Project Series 7: Elizabeth Saveri
For several years, Elizabeth Saveri has been creating site-specific painting installations based on movement and daily experience. Using the languages of film, photography, and painting, Saveri's body of work exhibited here, combines depictions of places the artist inhabits and of objects she observes, or thinks about, while moving through those spaces. At the Pomona College Museum of Art, she brought together four new, related, series of work, including 360 Degrees in My Apartment, Drive to the Studio, Drive to Work, and The Claremont Series (all 2000, all oil on wood). With an implied linear narrative, the four series together created a single experience that reflects Saveri's take on the world.
Influenced by the film industry of her native Los Angeles, Saveri incorporates a variety of filmic devices into her work-close-ups, pan shots, and blurs-to suggest her movements around and through spaces. These devices enhance the linear narrative, or the storyline, that Saveri created here through her use of 70 small paintings, ranging in size from 1 ½ inch square to 8 by 10 inches. Influenced by photography, she compares her paintings to casual snapshots. In fact, her paintings stem from photographs the artist takes when first beginning a project.
The first series that was encountered by the viewer, 360 Degrees in My Apartment, consisted primarily of paintings that depict the living room of Saveri's home. The actual paintings themselves, as well as the paintings' placement on the wall, reflect the implied action of the artist and a viewer. Beginning and ending with a close-up of the artist's shoes, the viewer is essentially standing in the apartment, looking around the room while doing a complete turn. The larger paintings in this series represent images closer to the viewer, while the smaller shots represent objects in the distance.
Saveri presented the second and third group of paintings, Drive to Work and Drive to the Studio, after the 360 Degrees in My Apartment paintings because they reflect a continuation of the artist's daily experience. The two series start linked together as she leaves her house and heads toward the 110 freeway, but diverge as her commutes diverge, one path toward downtown Los Angeles and her studio, the other toward West Los Angeles and her job.
In The Claremont Series, Saveri continues to explore a new direction in her work by depicting the gallery where the work was shown and where the viewer experienced the paintings. Here, she has expanded this idea to include 35 paintings that chronologically represent her association with Pomona College Museum of Art. They show her first drive to Claremont on a foggy day and her first visit to the Gallery during the Pomona College Student Exhibition. Continuing with her next visit on a sunny day, the series shows the Gallery in the renovation process. Further visits continue to show the progress of the Gallery as it nears completion.
The work of Elizabeth Saveri was the seventh exhibition in Pomona College Museum of Art's Project Series. The exhibition also inaugurates the newly redesigned gallery for the Project Series, and because of the site-specific nature of her work, seemed a complementary choice for the opening of a new exhibition season. This exhibition represented a document not only of her work, but also of major changes undertaken at the Museum over the 2000 summer. The Project Series' ongoing program of small exhibitions brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts. During each exhibition, participating artists worked with faculty and students in relevant disciplines.
Essay by Colin Gardner
"I always mistrust everything which I see, which an image shows me, because I imagine what is beyond it. And what is beyond an image cannot be known."
Elizabeth Saveri works in the interval between painting, cinema and photography, deriving her intimate, postcard-sized paintings from snapshots but arranging them in linear, narrative-based installations that resemble a movie storyboard or a series of freeze-frames. Although, unlike a real film, the images don't actually move, they signify the language and codes of cinematic movement through direct allusion to filmic devices such as establishing and panning shots, close-ups, tilted angles, jump cuts and swish pans. Yet, it is important to note that the result is far from photo-realistic. Much as Giorgio Morandi does in his compellingly intimate still-lifes, Saveri uses a painterly, highly tactile medium (oil paint on wood) both to reinforce the flatness of the picture plane and to accentuate the object-like qualities of the image's ground. This combination of the photographic and the painterly serves to cubicize and fracture the implied movement and continuity of the constructed filmic space, allowing the work to lie in the interstices between different mediated languages, but also to occupy a new phenomenological space that lies somewhere between movement and stasis, continuity and fracture.
The paintings themselves are subjective depictions of how the artist moves through and experiences a particular space -- her drive to the office, walks through her house and studio -- while she is actually making the work. Saveri also included fragmented representations of the Pomona College Museum of Art (pre- and post-renovation) where the paintings were exhibited, so that the spectator was be able to engage the space phenomenologically (texturally) through their bodily experience, but also representationally (textually) through Saveri's combination of mediated languages. The work thus acts as a form of spatio-temporal record of the act of creation as well as an ongoing index of the inevitably mediated nature of artistic reception.
Arranged in parallel suites of discrete images, the paintings also attempt to capture the experience -- psychological as well as physical -- of being in several different spaces at the same time, much like the cinematic effect of cross-cutting or parallel editing. We've all experienced this condition, particularly when we're driving on the freeway or making our regular commute to work. We're half looking at what's in front of us or occasionally checking our rear-view mirror, but we're also lost in our own thoughts, thinking about where we've come from ("Did I leave the oven on?" "Did I remember to lock the kitchen door?"), where we're going, and what we're going to do when we get there. Perhaps the most famous example of this temporal disjuncture in film is in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, when Janet Leigh's Marion Crane flees Phoenix with her employer's stolen money and, as she drives, conjures up paranoid images of what is probably going on in her absence. In both Hitchcock's and Saveri's narratives, clear spatio-temporal relativity is thus replaced by an unsettling form of psychological incommensurability, so that "here" is folded into "there," "now" becomes indistinguishable from "then" and "if." Place is thus less a fixed point or frame of reference than an always shifting temporal flux or spatial line of flight.
We see the effects of this phenomenon in a series of seven, 4" x 6" paintings depicting the artist's drive out to Claremont during repeated visits to the Museum itself. One group of three represents a point-of-view shot through the car windshield of the road ahead with the steering wheel dominating the shot in the immediate foreground. The enveloping gray sky gives a sense of enclosure and claustrophobia despite the implied movement of being "on the road." Another series of three depicts the same mise-en-scène, yet the sky is now blue, lifting the atmospheric gloom and creating a greater sense of forward movement and adventure. Several questions remain however: How do we mentally order and match these rather repetitive vignettes to create a logically coherent narrative? Are they representations of the same trip or two separate commutes? Is one a literal, material space, the other an imagined, psychological "dreamwork," whereby memories or fantasies of a previous journey are superimposed on the "present" one to the point where the two are indistinguishable?
Perhaps a clue lies in the seventh vignette: a single image shot through the driver's side window. We see an out-of-focus bus moving from right to left while the camera eye focuses on a group of faceless, albeit more sharply-defined houses behind a freeway wall. Glimpsed while briefly taking one's eyes off the road ahead, this view is typical of those seemingly inconsequential in-between images that gain added resonance when taken out of context and isolated from the cinematic flow of the rest of the group. It's a good example of painting's unique ability to conjure a palpable and affecting (because vaguely discomforting) space, one that cinema necessarily overlooks because, by virtue of the fact that it moves, it is committed to a more teleologically driven narrative.
Saveri seems to be suggesting that there's a different kind of narrative going on here, producing a space that's more than the sum of the fragmented parts actually depicted in the paintings. This ineffable space -- beyond the bounds of the image and therefore unable to be known (although it can be felt) -- represents a more abstract experience than that generated by the literal movement-image of cinema. It is, rather, a time-image that encapsulates the immanent substantive domain that lies in the gaps or intervals between the discrete shots or painted images. Saveri's work is thus an attempt to represent what is not there as much as what is there, through the co-existence of parallel narratives braided and interlocked through filmic cross-cutting.
The ramifications of this hidden domain can be seen in one of the largest suites of paintings in the exhibit, 360 Degrees in My Apartment. The work consists of 21 freeze-frames of an imaginary 360° pan from left to right around Saveri's living space. The result is a cubistic series of point-of-view shots of what the artist sees as she walks around the room, with smaller paintings representing the equivalent of long shots, larger works signifying close-ups or inserts . We thus begin on a close shot, angled down on a pair of the artist's flip-flops against a green ground. The arrangement of paintings on the gallery wall then curves in an upward arc to the right before settling on a predominantly horizontal trajectory, as if our eyes (or the camera) are leaving the floor and then scanning the rest of the room at normal eye level. We then see a medium shot of a glass-topped coffee table before panning up to take in a couch by the window, passing a picture on the wall, and so on around the room, until we end up where we started, with the same angle down on the artist's shoes.
It becomes immediately obvious however that this is not a smoothly objective pan but rather a highly subjective and fractured equivalent of a hand-held traveling shot that involves us physically walking around the perimeter of the room instead of pivoting on one spot. Certain details are dwelled upon -- Saveri's bookcase with its toy figures from the film, The Planet of the Apes; three separate shots of the television, each with a different image on the screen as if the camera had become a surrogate remote control -- while others are quickly glossed over or omitted altogether -- a brief peek into the kitchen, a rapid scan of Saveri's collection of wall paintings leaving out all recognizable details. If this were indeed a film, these points of emphasis would be signified by inserts and close-ups, while the omissions would be marked by edits and splices. Depending on the smoothness of the camera movement and the director's anticipation or deliberate frustration of what we wanted to see, many of these edits would be invisible or at least seen as a necessary evil in generating a purely subjective vision of the artist's domestic space.
However, by translating the filmic into the painterly, Saveri accentuates the gaps between images not as invisible cinematic splices but as an actual material space -- that of the gallery wall. The white exhibition surface thus makes manifest the spatio-temporal ellipse -- the space of between -- as something concrete and tangible, as a world to be opened up in the mind's eye of the spectator as yet another parallel narrative movement to be read in addition to those actually depicted in the images themselves.
As spectators we start to wonder what has been left out in the narrative continuum and start to ask "why?" and "what if?" -- in short, to impose our own psychological and phenomenological interpretation of events. Why don't we get to see inside the kitchen? Where's the bedroom? Why so much focus on the television at the expense of the paintings? Why do we get to see a seemingly arbitrary close-up of the ceiling lamp instead of say, Saveri's CD collection? We start to mistrust everything we see and to imagine what is beyond it. Although this "beyond" cannot be directly known, it can be imagined. Saveri's "obsessive compulsion" with her day-to-day existence becomes the catalyst for our own compulsion of "reading between the lines," of gazing into the abyss that lies between the images. Hitchcock, who made a career from transforming benign domestic spaces into the very stuff of horror, would almost certainly have seen Saveri as a kindred spirit. After all, we never did see the shower, did we?
Colin Gardner is Assistant Professor of Art Theory & Criticism and also teaches in Film Studies at U.C. Santa Barbara.