The depth in Hilary Tolan’s new work is easy to miss: not because the work is quiet, and reserved, and unassuming, but because its subtle power confronts us in a way we might want to overlook. Tolan’s new modestly scaled photographic works, on view in an exhibition entitled Shadowland from November 4 through 29 at Kingston Gallery in Boston, appear as straightforward photographs of personal and uncomplicated landscape scenes. But her subtle drawing intervention develops a complex and challenging dialogue about concealment, revelation, and the real – and not just the real of photography, but also the real of experience.
The real at first appears as the kind of transparent rendering of ‘nature’ that photography usually assumes for itself. Neither sublime vistas nor efforts to record ‘beauty’, Tolan’s scenes show a raw, unpeopled, personal view: simple, direct renderings of specific places, that bear traces of someplace we might know, while retaining a nameless and placeless quality.
Tolan invites us in close, to show us the finer details of light: sun bleaching rock surfaces and earthen paths while pushing cracks and shadows and the backside of braches into void. And here is where things get complex and challenging: for as we lean in, we encounter an unexpected intimacy: Tolan has intervened in these seamless, transparent renderings of reality with a gentle hand, drawing with flat black gouache into small, spare, subtle shadow areas of each photograph. These delicate intrusions seem to trace what’s given: the spindly cracks in rocks, shadows cast on earth, the shadow-darkened parts of thin tree branches.
But the flat quality of the marks also lifts them from the photograph’s glossy mechanical surface, severing the eye from the supposed ‘reality’ of the scene, rupturing our sense of the real of the photograph, and rendering organic abstract shapes that force consideration of the immediate, material real – no longer the ‘here’ of the scene but this here, now: the photograph itself, and our looking, as things in the world.
What’s given is no longer given: shadow, once ground, is figure; photographic reality, once assumed, is rendered as material and process. The artist’s intervention takes center stage, and the eye and mind now contend uncomfortably with the rift this interruption creates in the real. The deliberate act has us question the truth of what’s given, and makes us notice photography’s – and art’s – manipulations and machinations. Can we be sure Tolan’s interventions are not inventions of shadow? Are we sure these are tracings and not additions what the lens passively sees? Our uncertainty about reality doubles down. Suddenly, the work renders nothing – or, rather, it is rendered not as a rendering of reality, but as art, a produced thing in the world – a produced reality.
Tolan’s drawing interventions are extremely subtle in this regard: they do not announce themselves in oppositional contrast to the photograph’s rendering, and yet they do not reiterate ‘photorealistically’ the supposed truth the photograph beholds, either. The flat, dark black gouache at once announces its difference from what’s given, while seeming to trace the outlines and body of shadows – seeming to follow what’s given – and at the same time forces us the consider the possibility of pure invention.
It lands us, here, in a vertiginous dilemma. Stripped of our former faith in the photographic real, what can we trust? Are these tracings of real shadows, or are they created – another real: the created real, the real as art? Tolan finally suspends us among reals, in a void that deepens an original mystery, the mystery and depth of shadows. For the difference between invented and real shadows collapses into the truth of shadows – the real of shadows as withdrawal itself from the light of exposure, and from what appears, or can be known.
And this real, by contrast, is content to be in shadow, in mystery, in unknowing. Hilary Tolan’s new work bears witness to these always present shadows of our experience, and what the operation of her interventions – the operation of art – simultaneously reveals and conceals: how our assumptions about and longings for the real get swallowed by the long shadows of what we don’t know.
Top image: Dirt Path, 2015, 20 x 29 inches, photograph and gouache paint.
Bottom image: Wall Shadow, 2015, 20 x 29 inches, photograph and gouache paint.
Images courtesy Hilary Tolan and Kingston Gallery.