Terttu Uibopuu: E.S.E. (East South East) at University Galleries of ISU
By Keagen Davidson
March 26, 2018
Deep in a messy closet, at my mother’s home, lay several chests full of family photos taken by various relatives. This collection spans decades and exhibits a broad array of subjects and styles. In looking at these pictures it’s clear the town my grandmother grew up in, Morris IL, is most certainly not the same Morris that I grew up in 60 years later. I may have never met the relatives captured in some of these photographs, but the intense feeling of personal connection I have with these photos is inescapable. After spending time with Terttu Uibopuu’s exhibition at University Galleries, E.S.E. (East South East) I began to feel similar feelings.
The exhibition consists of 25 images and a photo book, their styles ranging widely from formal monochrome to vibrant surrealism to candid snapshots. E.S.E. is a collection of photos from recession stricken Rockford IL, the U.S. bayou still in disrepair from Katrina, and the artist’s home country a struggling Post-Soviet Estonia.
Upon entering the space I looked for one aesthetic theme. It did not exist. The visual qualities of the images are vast and dynamic, providing a welcomed challenge to the first time viewer. So many exhibitions rely exhaustively on easy-to-digest aesthetic coherence to drive home concepts; however, Uibopuu builds meaning primarily through effectual themes with the most powerful being the wide range of styles.
A slushy body of water begins to melt. Öhne River is the first image upon entering the gallery. It is well composed; stretched across the frame, barren branches divide the body of water. Stylistically, it is not flashy. Just a very natural image of fading winter. Nearby, on the adjacent wall, Pihlakas radiates surreal brightness. Full and alive, Pihlakas displays a tree beaming with red fruits. These two photos set the tone for the show. It’s spring and it’s winter in no particular order. It’s spring and it’s winter simultaneously. This is the allegory throughout: Disorder and Recovery.
The landscapes are fabulous and guide the mood throughout, but human subjects are what impress the weighty theme. Hidden behind a wire mask, a fencer thrusts his foil into empty space. Next, behind a cool veil curtain, reminiscent of the fencer’s mesh helmet, a cloudy outdoor scene can be viewed from within the safety of home. Outside, cold world, the enemy for which they stood en garde. Further right, a man on his knees hangs his head low grieving at bedside. A familiar curtain hangs beside him providing a depressive blue light.
Struggle and perseverance is present in many stages. Couple Dancing shows an old weary immigrant couple dancing on a fourth of July night. Their dance feels obligatory, engaging in what they at one time wished for. Taylor, a handsome young man, found in a parking lot, looks deeply at the camera. He is proud, pulling back his shirt to show off his chest, there, a tattooed Bible verse goes unacknowledged by him. He is naïve.
The settings and human demographics exhibited are noticeably different from image to image. There is value in a linear viewing of the show, but there is present an interrelation that moves through the space connecting all of the photos. When considered as a network, the exhibition becomes alive. The power of this network derives from the range of visual styles. Lines that separate images due to the prominent stylistic variety blur when all people and places are simultaneously considered in the tactfully collected series.
Walking through this show does not feel like being anywhere in the U.S. or Estonia. These images don’t bring you to any physically existing environment. E.S.E. puts you in a place that feels very natural, very familiar, but it is not a fixed region in space or time. It is a place of stoic optimism, a place that is abstract and loose. East South East is the metaphysical meeting point of humans, struggling and hopeful.
Images courtesy of University Galleries of Illinois State University.
This article is published in conjunction with an interview with the artist on Sixty Inches From Center and is funded by the Illinois State University Friends of the Arts.
Keagen Davidson is an undergraduate at Illinois State University pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. His studio practice is primarily focused on digital moving images including video, computer animation, and VR. Davidson's most recent show Blink at Transpace Gallery displayed his color-based video experiments and drawings in conjunction with the poems of writer Zeph Webster.