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From here to reality: Eileen Neff at the ICA


Anecdote of the Tree
Eileen Neff, Anecdote of the Tree, 1999-2000, c print mounted on Cintra, 44 x 64 inches, collection of the Philadelphia Musuem of Art

Eileen Neff’s
photography-based art does the kind of work that every art photograph needs to do–it asks questions about the nature of reality, the nature of perception and the nature of the art object. Neff’s one-artist show Between Us at the Institute of Contemporary Art, includes 31 works, most of them photography based. Neff is a Philadelphia artist, and it’s second outing at the ICA, the other in 1992. (That same show was installed in Artists Space the same year.) I take this second ICA exhibit is a sign of extraordinary, and well deserved respect.

Neff’s work asks–
Is what I see real?
Is this what I see?
Is this vision in my eye?
Is this vision in my mind?
And how about your mind, your eye, your point of view, your reality?

So the work stands on a slippery slope, where its footing threatens at any moment to slip out from under the art work and plunge us into some sense of shaky paranormality. On the surface, at first glance in many of Neff’s works, things look normal, real. Nature has trees and greenery and reflective water. Roads enter the woods. Furniture has angles and perspectives.

Night Falls
Eileen Neff, Night Falls, c-print, 40 x 110 3/4, courtesy the artist and Locks Gallery

But there’s a slight offness. The road’s angle looks slightly wrong–right enough to pass as right in a painting, but this is a photograph. The moving landscape is a convention and result of the photographic image. It’s not how we really perceive a landscape as we speed by. And next to it, a less streaky landscape resides. Neff suggests both are real–and not. She also suggests they are coeval. Perhaps they are. Perhaps the camera version and the naked eye version get taken in all at once. Perhaps not. The furniture, a mix of photography and foam core, a mix of 2- and 3-D thinking, are curiously flattened by the third dimension in their construction, which puts the lie to the trompe l’oeil perspective.

These untruths in the images manage to pass for the real at the same time that they question the real. When I look at Neff’s work, I feel a presence that I can’t pin down. It’s the presence of Neff’s own perception and how it differs from what I know to be true through my own perceptions.

What’s marvelous, to me, is not so much the poetry that everyone talks about in her work. It’s her presence, the moment that she takes in a breath and then expels the air, so slightly changed that the changes are barely visible.

Circle in the Rain
Circle in the Rain, 2007, c-print mounted on aluminum, 15 x 28 1/2 inches, courtesy the artist and Locks Gallery

Neff’s works can be read from left to right, top to bottom, and as the eye progresses, the meaning changes, the reality changes, and the time changes. In “Five, for example,” her five different images of the sea are layered like a book. Each image shows different light, a different moment, perhaps a different locale (perhaps not). Unlike Vija Celmins’ one-layer sea drawings, which also go edge to edge, suggesting the an expansive space beyond the edges, Neff’s edge-to-edge photos, in their serial format, suggest an expansive time beyond the edges. Each page is not from the same moment. Each page is read at a different moment. All of these pages coexist, yet we take them in across time.

The conceptual and contemplative qualities, the slyness and subdued humor in Neff’s work, requires slowing down to allow the questions and ideas there to sink in. Some of those ideas are about painting, as in the layered grid created by a blurry abstraction of a landscape in This and That, or the striped field of The Field and the Plane. She questions the art rectangle and the landscape, slicing some of her paintings into halves, like rooms. She brings the outside inside, also. She jiggers perspectives and sometimes shamelessly challenges verisimilitude.

Summer (The Couple) cropped
Eileen Neff, Summer (The Couple) cropped, 2007, c-print mounted on aluminum, 40 x 63 1/4 inches, courtesy the artist and Locks Gallery

This is smart work and challenging work that’s easy on the long-term long look.

The ICA has done Neff a disservice, pairing her with Ensemble (see Roberta’s post for more), the show downstairs of noise-maker art–an exhibit I enjoyed, but also resented as I went through Neff’s work. It was like trying to listen for a whisper next to the clamor of a locomotive.

Neff, who exhibits at the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, has won numerous awards and honors, including locally a Pew Fellowship, a Leeway, and a residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.