Kelli Connell: Double Life
Lawndale Art Center
Kelli Connell could be considered a member of what New York Times critic Richard Woodward recently dubbed “The Photoshop Generation.” Her installation in the mezzanine gallery of Lawndale Art Center consists of ten medium-scale color photographs, printed from digitally manipulated negatives, that combine two images of the same model in a single print. The real interest of these pictures, however, lies not in this act of technical trickery, but in the vivid form Connell gives to the divided, shifting complexity of self and identity.
In pursuing these issues, Connell’s work falls within a tradition of Surrealist photography in which fragmented figures and double exposures gave form to the multifaceted, dynamic unconscious, replacing the concept of an undivided original self. Connell’s work also undoubtedly relates to role-playing and gender politics, and makes visible reference to Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. But Connell’s presentation of multiplicity is more uncanny than Sherman’s because of the seamless incorporation of two selves in otherwise believable images. Thus, through body language and expression, we watch fragmented selves play out the dynamics of a romantic relationship: they flirt at a café, picnic, make out, fight and in the end, make up. It’s an old tale, but in this case, one of self gets self, self loses self and, finally, self gets self back again.
In some ways, this familiar narrative structure intensifies the disconcerting effects of Connell’s work. I found that I simply couldn’t help but read the figures as two separate characters with one part of my mind, even as the other part knew that these characters were the same physical being. By means of this tension, Connell affects a split in the viewer’s self, just as she has split her model, through multiple exposures. The artist also clearly finds her model to be something of a surrogate for her own multiplicity.
Kelli Connell, Convertible Kiss, 2002
36 x 48 inches
However, because Connell shows her model from variety of angles—and in different clothing and hairstyles—it is difficult to track any of the figures from image to image. The result is not so much the representation of a split personality, but rather the many different sides of the self—pushing toward and pulling away from each other but always linked, like magnetic poles. In this respect, Connell may also do herself a disservice by forcing these pictures into a cliché narrative, even as that incorporation allows her to play on our expectations of photography’s storytelling ability. Photographs such as Convertible Kiss—with its tender, throbbing energy—reveal Connell’s ability to capture human emotion and character on an extraordinarily subtle yet powerful level. Her more anecdotal pictures, such as Brickhaus Café and Kitchen Tension, lack that subtlety precisely because they are forced to carry more defined narrative content.
Connell’s photographs are far more beguiling and suggestive when the narrative content works on a smaller scale and is less transparent. Sunday Afternoon, for instance, makes overt the sexuality merely implied in the half-eaten apples and furtive Polaroids (more selves!) of Picnic, and advances the foreplay of Convertible Kiss. In Sunday Afternoon, half-naked Connell kneels on a couch over her nude, supine double. By preserving this state of suspended separation, however, the picture speaks in part to the failure of sex to provide the connection promised in the pulsing optimism of Convertible Kiss. It seems that, as Freud said, there is no sexual relation, even between one’s own selves.
Kelli Connell, Brickhaus Café, 2002
30 x 40 inches
Connell’s work is at its best, finally, in the consecutive images Interrupted and The Conversation. In the former picture, the selves simultaneously regard a third, a figure, shown with its back to the viewer. The radically slanting perspective of the wall behind the figures lends the scene an emotional intensity. The subsequent picture gives vivid, almost raw form to feelings of insecurity, ambivalence and anger, perhaps caused in part by this intrusion as the selves huddle in painful conversation.
The doubled selves of these pictures undoubtedly provide much of their strangeness and intellectual energy, but these photographs would appear flat and gimmicky were it not for Connell’s ability to evoke—but not define or circumscribe—ineffable states of mind and emotions in glimpsed moments of seemingly ordinary poses.