Art Review:

The Human Psyche: Close Up

by Louise Sheldon
In some of Connie Imboden's pictures, messages of agony and disintegration become as surrealistic as our most ghoulish nightmares. Yet we contemplate these images with riveted fascination, for they seem to be telling us of our own inner turmoil.

Cause for celebration! Baltimore's own Connie Imboden recently came back to town, in a full-fledged show of fine black-and-white gelatine silver prints at Gomez Gallery. Though the show has since been taken down, her remarkable works are still available at the gallery.

A new tack in Imboden's exploration of the human psyche through photography involves mirrors. Her less recent work--with parts of the body perplexingly juxtaposed or immersed in water--continues to draw us toward fuller understanding of our innermost selves.

Water, the common element from which we all spring, is Imboden's original ambience of choice. Interestingly, as a child it was in water that she suffered traumatic stress and fear for her life when an older child held her under water. Overcoming that fear eventually turned into a total fascination with the visual effects of water on the submerged human body.

Many early works of rare beauty by this photographer show partially immersed faces, arms and legs changing their identities in reflection and through the prism of water. The artist's recent photographs are more unsettling, more Freudian in scope, showing half-submerged faces with water seeping into nose and mouth through outsized teeth. A head floating under water is sidelit to reveal a distorted, amorphous characterization; the nose piercing the water creates a ripple that pulls the chin and mouth into an agonized grimace. Something primordial seems to be taking place, as though body as matter is groping to discover what it will turn into.

Another photograph blurs the face while white teeth grope out at us from a cavernous mouth, resulting in a horrifying expression of savage fury — like an image of the malevolent Mr. Hyde bursting out of Dr. Jeckyll. And yet with it we sense an admission of the futility and powerlessness of fury.

In such pictures, messages of agony and disintegration become as surrealistic as our most ghoulish nightmares. Yet we contemplate these images with riveted fascination, for they seem to be telling us of our own inner turmoil.

Imboden's return to images reflected in cracked mirrors announces new realms of psychological exploration, A woman's body is split by long, diagonal. cracks in the mirror where the fit is not exact, so that the body is elongated and slides out of kilter in an interesting and pleasing way. The larger portion of the body is reflected below in a mirror whose silver has been scratched and partially removed, resulting in a scarred and besmirched look that speaks of the toll life has taken on the subject. This photograph, enlarged to vast "mural" size, is strikingly handsome — in fact, a knockout!

Mirrors scratched with swirls, circles and wide paths of black also serve to give the figure a dim, shadowy appearance. Busts mirrored in profile suggest lives burdened with psychological damage, reminiscent of prints by German Expressionist Kathe Kollwitz. Postmodernists like Robert Rauschenberg have treated lithographic prints in a similar manner. In Imboden's photography, her subjects seem to have suffered even more realistically, reaching unfathomable depths of pain.

Psychologists and scholars have puzzled over and admired the probing nature of Imboden's work, comparing it to the flowering of medieval mysticism or a vision of a modem Prometheus. Her imagery reveals her creative strength in a process of subtraction, as though the stripping away of surface veneer, and thus of all sense of calm and composure, is an aid in finding the inner truth of the subconscious, its anguish and its splendor.

Actually one cannot describe Imboden's photographs adequately. Shocking as they sometimes appear, they need to be seen and pondered, rather than analyzed in an intellectual way. The image will work its way through to you without textual explanation, for her work is basic and elemental and true of "everyman" (in the medieval sense). The artist herself claims that her approach to her work is intuitive rather than reasoning. She comes on her extraordinary images after whole days have been exhausted in trial and error, ending in sudden recognition when she instinctively knows that she has achieved what she is struggling for. None of her photographs are manipulated; what you see is what the photographer shot.

Proof of wide current interest in Connie Imboden's work, both in the U.S. and abroad, is that she recently has held shows in Atlanta, Santa Fe and Berlin, as well as in Baltimore. In fact, she has had so many solo exhibitions recently that she plans to take six months off from the extensive preparations for shows and devote herself exclusively to photography and teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art..

Imboden is not just Baltimore's most interesting photographer but one whose achievement stands today among the world's most profound and enduring. Her latest book of photographs, "Piercing Illusions," contains insightful essays on her work by Peter Wood and John Weiss.

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This story was published on March 2, 2002.