Finalist No. 5: Lisa McCarty

Chance rules in Lisa McCarty's photo-based artworks. Her series Florid Interiors explores the complexities of her relationship with her grandparents and her own childhood.
By Jessica Dawson
Friday, July 23, 2010; 4:45 PM

The Washington area may boast legions of micromanagers, but Lisa McCarty isn't one of them. When she makes her photo-based art works, chance rules.

To that end, McCarty worked with expired Polaroid film (who knows how the color will turn out?) to create the series "Florid Interiors," which she uploaded to Real Art D.C. Factor in her use a 40-year-old camera to take the pictures and you've got a solid foundation of unreliability.

McCarty flirted with uncertainties because "Florid Interiors" explores the complexities of her relationship to her grandparents and, by extension, to her own childhood. She shot the accumulated stuff in her grandparents' cluttered Arlington home.

But taking pictures was just the beginning. Back in her Arlington Arts Center studio, McCarty dipped her Polaroid prints in hot water to separate the prints'paper backing from the emulsion, the thin membrane on which the image appears. When I visited her studio, McCarty let me touch the films, which floated in water like jellyfish.

Once she's freed the emulsion, McCarty lays the skin-like sheets onto white paper. Sometimes she layers multiple membranes, sometimes just one. Transferring the skins from water to paper creates wrinkles that McCarty can manipulate on the page. Eventually, the emulsion dries and remains securely attached to the paper, which acts like a light box to reveal the images embedded in the film.

The finished art works are strange creatures indeed. They could be withered skins or burnt wood. There's something very intense about the blackness at their edges, and a real bodily presence of the membranes on paper. In areas where the emulsion lays flat, that surface tactility gives way to images that appear, ghostly, on the page. She makes us work hard to find them, but the images of McCarty's grandparents' house are in there, like hazy memories.

With "Florid Interiors," McCarthy is on to something. But seen in quantity, the works' nostalgia can feel rote.

Lisa, your method is so intriguing. How about exploring other ideas using the same technique? What about a subject that's more bracing and contemporary?

When I visited, McCarty also showed me an ongoing series of photos taken with a cheap, light-leaking Holga camera, and another series examining area Metro train riders that McCarty shot on her cell phone.

McCarty sees the clandestine Metro shots as a contemporary nod to the history of commuter portraiture that goes back as least as far as Honore Daumier's 19th-century efforts. Her LG clamshell's bare-bones camera is her answer to Daumier's oil and canvas.

Lisa, I like your exploratory spirit. Keep pushing.

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