Born Detroit, 1981/BA, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin/MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan/Lives in Hamtramck, Michigan
Lauren Semivan’s enigmatic, tour de force black and white photographs—no color, no digital—are shot with an early 20th century, large-format, tripod-mounted camera. The realization of her mystifying tableaus entails sheets of film, reams of negatives, and even the use of a home darkroom. Semivan’s retardataire, hands-on practice is akin to other recent throwbacks that captivate millennials and boomers alike, including old fashioned acoustic instruments, vinyl, and flip phones.
Semivan’s images are, however, quintessentially contemporary inventions. Despite the cumbersome, antique equipment, her interdisciplinary mosaics of abstraction, process and performative procedures, staged (or set-up) scenes, and her pictorial perception of the oft thrumming tensions between conscious and subconscious states of mind, yield psychodramas at once rational and irrational. Her artist statements, albeit tinged with surrealist overtones, reiterate the unease aroused by her photographs: “The images often contain something of the everyday to ground them, juxtaposed with something extraordinary or out of the world to set them free from the realm of the everyday. I use my own body within the work to anchor the images within a place of dreams and personal emotions.” Decidedly not the lingo of a straight or “decisive moment” photographer. Her teachers at Wisconsin’s Lawrence University, Julie Lindemann and John Shimon, plus critic Lyle Rexer (The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, 2009), were particularly influential on the evolution of Semivan’s sensibility.
Like many artists, Semivan works in series, aggregates of thirty or more images born of hours improvising in a modest, 10’ x 12’ studio: painting and repainting wallboard; moving domestic furnishings in and out; stringing string, wire, and thread; festooning fabric; wielding charcoal and chalk; and choreographing the occasional walk-ons into her mise-en-scenes. Recent bodies of work, often under construction for two or three years, include “Pitch” (2015-17), “Observatory” (2010 -14/15), and “Pataphysics” (2004-06).
Even a partial installation view of “Pitch“ (2017) illustrates the varied sizes, vertical and horizontal orientations, and visual impact of her multi-part, black and white ensembles. Two vignettes from the series, Anchor and Seven Sisters, both 2017, conjure up contrasting states of mind. The centripetal composition of the former, anchored within rectilinear parameters, is stabilized as well by its arching, concentric curves of paint, ribbons and chalk. The taut, linear structure of Seven Sisters, indexing the now demolished smokestacks that once ranged along the Detroit River, is spare and spacious, its entire left side invitingly offering wide-open, boundary-free vistas. Alternately, Flour, Chalk, Feathers, also 2017, sucks one into a rather bleakly somber milieu replete with wispy feathers and dark, random splotches of paint on a small, battered table isolated against a gaping, pitch black background.
Conversely, “Observatory” is laden with likenesses of Semivan, visible in partial and often obscured views, whose appearance, per the artist, “grounds” and personalizes her dream-like narratives. In gallery installations, the gallerist usually sequences the images, but in the 2017 publication of “Observatory” as a picture book, Semivan laid out the chronology of 44 pictures herself. Fully half of them include the artist in nuanced poses and gestures that signal the volatile emotional solos being enacted. Tellingly, Semivan is present in both the first and last illustrations of the book, in effect bracketing the existential dilemmas of her dramatis persona. In Drawn (2015), for example, shot in front of a motley background of fabric, tulle, and paint, her hand reaches in from the right to stretch and “draw” multiple strands of string suspended in space. In Wind 2 (2012), her immovable, defiant head at bottom right withstands a gust of wind from behind that not only whips her hair across her face, but simultaneously propels in a parallel direction the horizontal threads, lines, and rivulets of paint above her. And, as if reasserting control in Labyrinth (2010), her half-length figure, with back turned to the viewer, raises her arm to free herself from the web of threads and wires swirling about.
Mirror (2010), another episode from “Observatory,” while minus a human presence, is dominated by the yawning, black void of a circular looking glass. Save for the reflection of a glowing, white drift of tulle, only one other dim shape is visible within the black ring. Semivan’s vintage camera is glimpsed there, lurking. It—and the photographer—are the elemental agents that perpetrate the shifting scenes and fluctuating moods of these cryptic scenarios. Who, after all, can resist Semivan’s avowal to fathom the inner recesses of the human vessel: “I consider photography to be both a tool for escape, and an instrument for self-knowledge: a door into the dark.” There, in darkness and solitude, eye-opening epiphanies, dramas, enigmas, and more await.
Dennis Alan Nawrocki, October 2017
Copyright Essay’d 2017