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Volkova's photography of plain drywall can leave viewers drawing a blank

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; C02

The last in a series of daily reviews looking at images from FotoWeek DC, Washington's third annual celebration of photography.

The standard assumption, when we look at photographs, is that they're fine stand-ins for some corner of the world. In a show tellingly called "Proofs," local artist Elena Volkova tests that assumption.

A little while back, Volkova photographed nondescript corners of the Hamiltonian Gallery on U Street NW. Now, for FotoWeek, she's installed those photos in the places they were taken, at the same scale as the architecture they show.

Just to the left as you walk in, a photograph shows the course of brick that runs above the gallery's floor as well as an angle in the drywall that sits above it. It's propped on the floor so that it hides precisely the bricks and walls depicted in it.

Other photos are of a plain blank wall, showing the faintest hints of drips and paint-roller texture. They're hung over white wall that, we imagine, features those same drips and texture -- though we can't tell, because that very wall is hidden by the photos sitting on it.

Still other photographs hang on the wall but show details of the gallery's white-on-white track lighting or of architectural detailing that's nowhere near where they hang.

Volkova's photos get us constantly checking our beliefs about what photographs show. No matter how hard she tried to match photo and scene, there are always gaps that prevent a perfect match. In that front-corner shot, there's no angle you can get to that makes the photograph and drywall line up perfectly. Volkova's wall shots presumably conceal the very surfaces they depict, so we can never affirm their truth -- or their lies. When we look up from Volkova's ceiling shots, we're surprised to find a somewhat different configuration of track lights -- but we don't know if the ceiling once looked as it does in the photos.

Volkova's photos come close to the traditional, superficial trickery of old master trompe l'oeil, where paint was made to be mistaken for reality. What's surprising is that, despite her use of a medium that ought to make truth easier to tell, she puts so much in doubt.

Proofs

through Dec. 4 at Hamiltonian Gallery, 1353 U St. NW. Call 202-332-1116 or visit http://www.hamiltoniangallery.com.

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