Increasingly absent from image culture’s pageant of tourism, lifestyle, obsolescence and urban sublime is evidence of the impulses that once allowed “fine art photography” to offer refuge to personal sensibilities like the poetic. Seton Smith managed the poetic along with well-reasoned physicality in this exhibition of nine chromogenic photographs (some 72 inches square, others 30 inches square). Smith foregrounds characteristics of the photographic print evoking (for those who remember it) Super 8 film, specifically the fuzzy grain and the blur of motion-an effect which often appears in narrative cinema and television to indicate nostalgia. In some works here Smith projects this “warm” sensibility onto “cool” environs-unpopulated interiors of Vienna’s renowned Secession building. Architectural details are marginalized in her lens’s sweep of rarefied Viennese air. Smith’s inquisitive drift of images recalls the camera work in the dubious “paranormal investigation” programs on cable television. Looking and Looking Up (both 2007) situate the artist on a staircase of the Secession, providing beautiful demonstrations of photography’s long-standing “absence and presence” conceit; the works settle on ostensible vacancies that upon enlargement provide the viewer with a great deal to see.
Indoors, Smith’s lyricism is almost feverish; outdoors, she regains composure. Tweaking our anxieties with a series of ordinary houses, she stalks the perimeters of the properties on which the structures stand. An unsettling mood of trespass prevails. One shadowy home is glimpsed through a bush, another has holiday lights up in summer. In Side of House with Addition (2009), an extra story has been built below the roof of a modest dwelling, attracting the artist’s mechanized eye. As in Jeff Wall’s occasional unaltered “straight” images, we regard Smith’s houses with mild apprehension and intensified scrutiny, wondering what knowledge the artist withholds from us. Something of a breather was provided by Paper Room #5 (2006)-bushes and trees viewed from below against the sky.
The idea of selective memory could suggest an editing room in the brain littered with images deemed either “too early” or “too late” to represent the events that make the official recollection folder. Smith might relish sorting through these compelling outtakes. The signals sent by her photographs are the same ones conveyed by cinema and painting at their most conceptually challenging, taking us aback-a rare place to find oneself in a Chelsea gallery.
Photo: Seton Smith: Side of House with Addition, 2009, chromogenic print facemounted to Plexiglas and aluminum brace, 72 inches square; at Winston Wächter.