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Brenda Pelkey: Haunts

By Gil McElroy November 25, 2002

} Brenda Pelkey: Haunts February 8-March 31, 2002 Art Gallery of Peterborough, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada In the darkness, seeing is a thing of a physiological reaction that forefronts the more plentiful variety of the eye's photoreceptors- the rods, responsive as they are to dim light-more so than its scanty cones, devices sensitive to color, detail, and the requisite brightness of day. The rods kick in, our eyes grow accustomed to the lack of light, and we slowly gain some degree of visual perception of our environment. To then suddenly and intensely illuminate what surrounds us is to evict the rods from their prominent role and so destroy our adaptation to the dark. It is to re-employ the cones and starkly show only that which is within the pool of illumination and to render the darkness beyond it more total, inaccessible, and even psychologically forbidding or menacing. Memento Mori 1996-99 (detail).laminated Ilfochrome on aluminum, 127 x 101.6 cm. Collection of the Canadian Museum for Contemporary Photography. The aesthetics of such a response to darkness and illumination figures largely in the recent work of Saskatchewan-based photographer BRENDA PELKEY. 'Haunts' at the Art Gallery of Peterborough is slightly edited down version of an exhibition first mounted in Nova Scotia (where some of these images were taken) comprised in large part of large-format Ilfochrome landscape images shot at night using powerful move lights and depicting forest scenes in which the foreground groups of trees are strongly lit, and the world beyond the light rendered visually inaccessible and forbidding. Forest II (2001) typifies this approach. Three apparently dead pine trees-rising like prickly columns-are starkly rendered within the photographic frame, foregrounded by the harsh light. A small illuminated area of the forest floor covered with mulch of dead pine needles recedes into a menacing blackness, only hinting at what might lay unseen beyond the light. Compounding the strategic use of artificial illumination is Pelkey's employment of the concepts of mirroring and reflection in constructing her works. Forest II is comprised of four separate framed panels-set into a rectangular shape of abutting frames, two over two-each of which contains the same photographic image in a flipped or reversed disposition, so that as a whole, they mirror each another horizontally as well as vertically. The edges of the abutting frames, then, work as the lines of those reflection from which emanate a symmetry of forms that verges on the abstract. The formula of such symmetry figures in all the pieces, from Forest III (2001), where a single large, gnarled tree, mirrored across eight panels, looms into the harsh light from the inky black of whatever lies beyond it, to Ocean (200), in which an image of a naturally lit seascape of rocks, placid water, and distant horizon is reflected and repeated across six panels, to the diptych Orchard (2001), a mirrored image of an apple tree in a field, its branches blurred by motion, lit by foreground lights and silhouetted by the dying remnants of a sunset beyond. Orchard 2001.Ilfochrome mounted on aluminum diptych,each panel 101.6 x 76.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist Given the centrality of the concept of the mirror in the construction of this work, it's hard to ignore the incursion of another possibly significant form of reflection in Pelkey's images. I mean, of course, the reflection off an image's protective glass (or, in this instance, Plexiglas) that situates the gallery observer within the piece. In most instances it's one of those factors that has absolutely nothing at all to do with the work at hand, a bothersome, albeit minor, irritant in the greater scheme of looking at things. But in Pelkey's work it cannot but come into play as a factor of some relevance. In the blackness out beyond the safe havens of illumination in her photographs, we meet up with a dis-ease and disquiet very much a part of the elemental human fear of the dark and the unknown. Projecting our fears into the images, we inevitably project a metaphorical image of ourselves. Brenda Pelkey's photographs substantiate the relationship. This review originally appeared in Art Papers Magazine, May/June 2002. The images for this article were provided by Mount Saint Vincent University's art gallery. They also have a review of the exhibit on their site ___________________________________________ Gil McElroy is a critic, independent curator, artist, and poet currently living in Colborne, Ontario. His latest books are Gravity & Grace: Selected Writing on Contemporary Canadian Art (Gaspereau Press), and a book of poetry, Dream Pool Essays (Talonbooks). View Gil's curriculum vitae.