“Moving Still” constitutes a logical extension and perhaps the most concentrated and mature manifestation of Eileen Neff’s work to date. Although trained as a painter, Neff has established an essentially photographic practice that has consistently and provocatively employed landscape to forward philosophical musings about the nature of language and perception, modes of representation, the dynamics of inside/outside, and ultimately, artmaking itself.
Characterized in the mid-1980s and early 90s by hand-tinted black and white photographs mounted to shaped panels, her life-size, tromp l’oeil cutouts and installations (often including actual objects) employed a vocabulary of natural and domestic elements altered and recontextualized in deceptively simple ways. In The Midway (1990), a freestanding, two-dimensional cutout of an empty, wingback chair stared at a rotating column of seawater; in The Mountain A Bed and a Chair (1993), Mt. Saint Victoire rose erect from the sheets of Cezanne’s bed; and in A Description of the World (1989) the golden glow painted at the bottom of a globe (or was it the earth?) illuminated the top of a circular table over which it hovered--(or did the light from the table illuminate the globe?). Neff’s nuanced use of real scale, perspective, and juxtaposition placed her generic subjects in an uncanny dimension between object and image, concept and actuality that gave them an alluring immediacy. Furniture and shrubs, windows and trees were made to speak not of so much as things in themselves but as objects shaped by how and from where they were being considered.
Following these earlier strategies, Neff’s works shed their sculptural illusions giving way to increasingly distilled pieces informed by the conventions of picture-making and her interest in the modernist pictorial surface. These paired down photo-collages set up new relationships between the elements of the natural world to enable straightforward but undeniably inscrutable manipulations of orientation, scale, and proximity. It was is if the discrete units and prescribed behaviors of nature were subjected to all the speculative permutations of grammar. Coaxing clouds into empty rooms, for example, Neff demonstrated just how tentative--and how readily dislodged by thought--the strictures of reality might be. In other works, the viewer was invited to consider highly legible images of things we thought we knew from vantage points we might never otherwise think to imagine. Showing us the moon in front of the earth, or the stars beaming in front of moving clouds, these works us in places only the mind could occupy. The transporting effects of these visual paradoxes were matched--in the end--by the way they made a subject of the efficacy of the imagination.
In 1998 Neff was offered the opportunity to split studio time between New York and Philadelphia. Taking the train back and forth--scanning the window views in different seasons and changing light, looking east and west, coming and going--Neff recognized in these passages a set of conditions that would yield a new body of work. In addition the given play of interior vs. exterior and the train windows’ framing of the landscape, the velocity organized and divided the passing views into a system of vertical planes receding into the distance like stage sets comprised of so many scrims. In addition to these shifting prospects and flickering glimpses of near and far (issues that had informed her earlier work) there was the photographic blur, the most distinguishing marker of the pictures that comprise “Moving Still.”
In Newton’s Field, for example, the blur is a seductive marker of relative position. Here the whirling green behind the shrubs points to motion at a cosmic scale. Behind these bushes the world is rushing by with incomprehensible speed--a fact we would recognize if the gravity that is holding us so tightly to the surface of the earth were not blinding us to the actuality of its rotation. Besides reading as evidence of Neff’s location in a moving vehicle--the blur functions in other works as an active, optical interference in the foreground. The viewer, incapable of deciphering these horizontal washes of landscape, is impelled to see what is beyond, generating an almost involuntary impulse to look and to know.
That these works are catalysts for longing becomes most conspicuous in the series of vertical pictures, hinged, we could say, to rest of the exhibition by This and That. Arguably the most painterly of the new works, this plaid abstraction is formed by the play of horizontal and vertical echoed in four works that take the thwarting of reflection as their subject.
In Narcissus for example, the landscape not reflected in the wavy water depicted is mirrored photographically. Studying the new vertical orientation and the digital doubling, the viewer recognizes a figure standing upright in the symmetrical pattern in the water on which this mythic story is written once again. Neff’s subversion of the conventions of reflection--the exploration of images found in nature that have so long enamored both painters and photographers--animate the three works entitled Almost.... In these vertical diptychs, the viewer’s expectation of finding the landscape above inverted below introduces a powerful, temporal dimension. Undermining our assumption that the mirror image is instantaneous with its source, Neff establishes two conflicting layers of time that are spatially related but out of sync with each other, like two films scrolling backward and forward simultaneously.
In the end, this destabilization of time and space that form the core of “Moving Still” evoke the origins of photography, a practice anticipated decades before it was finally secured in 1839. Born of a persistent desire to create “a mirror with a memory,” Neff’s writing with light provides memory with a mirror.
artist and director, Arcadia University Art Gallery