Donna-Lee Phillips, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum


In one of her photo-text sequences, Donna-Lee Phillips’ fictional character asks, “Who remembers?” The answer, in the form of another question, comes later, in another piece: “If it weren’t for photographs, who would know?” Phillips explores the relationship between remembering, knowing and substantiation through photographs—memory as a problem solved by a device.

The woman Phillips directs in her five sequences often acts out her life in front of a mirror, sitting at a vanity. At the other times, the camera functions as a mirror. In one, a man in the background waits for the woman to get made up to go out: in her mind’s background is an inner monologue of memories and questions. The props are make-up, combs, mirror and reflection. Her style is an interrogation of beauty, love, aging, disquiet and social control. She thinks of what she used to look like (plain, the way her husband married her, she was still pretty in an old photograph) and what she now knows (repression, anxiety, aging visage). “Why was she so restless?” The last photograph in a certain sequence is an underplayed shocker. About 10 deadpanned images (one with the husband’s tie looming in the back) give way to torture: a small hair comb clutched desperately out of the side of her mouth, contorted hands strain to get the hair in place.

She asks so many questions now because it was always denied her as a woman, the right to question. “We didn’t ask then. No one told us. You married. That was it. I was happy.” The photographs in the longest set are like stills from a movie. The same actress portrays an older working woman. She reveals nothing on the outside; no big dramatic emotional states. Is she just talking to herself? It’s like the television commercial about loving your husband and taking the proper iron supplement—but something is wrong. Before: “Love him. Of course. He’s my husband. What is it? Love, I don’t know. Some kind of a habit.” The woman is condemned to act in a habitual way, but knowing all the time she is changing. Physical change. “How else could we remember? They are all beautiful.” From changing physiology to changing attitude. After: “Sure he would hit me. They did then. Husbands has a right. It was all we knew. Anyone. Then.” Now, then. Before, after. She looks at weathered hands and broken nails (the actress in the photograph is manicured and young). The text is the thought process raw, in stops and starts, with repetitions, dragging a certain idea along, holding it, scrutinizing, perhaps lying to itself (but not us). Memories are not things; they can’t be wrapped up.

Phillips does not document; she is not diaristic or autobiographical; her pieces are fictions and fragments. The images are stark and severe, the text never self-consciously poetic or artificial. Rarely do you see so many people actually read a text while standing.

A problem with photographers who deal in social criticism is their limited access to imaginative imagery that might elucidate their critical stance. The mass media so thoroughly manipulate and neutralize the photographic image that the only possible choices are the irrational (including personal fantasy), exclusively formal, or the readymade corporate-image. Socially conscious artists have continually opted for the “objectivity” of the last of these, but then a further problem arises with the audience. The artist assumes that the viewer knows the artist is serving up his imagery not as glorification, but as ironic restatement. The audience best able to respond to such irony is the bourgeois avant-garde art audience: hence the whole process is useless, for such an audience is used to being criticized.

Sometimes artists run to words to explain their motives. But the text rarely transcends the same ironic attitudinizing; it becomes an ironic counterpoint to some culturally manipulated image, or often simply repeats the rhetoric of social force (Hans Haacke and Victor Burgin are good examples of this avant-garde two-timing.) In any case, no alternative to dominant conventional imagery as imagery is attempted. When the image itself is thought to be necessarily “tainted,” the responsibility of the text is to expose its meaning and function, not to serve it up as yet another readymade. The lone image, plus the repetitions of its meaning in a text, are not enough: the artist must subvert the viewer’s false conclusions inductively.

October 1, 1977
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