Luis Mallo: In Camera
Introduction by Alison Nordstrom, 2003
Luis Mallo lives and works in the liminal spaces of the exile and the expatriate, and, not coincidentally, in the obscure and shadowy realm where art and description meet. His pictures are confident and curious but always a little slippery. He shows us what he sees and we see it too, but we are never quite sure why he has asked us to look in just such a way, or whether the emotions evoked by this looking are ours, his, or someone else’s, and we do not know whether either the emotion or the vision is true. The pictures of In Camera are straightforward and consistent in tone, palette, subject, and composition but they are also emotionally ambiguous and mysteriously intense. Each horizontal rectangle frames a vista: an empty street, a construction site, a building undergoing demolition--- and each vista is obscured by a physical barrier: a fence, a screen, a scrim, a rain-smeared window or a fabric blind that offer translucent glimpses of what is behind it or rigid gridlike abstractions that deconstruct the already fragmented whole they cover into tiny multiple compositions of form that inexplicably become their own meaning. To compound this layered study of looking, in many cases,
Mallo’s scrim is parted, his fabric is torn, and his fences are constructed with interstices so that shards and slivers of a single evidentiary layer, almost shocking in their immediacy, glow ambiguously within the folds, vines, sticks, shadows and smears that simultaneously, hide, isolate, define, reveal and mask them. Looking at these pictures is a complex act. They are photographs after all, unaltered and directly descriptive.
We begin by asking “What am I looking at?” Our eyes sort layers from shadows and foreground from background and subject from frame, but we are soon and simultaneously seduced by the rhythm, pattern, and order that the camera imposes on the forbidding and unruly mess that makes these worlds. We surrender the intellectual rather quickly here, and, relieved, go for beauty, encouraged by the counterintuitive yet effective colors, sometimes soft, dark and hallucinatory, sometimes vivid, harsh and strong, that conjoin to force themselves through the barriers before them. There is a loneliness inherent in the subjects of these pictures. Most depict absence or processes interrupted; the construction work abandoned suggest a human presence remembered and assumed but without possibility of contact. Few images show motion except that of cars and trucks passing by as though driven by ghosts, and the sole human depicted in any of them is heavily screened, his shape a blur, his gesture enigmatic and unacknowledging. We are reminded of Edward Hopper. We are reminded of the dreams we half-remember in the morning.
In Laminas, an earlier body of work, Mallo focused on church windows that shone for him despite the plastic, chicken wire, or screen that protected their often damaged surfaces. One sensed there, a consciousness separated from God, but turning for salvation, perhaps, to a less perfect but equally transcendent “noise in the street,” if we may borrow Joyce’s words. With In Camera, we are in the street, and we sense a consciousness separated from others. Walls, fences and windows prohibit any actual access but we can choose to observe, and, despite or because of our solitude, perhaps understand enough to feel we are apart. Mallo’s is the isolation of the voyeur, the invisible traveler, who drawn to the empty and the obscure, makes it matter by the act of looking at it, makes the camera a room, lived in alone, but shared with us in the way a serendipitous tear in a screen can almost let us in.