Ramona Trent James Harris Gallery, 903-6220

Through Dec 20.

When I was falling for Diane Arbus' photographs some years ago, it dawned on me that a photograph is not necessarily the record of a moment, but can also be the culmination of a transaction between the photographer and the subject. This is why Arbus' photographs are not documentary, no matter what sort of chill they emanate. In a very particular sense they could not have been taken by anyone but her.

This is photography's ongoing drama, the constant triangulation of photographer, subject, and viewer--and the necessary layers of truth that such a negotiation entails. Frankly, that this drama continues to interest people is a bit of a surprise; once you accept that a photograph may not be telling the truth, dwelling in the instability no longer delivers the thrilling little slap it once did. It had better be used to some larger purpose, or else we are all just sitting around patting ourselves on the back for getting the joke.

This is why I'm divided about Ramona Trent's photographs of women in various thoughtful poses--they're nice to look at, but don't seem to tell us anything new. Like the work of the reluctant school of artists that includes Justine Kurland and Nikki S. Lee and Katy Grannan, all of whom have examined the expectations embedded in images of women, Trent's images both entice and undermine. The women in My Lifetime Now strike poses that owe a great deal to the fashion spread, the album cover, the pinup. The most racy of them is a slight, boyish woman with a sort of Art Deco-Erté-filtered-through-the-'70s look sitting topless in a basket chair. The rest use the visual language of the simply suggestive: an arm bent over the head, a vague, supine, open-lipped stare toward the sky.

Luckily Trent doesn't stop at investigating worn-out tropes of desire. There is a persistent thread of anxiety that runs through these images, something that looks a great deal like paranoia, but here it is as refreshing as a pinch. In a pair of self-portraits, the artist looks thoughtful and introspective, and then nervously looks over her shoulder. If you try to anchor yourself in the details, it only makes things more complicated: the waistband of her pants visible through her see-through blouse, what looks like a wedding ring set on the appropriate finger. Just what is she apprehensive about, and why? This nervousness reappears several times, and the feeling of the chase infuses even the soft-focus images with fretfulness, a series of intimate moments shattered. The lives of these women are not necessarily available to you.

But this is something that Kurland and Lee and Grannan have also done, exploring the ambiguous narrative, the human tendency to create stories where none are given--and there's also Vancouver artist Althea Thauberger's wonderful Songstress, currently on view at SAM, which is precisely about a particular uneasy juncture of women and nature. (The question of reality, whether really real or staged, seems to have passed--strangely--to painting, where oddballs like John Currin are firmer in their truths, no matter how weird.) I've read that it annoys these artists to be grouped together, but it's worth asking whether they explore the same territory--identity, image-making, mystery, exoticism, the difference between the projected and the inherent--with slight differences in style and technique, or whether there is something more substantial that differentiates them (such as Deborah Mesa-Pelly's photographs of girls discovering portals to other worlds in their bedrooms, which seem to understand--the way Buffy the Vampire Slayer does, as well as Sabrina, the Teenage Witch--that the strangeness of puberty is not unlike a supernatural transformation).

To me, a lot of this work seems quite similar, which doesn't mean I don't have preferences (I like Kurland's work best); it also doesn't mean I don't enjoy Trent's photographs (I do), but there is something philosophically tentative about them that dampens their effect. This blasé conclusion comes as a surprise even to me, opening up, as it does, a little hairline fracture between the enjoyment of art and its historical significance. Should the one interfere with the other? Is innovation the only thing that counts? Do we live in a series of moments, or a constant fluid stream?

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