Kathy Curtis Cahill: Make Believe

Super Girl Princess

Kathy Curtis Cahill: Make Believe

By Peter Frank

Solo exhibition opening at Keystone Art Space January 22nd 3-6pm


The camera is not supposed to lie. We all know it can and does, and those who make it do so exploit the fact that two centuries of acculturation – and the verism of camera-produced images themselves – give the photographic (and filmic) image an authority that other pictorial arts cannot claim. A machine, not a human hand, made this picture! What could be fabricated? Of course, photographs are nothing if not the product of intervening hands; but they play upon our credulity, our childlike unwillingness to disbelieve. As children, we know that dolls and puppets are stand-ins for people before we believe they are – sometimes much before. Indeed, the artist, like the insane – both in close touch with the child that (forgive the old-fashioned gender-specific phrasing) is father to the man – never fully loses faith in the falsified. And photographs, to a diminishing but still powerful extent, always inspire that same faith in the rest of us.

This peculiar power of photographs to convince us of their veracity is the story behind the story behind the story behind the all-too-aptly named “Make Believe” series of Kathy Curtis Cahill. The story directly behind “Make Believe” goes back to that saying about the child being parent to the adult, and to the pathos that infers. As in her last several series, Cahill’s latest reflects upon the vulnerability of children struggling to make sense of, and even protect themselves from, a grown-up’s world. Behind that motif is the “making believe” itself, the role-playing and identity experimentation into which children withdraw both in order to project and construct their respective personalities and in order simply to cope with the overwhelming vicissitudes of the present. And behind that is the conjuration of the photograph, a make-believe medium if ever there were one, as deft a trompe-l’oeil trick as any sleight of hand.

Playing House
Playing House

The figures featured in Cahill’s photographs, both the Make Believe series and “Memories and Demons,” the series preceding it, are not flesh-and-blood children. Remembering her own difficult childhood, Cahill does not want to subject real children to her artist’s vision, a process that – as anyone trying to snap their kids with the mall Santa knows – can be traumatic for little ones. (And in Cahill’s images they are supposed to appear quite little, barely five years old; as she writes, “I am using dolls that do not appear over the age of five, because that is the most vulnerable period in life…”) Furthermore, she finds in dolls a substitution for the real thing that is almost as provocatively, painfully empathetic. In particular, Cahill favors antique dolls, ones whose features mimic real kids’ with uncanny naturalism, and yet are infused with the poignancy of use and material decay. This erosion – what the Japanese cherish as sabe no wabe – shows up in the dolls as cracks in their porcelain features, kinks in their bodies, tattering in their clothes. For Cahill, the sabe no wabe of her dolls represents, and to a certain extent re-creates, the fragility of young children and bespeaks the psychological (and often physical) damage they suffer as the affronts of a cruel world.

That said, Cahill’s conceit in the Make Believe series is to invest these doll-children with what seems like agency in their own transformation(s). They assume guises and poses with an apparent eagerness, even glee, no different than that real children evince during Hallowe’en or Carnival. Such vivacious expression is native to these dolls’ facial features, but Cahill makes sure to dress them to the nines and to arrange them so that the little firemen and debutantes and superheroes and pirates are already engaged in their “calling.” The pictures brim with artifice, to be sure, quite knowingly smacking of the photo studio. But Cahill, uninterested in irony, does not emulate the stiff, forced, chintzy means and manner of kiddie photography. Rather, she arranges her subjects in positions that don’t simply represent adult occupations or fantasy preoccupations, but enliven and embody them.

Cahill’s vocation until her retirement was that of set decorator, a craft she practiced for over thirty years. The precision, attention to scale, and moody coloration that characterize her photographs can certainly be attributed to her extensive experience creating spaces for others’ enactments. She does not consider herself a “director” of these otherwise inanimate objects, however, so much as a wordless writer of their stories. “Set decorating,” she explains, “is telling a story non-verbally. The years I spent in television in particular called upon me to use my imagination before I even went looking for decorations. Questions that are not answered in the script, and which the director doesn’t provide an answer for, are filled in by the decorator.” If the subject matter of Cahill’s photographs grows out of her, and others’, childhood experience, the look and shape of these carefully crafted images arise from her professional chops.

Super Girl Princess
Super Girl Princess

But Cahill’s photographs are no more the fancies of a set decorator than they are the therapeutic testaments of an individual abused in her childhood. The photographs participate readily and consciously in the photographic discourse. Cahill came to realize the potential for self-expression and self-reflection in photography when she inherited her family’s photo archive, and is largely self-taught. But she cites Diane Arbus and Sally Mann as strong influences, and the examples of both women resonate clearly in her work. Among other things, they have shown Cahill how to avoid being cute or charming and, more importantly, how to imbue every image with its own spirit. The character of each Make Believe photograph is not determined just by the figure, and sometimes isn’t set by the figure at all. The examples of Arbus, Mann, and other photographers of emotional nakedness have encouraged Cahill to put her set-decorator abilities to a yet more artful purpose. As a result, Cahill now tells her own story, as she says, non-verbally.

Kathy Curtis Cahill’s Make Believe photographs make us believe in the life in these dolls; in the artist’s own childhood story; in the childhood stories of so many around us (and perhaps our own); in the magic of photography; in the redemptive potential of picture-making of any kind; and in the brittleness and fortitude of humanity. Cahill has chosen to work with symbols that must breathe, with stand-ins for experience that must be experienced; and she has harnessed her medium, in all its pretense and all its honesty, to the task.

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