Book Review; Lynn Robb, surface | tension

surface | tension by Lynn Robb. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

Lynn Robb surface | tension

By Lorraine Heitzman

As anyone who is acquainted with even the most rudimentary principals of visual perception knows, our minds, in concert with our eyes, will unconsciously make connections in an effort to understand visual information. Gestalt psychologists in the 1930’s and 40’s postulated that we perceive new and unknown imagery by grouping together things in our field of vision based on the similarities between their shapes and colors, by their meanings, and by their proximity to each other. These instances of the “laws of perceptual organization”, as they are known, have guided artists for centuries although the concept was only formulated relatively recently.

In her new two-volume book of photographs, surface | tension, Los Angeles artist Lynn Robb plays with the fundamental laws of perception to create enthralling, poetic experiences. Robb places separate images side by side to coax and challenge the viewer into making meaning from these pairs that ultimately transcend the individual images. She manipulates the way we make visual connections by emphasizing similarities in color or direction or drawing our attention to differences in scale or function. The conversation between the two photographs reveals how Robb sees the world, and her choices expose the humor and beauty inherent in synchronicities. Each photograph was taken independently, without the intent of pairing in mind, and Robb does not crop nor use Photoshop to make the images work together; rather, it is a matter of her refined choices and serendipity.

In a recent conversation with Robb, she explains her decision to use the format of paired photographs. “Pairing images provides a mechanism to create a dialogue of image components that is also intuitive, but exercises different mental muscles by working in the 2-D, flat world, rather than the transition of 3D → 2D, which is the act of the original picture taking….A pair stages a dialogue of two locations’ geometry, light, texture and space…” This dialogue is the essence of surface | tension.

The two volumes, horizontal and vertical, reflect the orientation of the images in each book. All the images are full bleed, meaning they extend to the edges of the page. This decision makes it clear that this is not a photo album, a collection of related photographs, but rather the pairings on the printed page are to be considered together, a “conscious coupling”, as it were. Comparing is at the heart of how these diptychs work, but it is not what they are about. Robb achieves something that is far subtler and more complex than the mechanics of how her photographs move us. The things we can readily identify are only the entry point. The artist admits to a visceral aesthetic pleasure from the conversation between two images and her enjoyment is palpable.

Robb’s photographic work has always been compelling. Daily morning walks in her Santa Monica neighborhood inspired her first printed volume of photos, MW, in 2016. It was over the course of these walks that she sharpened her already keen eye for detail and this small book is a wonderful collection of her insights. The way she regards her neighborhood, selecting overlooked symmetries and making connections between organic and inanimate objects, clearly laid the foundation to further engage with her environment in surface | tension. The result is an extraordinary development.

Take, for example, the first two images in vertical: On the left is a close-up image of a cactus whose green ribs divide the page into organic stripes of light and dark, punctuated by rows of silvery, radiating clusters of spines. The photograph on the right is mostly inorganic, an architectural element of an incised geometric design in white and grey. Like the opposing image, it too is a vertical, repeated geometric design, but rigid and manmade, the only irregularities being the peeling paint and rough, uneven texture of the wall. The wall, although further from the lens than the cactus, is a much larger pattern. The connective tissue is a patch of a green lawn with a few whorls of small yellow flowers at the base of the wall that relates to the cactus. The changes in scale create a slightly disorienting push-pull effect while they both exude a crystalline clarity. The source of pleasure in the pairing is from recognizing the similarities in design while acknowledging the differences in organic versus inorganic subjects. The greater subject however is the equivalent glories of nature and man, a theme celebrated here and throughout surface | tension. Robb treats each image with the same reverence and awe. How can we not do likewise?

Often though, it is not the glory, but the spoiling of nature or the wasting away of things that is highlighted. In horizontal, Robb contrasts a shredded piece of plastic caught up on barbed wire to the snow atop a corrugated pipe. Here the images emphasize the same blue and white palette with a subplot of grids and diagonals. In the first picture the plastic is caught in the wind and catches the light just as the snow glistens. The garbage becomes the visual equivalent of the snow in an otherwise industrial scene.

Another horizontal pair contrasts perspective and direction. In the left image, we look up past dried, spent fronds on palm trees to see new growth against a clear sky. The image to its right has us looking down at a broken, framed mirror in a mix of green grasses and dried weeds. The same three colors are used in both photographs and the linear quality of the palm fronds and grasses is further emphasized by the shape of the mirror shards, particularly in the linear highlights of the fractures. The change in our perspective is almost dizzying.

What happens again and again throughout the book is a type of musical call and response. Robb creates a rhythm by setting up a foundation through a single photograph and then responds to it via the addition of a second photo. Our eyes scan the two images seen side by side as we attempt to make sense of the pairing. The similar colors, shapes, lines, textures and meanings all come into play, bouncing off each other in a syncopated beat. Our understanding comes into focus slowly, only after the visceral response has taken effect. The intermittent single, double spread image works in the overall rhythm by offering a place to rest and also provides an image that synthesizes many of the components in a simpler way.

Robb explains, “The books build a linear story within simple parameters to exposit or present a complex set of aesthetic data. The arc of each book uses the scaffold of vertical or horizontal content to frame details, space, color and the character of light.”

Robb’s previous experience as an art director and designer is apparent throughout surface | tension. She brings her considerable talents and graphic eye to elevate this new body of work into an artistic expression that is both exquisitely and thoughtfully realized. Her sensitivity to her environment is equaled only by her humor and it is this, her intelligence and wit that sets her photographs apart from the merely beautiful.

surface | tension, published in 2017 by Picture [BOOKS] is available in Culver City at Arcana: Books on the Arts, and through the artist’s website.


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