Hide & Seek at Jan Brandt Gallery
By Erica Young
October 7, 2018
Early this week, I stopped into Jan Brandt Gallery to check out Chrissy LaMaster’s exhibit, Hide & Seek. I have to give an early disclaimer: I am a total casual. I like making art. I like going to museums and exhibits. I purchase originals from local artists. But this is not my normal Wednesday afternoon hangout spot. That being said, I heard about LaMaster’s exhibit and had to go check it out.
To lay some groundwork, I want to reference her artist statement. LaMaster says,
“The artworks contained in ‘Hide & Seek’ are a continuation of my interest in family photographs and their significance within the family as both document and memorial. These works in progress are a result of the manipulation of archival family photographs and my experimentation with new techniques and media. They are a part of my ongoing exploration of themes frequently found in my previous work, which include motherhood, domesticity, familial relationships, and the phenomenon of memory.”
First of all, awesome. I’m obsessed with family pictures and will comb tirelessly through my family’s photo albums. Anytime, anywhere, with anyone. It doesn’t even have to be my family. In fact, I have a couple of photos in my possession that are not of my family, but I treasure them dearly. If you invite me to your home, guard your family photos. I have this one picture of a couple. They are the parents of a boss of an acquaintance, and I keep that photo in my purse with me, at all times. They don’t know I have it. Is that creepy? Yes. But I’m not sorry. I LOVE FAMILY PHOTOS. I was already interested. The second thing that caught my eye was in the artist bio. “[LaMaster’s] primary areas of interest and research include gender studies, historical and contemporary representations of motherhood, and the history and theory of craft.” #topical. I love talking about femininity in the frame of motherhood (I’m also a casual feminist). This exhibit is already checking all of my boxes, and I haven’t even gotten into it. SO LET’S DO IT.
The first two photos similarly matted and printed: washed out black & grey photos printed as a 4x6 then matted into a much larger frame. Although it’s easy to pass up on white space, it’s important to remember that the artist could have done anything with that space. The choice to use such a large matte to portray empty space is intentional. It’s a sacrifice.
The first picture I walked up to showed two children in water. This was probably the most clearly printed image in the collection. I think this is important because where the women/mothers in the images are fading, the children are easily visible. You register the image immediately when you look at it. I don’t really know what I was supposed to get from this one, tbh. This is where my lack of art education is really showing. I felt that maybe there was some connection to the water and motherhood (wombs, water breaking, babies, I don’t know, there’s something there). Maybe too, the water represents an invisible support for the floating children. This was the image I felt the least connection to in the series, so I’m going to move on from it pretty quickly.
The next image showed a woman and two children. This is where things started to get real for me. The woman in the picture was holding a small child (2 or 3) with a slightly older child standing in front of her. The child in the front is printed pretty dark. My eyes went to her first. Only a little bit darker is the young child in the woman’s arms and then finally you look at the woman caring for them. This was is where the theme of Hide & Seek started to come through. While the mother was clearly visible, it took some time before I started to pay attention to her. I found it interesting that the blurred edges between the mother and the young child caused them to almost be seen as a singular being. Motherandchild. Inseparable. Towards the bottom of the image, her feet faded into the nothingness. To me it took some agency and independence from her. The parts of the body typically relied upon for transportation, running away, standing your ground, were gone.
The next set of pieces were three small foil squares hung in a line. I don’t think it was a coincidence that these items were reflective. Rather than having their own concrete color and light, they were subject to the light of the room, the reflection of the viewer, or the angle it was viewed at. It’s the most passive background I can think of besides complete transparency. Even being transparent would say something different. Where something clear shows a lack of pigmentation, of presence, the reflective foil is completely present but completely without its own identity.
The first of the three squares had a woman’s face printed on it, right in the middle, staring back at me. It almost felt like I was looking into a mirror. I like this idea in the frame of memory and the significance of family memory. It was like I was looking into a mirror and seeing my grandmother, young and beautiful, in my own reflection (although maybe taking ownership of another woman’s reflection is problematic and, in fact, the opposite of the artist’s goal). The way that the image was printed also seemed very intentional. The material it was printed on looked very thin and delicate, precarious. It reminded me of looking at old, aged and yellowed pictures of my grandparents or great-grandparents that can only be handled with the gentlest touch. Like if I handled it too roughly it would crumble and cease to exist. The material was held to the back of a shadow box with two small sewing pins stuck in the top corners. I would say this was just an aesthetic choice, but it was included in the description of the works made me wonder if it had some more significance than that. Aside from the obvious connection of sewing materials to traditional roles of women and motherhood, the pins had a messianic feel to me. The images were pinned to the backing like Christ on a cross, displaying the ultimate sacrifice and unconditional love that mothers give their children.
The second image in this style was the only one to not have a person in it. In all lowercase letters, it read, “are you here”. (I sacrificed grammatical correctness for clarity there because the punctuation was not in the image.) I feel like this one doesn’t need a whole lot of unpacking or explanation. If I’m looking in a mirror, and I’ll I’m seeing is a looming question about whether or not I’m present in my own reflection, maybe I’m not taking care of myself the way that I should be.
The last image was just a plain piece of foil with nothing printed on it.
BUT NO IT WASN’T.
I walked away from the piece initially because I thought there was nothing on it. I thought maybe I just didn’t understand whatever message LaMaster was trying to send her audience. As I was walking around the gallery looking at other collections, I heard the gallery owner, Jan Brandt, talking to another visitor about those pictures. She was talking about how she missed the image on it the first time she looked at. I walked back over and said, “There’s actually something there?!” Only after her carefully positioning me at an angle did I see the ghost of this woman printed in the foil paper. I got goosebumps. I walked right by her. To me, this was the epitome of Hide & Seek. Unless I went searching for her, unless someone told me how to find her, this woman would have been completely invisible to me. She was printed so softly that the light shining off of the paper camouflaged her entire image, distracted my eye from her presence. I think LaMaster was trying to tell me that I can still find her if I work for it, but if I don’t try, I’ll forget about her completely.
The idea isn’t particularly new. Motherhood and the loss of self have been connected in a lot of different ways in a lot of different mediums. I’m not even a mother, but I have heard a lot about this issue from other women in my life. It’s not the message or the idea that inspires me in this instance, but the way that LaMaster created the experience. It felt very personal. Probably because of my own excitement about old family pictures and heirlooms. I left feeling connected to the women of my family. This felt less like something that happened to someone else and more like something that happened to my own mother, my own grandmothers. I called my mom the next day, just to catch up with her. I’m her youngest kid, and we’ve all moved out. I always forget to call her. I know it’s hard on her. She loves being a mom. Sometimes I forget how hard she’s worked for us, and how much of her own desires she’s sacrificed. Hide & Seek made me remember to look for her.
This article is funded by the Illinois State University Friends of the Arts.
Erica Young is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Illinois State University in 2016 with a degree in Publishing Studies. Young currently lives and works in Bloomington, IL.