Last Thursday Dr. George Dimock, Associate Professor of Art History at UNCG, held a talk in the Weatherspoon Art Museum where he discussed the exhibition of Lucinda Devlin, “Sightlines.” This talk was the last related program surrounding Devlin’s photography, which is currently on display in The Bob & Lissa Shelley McDowell Gallery until late April.
Organized by the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the “Sightlines” exhibit features 83 photographs chosen from all eight of Devlin’s series. Devlin’s photography explores psychologically charged spaces that are absent of any human figures, yet carry tension and fascination of the contemporary lives of humans. These photographs serve as silent social observations on timely and socially relevant issues such as personal rights, the death penalty and agribusiness.
Devlin began her career in the 1970s during the genesis of color photography in America. She was early and consistent in providing color film that belonged in the world of fine art photography, a practice that hasn’t always been accepted. At the time, she took up not only color photography, but also the artistic approach of an objective or neutral point of view. This is highlighted by her choice of square format. Devlin never wanted her own personal opinions to shine through in her photographs; her silence is a refusal to let human drama impose her photos. She gives viewers a name, a place, a date and nothing more.
Her earliest series, “Pleasure Ground,” features droll images of thematic hotel rooms. The deadpan way in which Devlin photographs these places exposes them in all their fascinating morality. This objective documentary style of photography is prevalent in all of her succeeding series. She has continued to probe the meaning of places like zoos, amusement parks, tanning salons, health spas, hospitals, funeral homes, agricultural facilities, open fields and lastly, Lake Huron’s shoreline.
Her most provocative and best known series, “The Omega Suites,” features poignant images of sterile execution chambers and the apparatuses associated with them. They follow Devlin’s documentary style of objectivity, and are some of the most gripping prints in the exhibition. This series became internationally renowned, especially in Europe, because it was an inside look at a controversial and endlessly fascinating aspect of the American legal system. Though many tried to get Devlin to talk, she was insistent in not wanting her own personal views leak into the photos, something that she reiterated the night of Dimock’s talk.
Dimock’s Lecture, “The Poetics of Incongruity in the Photographs of Lucinda Devlin,” analyzed the motivation behind the photos and their relation to the history of photographic postmodernism. He explained why her neutral stance on the photos was so important, how viewers can’t ignore the formalist arrangements in her photographs, and how Devlin has added to the history of photography. It was a unique experience, because the artist herself was in the room and was able to answer questions at the end of the lecture. Devlin is an internationally recognized American photographer who now lives in Greensboro, and it was Dimock’s first talk in which the artist of whom he spoke was in the room.
Photography has always played with our understanding of truth and beauty as concepts in art, more so than any other medium. Over the past forty years, Lucinda Devlin has made images that look like records of the world, but actually encompass a vision of troubled times, graced by a formalist perspective. They teeter on this edge of form and concept which makes them endlessly compelling from both a formalist perspective and from a theoretical perspective. It is an amazing show that everyone should make time to check out while it is still on display.
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