Leaving Erin O’Keefe’s studio, facing a long train ride home, I opened my issue of Art In America. Two pages in and wait – what am I doing? I want to start writing about O’Keefe! Her light and color drive a hunger inside, and to feast on her elaborate constructions reward. Establishing depth, and weight for a two dimensional surface is no easy task. O’Keefe cuts space with the precision of an architect and the sensitivity of a photographer, which makes sense; she is both of these things. The result of these totally un-rendered images is an intricate play of sculptural light. Complex and delicious, these images are as much abstractions as they are photographs of simple and literal things. They are images of Things as They Are, as her show at Denny Gallery would suggest. The power of shape and form is palpable and O’Keefe just gets it. “I have a total impatience toward the tools. Things don’t get broken they are what they are.”
Minor White said, “The quality of the tools isn’t important. It’s how you use them.” In so many ways this form of making outside norms and being feral so define O’Keefe’s work. The pictures become open-ended folding in and out of themselves. They are out of context with reality, but not totally out of remove. She is fascinated by the separation between reality and the captured image. That distance is so important, many of her layers run parallel to one another but not necessarily present in the same space. Things so small can become so big and then in person traverse back again. It’s all very revealing and confusing, ripe with sensitivity and contemplation.
“It seems good, I guess?” O’Keefe chuckles. I’m struck by her simplicity and sincerity. She just wants to share work. She starts opening boxes. She loves the stuff! She’s not quite present in the room – that look, those eyes – she’s off in thought harvesting something just out of reach.
O’Keefe is very much a New Yorker, but as much as she likes being in the studio, there’s something in the work that reads from elsewhere. She does like to checkout. Heading up towards Maine, very near Nova Scotia, where there’s a different kind of light. Vast space and planes that are, well, totally different. Suddenly the sensibility of the photos starts to make more sense. There is a strong base of minimalism in the work, but presence of the hand is not totally missing. “I used to not like seeing that at first. I’m becoming more excited by it now.” The structures become organic in so many ways. O’Keefe is a collector, and re-arranger of pieces and parts in her images. She is pooling from everywhere! Renaissance painting, classical sculpture and tapestry, all the way through to contemporary art. She engages a dialogue with art history and her peers. The work is loaded and rife with intent and execution. She’s never has a definitive plan; it’s always a little off the cusp and by the seat of her pants. This is where the newness of the work is.
Significance needs to be stressed on looking, always looking, closely and slowly consumed by detail and mass. The photos reveal all. Taking time to absorb is the only way to get past simply looking – so you can start seeing. O’Keefe’s images help viewers start to grasp otherwise misunderstood space. It is the images’ lack of direct association that allows them free form and vast interpretation. “Permanence is weird.” she tells me. The photographs in the show separate, addressing one another and then somehow move beyond; this is their mystery. At the end of the day, O’Keefe’s work reminds me greatly of a somewhat now clichéd quote, poignant in this context, “the man that knows something knows that he knows nothing at all.” The work is ongoing and never ending. It will be buried, and unearthed for further use, later.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell is an artist who lives in New York. For more of his work click here …
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