Visual

The Homecoming

When photographs tell stories

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A sophisticated artist and professor in Portland, Oregon, Holly Andres remains refreshingly modest about her sudden success. She receives commissions for photo shoots from mainstream publications like the New York Times, Time, and the New Yorker, and her fine art gets attention in Art in America, Art Forum, Glamour, and beyond.

In her current Museum of Northwest Art installation in La Conner, “The Homecoming,” Andres’ still photographs tell three stories: “Summer of the Hornets,” “River Road,” and “The Fall of Spring Hill.”

Andres stages her dramas in woodlands, meadows, dirt roads and carefully prepared interiors. The scenes with professional actors are interspersed with richly colored and textured still lifes, which subtly advance the action. The bright colors and simplicity of her compositions lure the viewer into what soon proves to be a darker, even menacing, subject matter. 

“River Road” was inspired by Nancy Drew mysteries—its images and book illustrations. Andres admits she has been “always intrigued by the childhood experience and [her] art relates to it in some way.” She chose, for location, a home where a 100-year-old woman had died.  She cleaned it up and filmed in it for a week with her actors. Two young sisters discover a woman’s suitcase and hide it at home. They try on makeup and the clothes, even as they discover unsettling clues:  a woman’s shoe floating in the lake, a matching shoe in an abandoned car. Was there a sinister secret? And why haven’t the sisters told the police?

“Summer of the Hornets” revisits an occasion when one of Andres’ sisters nearly died from hornet stings. The story begins as a girl pokes a hornets’ nest.  In the next image, a woman looks up from icing a cake. Now Andres’ directorial genius reveals itself. In the third panel we see a closeup of the cake with a single hornet—while offstage an event takes place, all the more dreadful because we can only imagine it. The drama continues in overdrive, as we are shown dirty bare feet kicking up from a claw-footed bathtub, minded by the parents, next the child in bed, covered with welts and finally, a bathtub full of water covered with dead insects. Plausible or not, it’s a great warning not to disturb hornets!

Andres carries on an ages-old tradition of storytelling through pictures. In “The Fall of Spring Hill,” an odd event in her personal history links up with Baroque painting and Greek tragedy.

In a church kitchen, mothers prepare a picnic. Andres warns us that a bowl of red jello signifies blood. A red-fleshed watermelon has been sliced with an enormous knife. Art buffs will recognize the similarity to “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” by the most famous female painter of early times, Artemisia Gentileschi.

Then a child falls from a rickety playhouse and is carried down the hill. In revenge, the mothers take up axes and charge the playhouse like ancient Furies, hacking it to bits. The wreck looks more hazardous than before. It’s powerful storytelling, and compels viewers not to look away.

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