Film, like family, contains more beneath the surface than meets the eye. In his latest exhibition, Salt Lake City artist Justin Chouinard exposes the imperfect intricacies of human relationships via his manual manipulation of film.
Beneath the buzz of their annual winter art market, lies Bountiful Davis Art Center’s tranquil basement gallery. This location serves as a rather perfect space for Justin Chouinard’s collection None Of Us Knew It Could Be Said. As visitors descend the staircase, ears may perk up at the sounds of the ghost of home basements past: The unmistakable shhh-clunk of a slide carousel transitioning from one image to the next can be heard over the low hum of the projector’s fan. In a time of rapidly decreasing attention spans, the ten-second hold on each image encourages viewers to relax into the show just as if they were rummaging through a dust-coated box of family photos.
In his artist statement Chouinard notes the original films utilized in his work are from discarded and forgotten family collections. The projected images are altered in a way that distorts the original image, exposing once hidden layers. By manipulating 35-mm film, Chouinard creates warped scenes with an echo of familiarity. It’s as if your childhood home were to appear in a dream resembling your memories yet changed in a way that causes you to experience it in a completely different manner. Chouinard creates the whisper of a memory — a memory complete with emotions embedded within.
Running alongside the slide projector visitors can see prints of the works. This is another way in which the space works well for the exhibition: Rather than a square gallery, the long corridor space is reminiscent of a relative’s hallway peppered with family photographs. To draw on this parallel further, the works are presented not in uniform simplistic frames, but in mismatched wooden frames that visitors are likely to recognize as something from their own homes, down to marks of wear and tear. The prints are small in scale enhancing their likeness to home photo staging. This small scale invites an intimate viewing of the work. What may look abstract from across the room reveals itself to be, upon close looking, contemporary reimagining of vintage film. Between these two presentations of the work is an end-table, topped with two smaller works, that calls upon that domestic familiarity once more.
The one downfall of the exhibition space is the lighting. To properly illuminate the prints, overhead lighting is on for the majority of the space, which washes out the projected images. Ideally there would be some separation of the presented works to have them both viewed in an ideal light. Perhaps turning the lights down and adding in wall mounted lights for the prints would have allowed all works to shine. Other than this one logistical oversight the exhibition does an excellent job of showcasing the work.
Chouinard’s artwork is both visually exciting and emotionally evocative. In keeping with the analog process utilized in capturing the images, Chouinard took care to physically alter the film by hand: No digital manipulation occurred throughout his process. With no offense intended to artists working in the digital realm, it is refreshing to see the result of the artist’s hand throughout the pieces. Sepia tones and other signs of the passage of time are not lost in the works. While the original intended photo remains, the distortions created offer a new way to view them. Bleached portions obscure faces and locations. Layers of emulsion lifts and shifts causing scarring to the surface. Some of the subjects appear apparitional, some duplicated, and others fractured. The visual imperfections echo the true nature of human relationships.
Rarely, if ever, do posed family photos encapsulate the full complexity of the subjects. Even candid photos, while inching closer to capturing the true nature of a moment, often fail in presenting relational intricacies. In altering surface layers, and exposing imperfections, Chouinard successfully conveys tangibly that which is intangible. This body of work begs viewers to reflect on family histories and dissect the emotional wounds they may carry. The name of the series — None Of Us Knew It Could Be Said — alludes to those secrets we all carry, but don’t dare speak aloud. Acknowledgement of wounds is the first step in healing them. With this exhibition Chouinard initiates a collective healing.
Justin Chouinard: None Of Us Knew It Could Be Said, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Dec. 23.
Heather Hopkins recently received her BA in Art History from the University of Utah. She is also an arts writer for Southwest Contemporary. When she isn’t lost in a museum or art gallery, she can be found hiking and camping with her wife and their cat.