Article

Suzanne Szucs reviews a show of photographs at the Washington Galleries in Duluth (on Lake Avenue and Second Street in Duluth). She finds the innovations in technique intriguing.
February 2, 2005
Captured Essence
Shannon Cousin and Laura Hjelm, "Captured Essence of Fog and Steam," gelatin silver prints.

Captured Essence

Many people feel that photography is never so close to art as when it makes a little mess. The nature of the medium itself is so controlling, that many photographers long for the brushstrokes and plasticity of other mediums. In their recent exhibition, "Following Intuition," at the Washington Galleries in Duluth, Shannon Cousino, Laura Hjelm and Michael Cousino pay homage to this desire, creating work in which their photographs are merely the starting point.


Shannon Cousino and Laura Hjelm have collaborated for the first time on a series of photographs that are intended to exemplify the mystery of light. By using the darkroom technique of painting on the developing chemicals rather than submerging the entire print, they create an effect of imagery that is emerging from or fading into the paper.


Cousino has been working with this technique through several projects and with this group, she has finally gotten a handle on the process. The silver glows in the best of them, browns of fixer stains contrast with the fog of undeveloped imagery. In a medium that demands control, she and Hjelm have persevered in making this process work for them in expressing the content of their imagery.


The collaborators use poetic titles to complement their dreamlike images. The best pieces create surreal narratives where light is meant to be full and blinding. To Stop the World features two 8”x 10”prints aligned to display a woman lying on a bier of sticks. A distorted figure extending like Christ on his funeral bed, she grasps her belly – white light glowing within cream and grey. Her surrounding body is dark and heavy, the silver like lead. With this image they have created a powerful metaphor for the creative instinct (and some would say in particular feminine creative power) – its conflicting burden and liberation.


Although other images are as strong (Frozen in the Land of the Bronze Dead I, Cosmic Decoy), there are too many views of this particular idea, diluting the overall effect and mystery of the images that work best. Certainly Cousino and Hjelm can make beautiful images, but it’s easy to get caught up in the seduction of this technique because each print is unique. However not all are equally good – they need to become better editors.


Captured Essence of Fog and Steam does something a little different and quite welcome. It is one of a group of pieces where they put together multiple sheets of paper to create symmetrical or repetitive images. Mysterious, dreamlike narratives are created and the nature of memory is challenged.


This collaboration seems to be a good one for both women. Able to use each other as models and to test technique in the darkroom, they appear to be able to get at their shared vision and self-exploration more directly.


If Shannon Cousino and Laura Hjelm choose a soft, painterly approach, Shannon’s husband, Michael, chooses a hard, sculptor’s perspective. Precise photographs of decaying architectural spaces are attached to wood (sometimes appropriated from that space) or brushed steal and coated with resin. These pieces are pristine and structured. Although about place, they have an analytical quality rather than a romantic one. If nostalgia exists, it is that of the reliquary – bones preserved in an ornate housing. Even the titles refer to scientific analysis (#5041-32, #60435-41), which might convey information, but certainly doesn’t suggest how you should feel about what you are looking at.


Unlike his wife’s work, his approach is classical and refined, with no room for mistake. The work transforms loss and history into something new and Cousino’s sensibility towards his materials creates desire for them. It is an interior homage, as the photographs represent the insides – industrial cathedrals collapsing. There are no exterior views, with place seeming less important than light and design.


Like the structure of the buildings, Cousino sticks to linear forms. The photographic images are all whole, encapsulated; the edges and surfaces of the wood are meticulously sanded, sanitized. I remember on a trip to Italy, peering into a reliquary labeled santos misto – “mixed saints.” This type of desperation – of throwing in whatever you’ve got to get to the point – just doesn’t exist in Cousino’s work, it’s too tight. I long for a torn photo, a jagged edge, something to fill my desire with dread and the pain of loss, not only the beauty. He comes closest in #40437-144, allowing the cuts and marks on the wood to challenge the image.


The artists made a good decision moving us first through the sublime imagery of Michael Cousino before visiting the work of Shannon Cousino and Laura Hjelm. Their work seems to add the emotive quality of memory and loss that his work structurally transforms and celebrates.

MN Artists