It’s cold. You’ve been sleeping, god knows how long, on a thin white sheet and pillow. Standing, you look around. Snow drifts at eye level, high enough to cloud the view, but for some strange reason, no lower. You walk north of your tousled bedding, just a couple feet. There’s an edge. And beyond that, a darkness so deep, not even gravity goes near, not even sound, not even dreams.
Carl Jung called these psychological tundras Shadow, that unconscious part of the mind where experiences too unpleasant to face or remember tuck themselves away. Recovering even one of those experiences can occupy a lifetime. I sometimes think that an artist ventures to the edge of the Shadow not to recover what’s been lost but to acclimate to the darkness—to look without fear.
It’s what I sense and admire in Tracy Templeton’s photographs. I wouldn’t want to find myself in Templeton’s snowy edgelands, not even in a dream. The outskirts of the human mind are far less forgiving than any Everest. But clearly Templeton comes here often. Therefore, we see her Shadow as she sees it—not completely inhospitable, but soft at the edges. You can almost hear the nocturne in the nothing.
A “mind of winter,” said Wallace Stevens, can look out at the bare places and behold “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” and not imagine any misery on the brink. A mind of winter, in other words, can look into the Shadow without fear. And if that’s true, then Templeton’s otherworldly encampments are certainly worth our frequent visits.
Derek Michael Besant, Curator and Emeritus Professor from Alberta College, describes Templeton’s work as a “longing that is associated with winter nights on the prairie.” In the words that follows, Besant guides us through the why and how of that longing.
I. To Dream as Such
Tracy Templeton’s approach to studio work is drawn from an abiding longing that is described by landscape. Saskatchewan is prairie. The eye scans distance along a vast horizon. One looks for weather here like a sailor watching the open sea for signs. Templeton’s translation of these instincts, her wariness, survival habits, and the way her body’s temperature rises or falls with her environment give her work the intimacy, or sense of sanctuary, that is at the heart of Canada’s wilderness.
II. Somewhere Is Here
But what if you found these elements just off the road along some prairie town’s outskirts? There, in the ditch, the twisted sheets stolen from the bedroom or buried under falling snow: a night that, possibly, never ends. Templeton has been down this road before. Her dilapidated farmhouses with their abandoned furniture haunt the viewer with a desire to know: who lived here? The black and white photo-based intaglio chine-collé aspect of her historical works still resonates but is taken to new dimensions when printed on fabric, where two or three dimensions seem to be at play with each other. It is not surprising that Templeton has carried her prairie sensibilities with her wherever she has worked – from the cityscapes of Illinois to coastal Oregon, down into the quarries of Indiana, and to American universities where she has held teaching positions. What she has left behind follows her, influencing her world and determining where she goes next. They say that development of character occurs in the first five years of one’s life. Templeton was shaped by growing up on a farm, surrounded by old barns and dirt roads, observing the slow decay of wood fences, watching prairie grass mimic the surface of the ocean in a wind storm: moments that require concentration over time. As an adult, she brings these sensibilities to her works, where the first glimpses draw upon formal frontal positions that draw in the subject, placing the viewer into her gaze, out a window, in a mirror, or from the detached perspective of an out-of-body experience. The viewer traverses Templeton’s images as if in a dream, beginning to see through her eyes, experiencing a longing that is associated with winter nights on the prairie.
III. Changes Are Shifting
The scale of the new works beckons one to study the folds and crevices at close quarters, as if this strange set of clues might yield an answer to the equation she has set up. However, Templeton has edited the scene down to what might be a route to the ultimate reckoning of the land with its metaphoric Ideal. The way the sheets are crumpled makes us uneasy, similar to the toss and turn of nightmares. The unease is exemplified in how the horizon is depicted: unclear, unforgiving, and not unlike driving home at night during a snowstorm. Hung like heavy drapes, the works gather and fall to the floor, connecting with the physical space in which a viewer is standing, while rising above eye level into the darkness.
IV. Much Stirring in the Air
In Templeton’s works, the night sky has become spatial, inviting us to navigate it in search of constellations or, perhaps, for a way that would take us home. Or is it the night of shooting stars where you stand transfixed while one of the heavenly bodies careens to its extinction? The bed is a ghost in this landscape, not unlike other of Templeton’s images where absence, as found in the abandoned farm houses, is the disquiet of something (or someone) still lurking there. But these ghosts have arrived as if made of snow—perhaps an optical illusion that has shown itself on the windshield between wipers during the ice storm. I cannot think that Templeton has not allowed these weather conditions to become her own way of stepping outside her comfort zone and into what new work should always be – the unknown. In her dream-like trance, assembled out of bed sheets, night stars, and planets, rolled out like an Asian scroll painting, the format of her work has the appearance of a vertical slice taken out of a vast horizontal space. A space that could be from another planet, from our dream of another constellation… another constellation we are looking out into from our dreaming …
V. Installation: Łódź