It’s all about looking

Cathryn Griffin has “an eye.” This term, usually reserved for collectors and curators, simply means that this is a person with an uncanny ability to see things that the rest of us usually miss. And yet, her photography is infused with gentle irony and subtle wit and, occasionally, a kind of scary anticipation that hints that something is about to happen, and it may not be pleasant.

Cathryn Griffin’s “Gym Shower, Cullowhee, NC”

In her new exhibition, Cathryn Griffin, Photographs, she has departed from her usual technique of color coupler printing, and has ventured into the digital world. The new photographs may be pulled from ink-jet printers, but the color is not the usual cartoonish, Walt Disney-like palette such pieces often use. Griffin has achieved a quirky richness in these works. The color is as lush and deep as that in Renaissance paintings.

For the most part, her photos can be divided into interiors and landscapes. Many of the interior photos are of the house where Griffin grew up and depict things like a pantry filled with Sure-Jell and Fuller Brush products. Yet, these pieces also seem to avoid falling into pure nostalgia.

One image depicts a bedroom, where a shield-shaped wooden plaque is embellished with carved foliage and mounted deer antlers. A pair of tied-together baby shoes dangles from one of the antler prongs. The faded, cream-colored wallpaper behind the plaque is decorated with sparse blue and pink flowers and the many-layered paint on the window casing is scarred with years of nail holes and various curtain-rod holders.

These works chronicle intimate and personal aspects of the lives of the inhabitants of these houses. They hint at insights, without ever stating them outright.

In another series of photos, a pink wall holds a collection of hanging rosaries, while the next image shows a pseudo-baroque figurine of Joseph, Mary and the 12-year-old Christ placed on a dresser.

Griffin’s eye catches more than interesting subject matter, though. Diagonal lines created by doors, windows and furniture provide structure in all these works. This is especially true in her photo “Clyde’s Diner, Waynesville” where the strong diagonal shapes of the floor tile, ceiling trim and serving counter all point to a corner TV set showing an image of Abraham Lincoln. Beige and chrome stools echo the diagonal line of the counter, and the effect is impressive.

But there’s another side to Griffin’s work, and her shots of the gym in Cullowhee are eerie. The vast empty space and the many colored geometric lines give the room an otherworldly feel. There is no indication in the silence of these photographs that there could be the babble and commotion of organized competitive sport.

In her “Basketball Goal,” the backboard is wreathed in the kind of soft, glowing, heavenly light of the kind most often found in depictions of religious figures. Her “Gym Shower, Cullowhee” is downright tongue-in-cheek creepy. Who knows what will come out of those chrome showerheads when the handles are turned? The flesh-colored walls and the snakeskin-patterned floor tile add to the photo’s uneasy feeling.

Griffin’s landscapes offer a similar sensibility, with the same use of diagonal lines that permeates her other work. These images are a far cry from strictly documentary photos, and tell disturbing stories of butchered trees and decimated hillsides.

“Lumberyard, Sylva,” shows a flat, horizontal field, bulldozer-stripped of all its topsoil, and covered with sedge grass. It provides a foreground for a newly constructed Sonic drive-in. The diagonal line is furnished by clouds raking across the sky, and is echoed by discarded tires in the mud. These guide the eye toward murderous machines in the background, and where bright light defines the ends of felled trees and creates an extraordinary reflection of a hopeful blue sky in a big puddle from a rain storm.

The human form is absent in all Griffin’s photographs, save one. In “ROTC Cadet, Clemson, SC, 2005,” a very young man in uniform marches at the front of a line of boys. On his face is what appears to be a dulled look of dread.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]

who: Cathryn Griffin, Photographs
what: Cathryn Griffin’s often-eerie images
where: NOW Gallery (540 E. Main St., Sylva)
when: Through Wednesday, Feb. 27 (508-1008)

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