Sara VanDerBeek, Art Papers
Sara Van Der Beek at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Originally published in Art Papers

Sara VanDerBeek is among a group of unaffiliated American photographers—including Eileen Quinlan, Talia Chetrit, and Carter Mull—who, in recent years, have pursued a form of still-life photography that might be more accurately described as sculpture-for-camera. But while, say, Mull and Quinlan rely on chance and process to activate the environments they fabricate and photograph in their studios, VanDerBeek utilizes photographic space as a site of complete compositional control. The highly stylized constructions and assemblages in her images, which typically contain archival photographs, are deployed in tastefully restrained palettes—cool blues, ashy grays—and arranged with a precision that calls to mind commercial photography or the orderly grids of layout design. But in these carefully architected images, she also demonstrates a strategy that further wrests photography from its fallacious documentary tradition and foregrounds the artist's command over the picture plane, her authority to choose what to represent and what to exclude.

For VanDerBeek's Hammer Project [Hammer Museum; September 10, 2011—January 8, 2012], she created a small white room within the gallery, inside of which a group of new photographs comingled with sculptures, no longer mediated by the camera. Following recent work inspired by specific places such as Detroit and New Orleans, the Hammer Project was directly inspired by Los Angeles itself, evidenced in four black-and-white photographs, distributed across the four walls of the room like the points of a compass. Two facing images depicted bleary close-ups of Native American necklaces, whose strands of beads shine against pitch-black grounds, while the other pair matches a portrait of a woman in profile, dressed in ceremonial regalia, with an isolated half-moon, easily imagined perched over the California desert. Along with Feathers, 2011, a spindly candelabrum-like sculpture in which seven painted macaw feathers sprout like flames, the photographs imbue the space with a spiritually heightened atmosphere, at once funereal and transcendent, where the artist toys with tropes of visibility and obfuscation.

For instance, The Visible, 2011, a screen of vertical white filaments that echo the images of beaded necklaces, bisects the space in two, partially occluding whichever half of the installation is opposite the viewer. This strategy of interfering with or redirecting a viewer's gaze is reprised in a pair of mirrored metal stands, one of which displays a white mask. Strategically positioned in front of the photograph of the half-moon, one of the mirrored stands reflects the moon's inverted double, just as we see the shadowed underside of the mask in the adjacent counterpart. Four Directions, 2011, offers a symmetrical X-shaped totem in mica and painted steel. Here, each partition of the sculpture suggests transparency, seeming to reveal posterior portions of the structure when it only reflects what is plainly visible.

While allowing viewers to interact with these works in a three-dimensional gallery would seem to compromise VanDerBeek's ability to control how they are seen, the confined space of the room-within-a-room corrals the viewer's passage through the space much like the framed confines of an image direct the gaze. In fact, walking through the space felt like inhabiting one of her photographic tableaus. As images mirror each other and sculptures deliberately interrupt one's ability to take the exhibition in as a whole, it seems as if each possible vantage was conceived as a two-dimensional view of a three-dimensional space. Perhaps this sensation should not be so surprising, given that the bright room inside a larger unlit gallery replicates the focused look of a viewfinder, not to mention its ability to plunge periphery into darkness and cleanly parse the seen from the unseen.