Artist Talks: Ally Fouts & Holly Murkerson

Body of Water | Installation Photo | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

Esthetic Lens continues our Artist Talks series with another installment. Artist Ally Fouts visits Body of Water, an exhibition at 65GRAND, a gallery space in Chicago, and has a conversation about the work with the artist herself, Holly Murkerson.

I walk up to the unassuming exterior of 65GRAND to see the current exhibition, Body of Water. Through the glass window, I see the artist, Holly Murkerson, awaiting my arrival. The chaotic rumblings of the busy city street fall silent as the door shuts behind me; I am confronted with her work and am suddenly wading between quiet, gentle waves. My body rocks comfortably within the ebb and flow of the atmospheric body of water I find myself in.  Seven black and white pieces stare back at me, and I begin to bubble with curiosity.

Ally Fouts: Holly, could you tell me what exactly I am looking at?

Holly Murkerson: “We are looking at silver gelatin prints. I work with analog photography and darkroom based processes.  There is specifically a lot of water imagery in this body of work. I take the negatives into the darkroom and collage them into one image. Then, there is a photogram process that is laid on top of that. Essentially, everywhere the black is, is where my body was not. I am exposing the paper with a negative image enlargement first. I can’t see the exposed image, but I move the print to another enlarger that only projects light. I then lay on top of the exposed paper so that everywhere my body is, results in the image you see coming through in the final image. It is all one piece of paper; I can’t see between the steps in the darkroom. When the light is on I can see what’s happening, but then as soon as it goes off, it’s latent and I must move to the next step.”

 “There are a lot of chance operations at play. There is a fair amount of unpredictability. It is a very intuitive, iterative process that I repeat until I get something that feels right. ”

Body of Water | Installation Photo | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: I notice that there are two larger-scale images with multiple smaller-scale images peppered between. Have you worked at this larger scale before or is this a new investigation?

HM: “Late last year, I started working in this more expansive, larger scale. I was lucky enough to do a residency in Vermont right before the pandemic, and that is where I made a lot of these smaller 16”x20” images due to the limitations of their enlargers. That was an interesting constraint to have. I had to figure out how to let that edge that I found with the larger images come into play, but at a smaller size. The edges had to be more subtle to let the viewer know that the image underneath is the first event. then there is the second event, the photogram, occurring on top of it.”

Body of Water | Installation Photo | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: What are some of the nuances of your process that allow you to make work like this?

HM: “Part of the process is that I have several other versions of these images. I will work in the darkroom until I get something that I am like, “yeah, that might work.” Then I will take them all back into the studio and make a final edit choice from there. It has been a nice way to take a little control out for me and allows me to be less decisive about composition. Having the element of chance lets a little play come in.”

“With these large ones, I am working off of a large roll and cutting them in the darkroom. A lot of the work has to do with ideas of dissolving boundaries between body and environment. That is something I wanted to play up by leaving that raw edge exposed.”

Floodplain | 26″ x 40″ | Unique silver gelatin print mounted on archival rag board | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: As I am unable to locate the body of water documented in each image, I wonder if you could describe where these images were taken? What bodies of water are being reflected?

HM: “The locations of the images are all over. Some of these are from Northern California, some are here in Illinois just a couple hours out of the city. There is one that has a negative of an image I shot right in the studio. I consider these photos as studio constructions that are landscape-esqe in the way I am internalizing them. Sometimes they make their way into the collages with the actual images of bodies of water in the world.”

“My process for taking the photographs usually involves visiting a place I have never been to. My aim is always to be attentive and collaborative with the environment. I don’t go with a preconceived notion of what I want to end up on film. It is more of a wandering. I look around and see what strikes and calls to me, then I work from there. I love being out in nature, so it is a nice thing I have built into my way of being in practice.”

“For this show, I knew that there would be a lot of water imagery because that is something that I have been fixated on for several years now, and amped up over the last couple years. That led me to the title early on.”

Body of Water | Installation Photo | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: I find you being drawn to water in such a magnetic way very fascinating, what do you think causes this connection you feel towards it?

HM: “It’s a little bit mysterious to me. I was thinking about ways to communicate places where I personally feel fluid with the environment, and that is best felt when I am with water. That is a place where you can feel these things budding up against you and seeping into you to some degree, and there is this notion of a porousness and an exchange that feels fluid. This year has told us so much about the air we breathe. It is usually when things are wrong that we are most cognizant of the fact that we are constantly in exchange with the space around us. Perhaps, it is something we have to have a cognitive bias in order to get through life.”

AF: How about the origin of your negatives themselves in terms of a timeline? Were you sitting on this work for a while before the exhibition? Is it pandemic related or otherwise, and is it your newest work?

HM: “Well, the show was originally slated to open in May. Then the world changed pretty dramatically and we were in the stay at home order, so it was postponed. It was sort of nice to have that extra time. I could go out and shoot a little bit more, and make a few more pieces, and really ground myself in this work.” 

Passage | 20″ x 16″ | Unique silver gelatin print | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: Are you strict about only using new photographs in new bodies of work, or do you pull from old negatives?

HM: “Sometimes I go back and use images in new compositions, or pull from rolls that are much older. It is interesting to see the thread that goes through the things that I am drawn to taking photos of over time. Sometimes I will see something I made a long time ago, and I will find that it has a synergy with an image I shot last week. ”

“As an artist, you have these core impulses. They change over time, but ultimately there is always a negative something that still remains, even if it looks very different. That is nice to go back and see what has always been there.”

Body of Water | Installation Photo | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: The sublime details of form leap from the frames. The black and white nature of them draws attention to the subtle contours, and unique shapes are allowed to emerge. Do you primarily work in black and white, or is color a big part of your practice as well?

HM: “I do a little bit of color. The analog process is really important to me, and its unpredictability is important conceptually to the work. It is fun and exciting to work in the darkroom. There is something nice about the black and white that harkens more to form and formal qualities, whereas adding in color then becomes more about the place. With color, you are using a machine, whereas in black and white you still are putting paper in water. There is a special visceral process where you can see things happening in real-time. The work is so much about breaking down our perceived boundaries between our bodies in the space we exist in. I feel like black and white helps unify that.”

AF: I imagine the nature of the darkroom: rocking images back and forth in various chemical baths, letting your images float in the bubbling wash, and hanging them up to drip dry. This all feels integral to this body of work. How do you feel that the tactile darkroom processes relate to your conceptual aim?

HM: “It feels like I am more in collaboration with the media than me trying to master something. Thinking about working in landscape images, there is a tradition of big figures, like Ansel Adams, who have these male dominating types of imagery. I would like it to be a little softer and more about being with and attentive to the landscape rather than me trying to take control or master it.”

“We have binocular vision and the camera has monocular, and I am always surprised by things that look one way to me when I am out in the world taking the photo versus the way it is transformed by the camera in that process.”

Streambed | 20″ x 16″ | Unique silver gelatin print | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: You seem deeply entwined with photographic theory. I wonder, how do you feel about it in both your relationship and approach to photography?

HM: “In analog photo work, there are a million ways to do the same thing. It is always interesting to see how differently people approach it. I took a black and white film course in undergrad a long time ago. I came to study at the SAIC in the fiber department. I ended up taking a technical based photo class on large format film, but otherwise, I feel like my approach to it has always been through a side door.”

I found my own path with the resources I have and the books that I read. This formed me in a slightly different way than people who are perhaps more technically trained.

“When I first started working in this way, I felt very timid in the darkroom. I would run into people and they would be like, “what is she doing? That is not how you do it.” It took a little time to get over this notion that I was doing it the wrong way. I gained an understanding that there are so many different ways to approach photography; I like the notion of messing with straight photography. Another thing that was intimidating when I first started working was having to get the right materials. I realized that all of those choices are subjective and you can make anything work if it makes sense to the pictures. It was a very liberating realization that I could work this way and that it was okay. ”

 “There is a great community-based darkroom here in Chicago that I work in. They provide chemistry, space, and you bring your negatives and paper and go to work.” 

One and one make three | 20″ x 16″ | Unique silver gelatin print | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: When I look at these pieces surrounding us, I imagine you using your body to create the photogram. Do you feel that the figure in the imagery needs to be you, or would you consider using another person?

HM: “It is certainly not something I am opposed to, but I like the blindspot that is built into the process. I have been doing it long enough that I kind of know what I am doing, but at the same time I am crouched on top of the paper and can’t fully see what the shape is going to be. That is what makes the process exciting, to see what’s revealed on the other side. If I used a model, I could be far more in control, that has its pros, but using myself seems to speak directly to the fact that we are in our bodies and we all have blind spots. When you talk about encountering the visible world, there is this aspect of the visual where our brains assign importance or hierarchies to things; it speaks to that embodied vision. It is my embodied vision that I can play up by building that blind spot in.”

“There are moments in the gestures that you can recognize that could be an arm, but for the most part, they are fairly abstracted. This hopefully makes it easier for a viewer to put themselves in that place. This could be their body of water.”

Dissolving Boundary | 24 3/4″ x 44 3/8″ | Unique silver gelatin print | © Holly Murkerson, 2019

AF: Looking at each image, I become disoriented in my visual relation to the water, I know I am not simply just looking at a body of water. I can’t quite decipher if I am looking down or looking up at it?

HM: “Exactly. I hope they can be slightly disorienting spaces. The vantage point maybe isn’t necessarily a human vantage point; maybe it’s from the viewpoint of a bird, or a fungus, or something else not human.”

AF: One piece that stands out is Two Halves Make a Hole. Can you explain how the negative and photogram interact in this specific piece?

HM: “They are two negatives, one is inverted. The photogram comes into play as an exaggerated burning and dodging with the body. I lay my arms across to blur the middle space together.”

“This was a short shallow water drop off that continued on. I had a series of 35mm images, around 5 frames, of variations of these. I took two of them and overlapped them to create this hole. There was something about these images being together that harkens back to this idea of binocular vision; two eyes that make sense to be together.”

“The result is surprising, the images are so weird and look skin-like; they are holes but also sort of flat. They create this illusion where they go back and forth between convex and concave.”

Getting to go back to the studio and trying to figure them out is what keeps me excited to continue to make, and inspire me to be vigilant and attentive and see what can happen.”

“These were the last images I made for the show. They are the singular thing that is propelling me forward in a direction toward the next pieces to work on. The image is very simple, and having the reaction you are describing, of deciphering if it’s human or water and confusing those two spaces is what I need right now.”

Two halves make a hole | 20″ x 36″ | Unique silver gelatin prints mounted on archival rag board, diptych | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: Describe the process of deciding which pieces were shown, and which were shelved. What did that look like?

HM: “I brought 12 photos to this space. Bill Gross, who runs 65GRAND, was great in helping me edit down. There was one piece that I really expected to be in the show, it had been in my mind the whole time, but we ended up taking it out. It was hard at first but it made for a tighter show given the space that was available.”

Sieve | 20″ x 16″ | Unique silver gelatin print | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

AF: Well, I have to congratulate the two of you on your decisions because it has led to a truly wonderful, thoughtful outcome. Moving through the space feels like the embodiment of fluidity, punctuated with pauses of detailed moments.

HM: “It’s so helpful to have someone help you negotiate what ends up in the show. It’s hard to get out of your own viewership of the work when it is something you do all of the time and are deeply embedded in.”

“I didn’t have a lot of last-minute thoughts, usually there is something that I am unsure about. But, this set of images all made sense once we got them into place, and came together with relative ease. Having current work to talk to people about, and going out to see art shows for the first time pretty much all year has been so nice— to see art and talk to people about it during this moment of political upheaval and everything else going on.”

Body of Water | Installation Photo | © Holly Murkerson, 2020

Body of Water is up through October 24. Visit 65GRAND for details on viewing hours and programming. To view more of Holly Murkerson’s work, check out her website and Instagram.