium. For those literate in the language of photography the telltale signs of a fingerprint on a negative or a developer stain on a print are immediately recognizable and understood, but this knowledge too, cannot be assumed. There is a global discussion about image culture and the sea of change that digital photography has brought about, with many artists depicting and engaging with the analog. Shay’s challenge is to have her voice heard in the larger conversation.

At first glance, Pfeiffer and Shay’s work hangs nicely together, both similarly sized and monochromatic, but the similarities trail off after that. There is the shared element of time and nostalgia, but the exhibition is strongest when viewed as two discrete bodies of work. Two-artist exhibitions are especially difficult from a curatorial perspective; there is an expectation for a focused dialog. This is much harder than a solo show—a monologue—or a group show—a chorus. Regardless, the show is successful in showcasing two strong bodies of work, and an exciting early step for Rock512Devil.

Impossible Eye: New Works By Miranda Pfeiffer and Ginevra Shay
through July 19
Rock512Devil,
512 West Franklin Street
rock512devil.us

Author Benjamin Levy is a curator and printmaker living in Baltimore. He is the Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Prints, Drawings & Photographs at The Baltimore Museum of Art and a 2009 graduate of MICA.