An American in Paris (Alexandra Hedison)

There are always LOTS of Americans in Paris, so that’s a silly title, but I couldn’t help myself. Most of the photography action here this week — this month, really — is in the 6e arrondissement and over in the Grand Palais in the 8e. But I was strolling past the Pantheon last week and was lucky enough to spot the entrance to a photographic exhibit in the Mairie. Alexandra Hedison filled a wonderful two-level space with images from a number of her projects dating back about two decades (though with the heaviest representation in the last ten years) and extending to the present.

Hedison is a Los Angeles based photographer, and this is her first Paris show, though not her first European show (she has shown in London and in Cascais, Portugal, and frequently in the US). In fact, in a blast of richness appropriate to this photo-rich month, she has two exhibits in Paris this month, the other at H Gallery, that one presenting her project The In Between (see below).  In addition to the serendipity of stumbling across this compelling exhibit, I am struck by the ways in which her work, though she doesn’t label it as historical, reflects an urgent sense of time passing and “things” changing.

She is aware of loving to work with and reflect on THINGS— well, and places. There are really no people in these projects — no, no, I just found one, in the project Elements — but they are all over the “thing” changes.

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Untitled, Castillo, 2003From the series Elements. This and all images in this post are copyright Alexandra Hedison.

There are people implied, their questions present, even when the photographs reflect the densest, least disturbed natural process (such as the project called Ithaka, photographs of the riotous green trees and foliage and ground cover of the Olympic National Forest in Washington state).

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Untitled, (Ithaka VII, IX, X), 2008. The title Ithaka was inspired by C. P. Cavafy’s poem of the same name.

Hedison creates a refreshingly existential approach to that forest. We don’t read about the wondrous beauty, the spiritual magnificence, the breathtaking splendor (sorry, I got carried away thinking of the usual well-deserved hyperbole) of those trees. Instead she tells us how she discovered her own simultaneous reluctance and compulsion at being drawn so deep into the forest, even though her assistants were close at hand. She is not dissing the trees. She is honoring them.

For me the most historically moving project represented in these working prints (the name of the Mairie is 10 days, 20 years)  is Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, about the houses on the beach in Malibu, California, where she grew up. In this short video, Hedison talks about the sense of change and impermanence that drives much of her work, and its roots in the ocean water rushing under her Malibu house, and rushing out again, every day of her childhood there. The video also shows some of her work, as well as her AT work, on this project.

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Untitled #7 (Nowhere), 2012.

A lovely interview with Amanda Quinn Olivar in a recent edition of Curator details the process of taking the Nowhere photos and then processing them, layering sometimes fifty photos taken over a period of 4 years, with a number of cameras in a number of formats. The photos range from representational and evocative (a swing attached to the pilings that hold up the house) to abstract and interrogatory. This was a very personal project, as she told Olivar, and the poignant details show that.

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Untitled #6 (Nowhere), 2012.

Most of the projects here — with the exception of Ithaka, I feel — play with the modulation of the concrete and representational to the abstract, and back again. I find myself drawn in photography to pictures of people, places, and things, as we learned to depict and delimit nouns in elementary school. Yet I also found in, for example, the Rebuilding project, that the journey from the building materials and the shrouded possessions to the shapes and forms and colors not only made sense, but was visually and intellectually rewarding.

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Shroud II (Rebuilding), 2006.

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Shroud I (Rebuilding), 2006.

These are among the most concrete photographs in this project. Often Hedison’s photos seem abstract but are arguably, even at their most abstract, figurative, as the curator at H Gallery commented about the In Between photos. The first photo below is from the Elements series; the next two from In Between.

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Untitled (Curtain I), from the Elements series2003.

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Found Paintings #4 (The In Between), 2017.

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Found Paintings #22 (The In Between), 2017.

You can’t really see that I’ve chosen one of the most abstract of the Rebuilding photos, and two of the more thing-revealing (place revealing) photos from In Between. So within and between the projects there is that modulation.

Being in between is a state Hedison explores in many — probably all — her projects, including the Ithaka trees project. She tells Olivar in the interview cited above, “For me, that forest work was about being lost. It was about the in-between states, these states of suspension, and it’s the same theme that I’ve addressed over and over again in my work in different ways. It’s not here or there; it’s something in between. It’s about right now.” That really also addresses the historian’s work as well — capturing and articulating the “in between,” what we usually call (maybe more prosaically or grandiosely), “change over time.” As an aside, when as a profession we started to figure out how to write social history, in the dark ages when I was an undergraduate, that’s what we were after: the in between. But I digress.

In Between comprises Paris shop windows between proprietors and documents the changes in the windows as the new owners establish their presence. This show is still hung at H Gallery, at 90, rue de la Folie-Méricourt  in the 11e, until the end of November. Hedison chose to hang this show in Paris as a memorial and tribute to this city she loves two years after the horrific Bataclan terrorist attacks, not far from the gallery.

I love the textures of the swirly paint and paste that hide the new interiors, and I am amused by the details that Hedison noticed and brought to our attention. And talk about history. Sure, these are micro-stories and pretty short term, but for historians, again, it is ALL about the in-between. If it’s not, we are ready for retraining.

I was pulled in by the sample of this project hung at the Mairie, and what is even more evident at H Gallery is the playfulness and challenge of rendering texture in a flat photograph. Yeah, I know, we do it all the time. But in this case, Hedison has captured window obscurations that include collages as well as thickly swirled paint and paste.

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Found Paintings #33 (The In Between), 2017.

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Found Paintings #1 (The In Between), 2017.

Those are so vivid that the viewer is pulled closer, peering in to make sure the artist hasn’t done a multimedia trick. This takes me back to my puzzling over the “surfaceness of the picture surface” (Greenberg, of course) re: the Florence Biennale. I kind of start to get it, here.

The other modulation is from everywhere to somewhere specific. Here’s the Paris roofline reflected in one of the shop windows:

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Found Paintings #12 (The In Between), 2017.

Here are the warmly glowing ceiling lights peeking through the tortured, textured, scratched-at paste hiding the work in progress.

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Found Paintings #16 (The In Between), 2017.

Much of her work is with large and medium format cameras, and of course the detail shows this. In pretty much all the projects, the prints are large to huge (speaking technically). At 10 days, 20 years the prints were hung on wires with clips. Brilliant and approachable. The H Gallery prints are framed in such a way that they look like a semi-permanent feature of the walls — appropriate to a place-bound tribute to this city.

Hedison will return to Paris in April for the Art Paris Art Fair 2018 edition.

(Photographs used with permission of the photographer.)

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