Corinne Geertsen’s many-layered art images, which begin as photographs, are magic tricks. They contain ghosts of the photographed past, people wearing clothing time has almost forgotten — derby hats and waistcoats, huge hats covered with flowers, children in proper attire — people, largely, in awe of being photographed, whom we now find funnily over-dressed, over-posed.
Photographs themselves are a magic trick, a magic trick of light and shadow, and preservation. Technology, but a magic trick (as all inventions are, but photographs, exceedingly so).
But we’ve become used to photographs in so many ways, we’ve forgotten their once-miraculousness. What once were miraculous proofs of existence, now seem black and white and sepia squares and rectangles of almost preposterous, unsmiling, stiffness and loneliness. Faces only a relative could love. Clothes which look stifling, overdone, people trying too hard to look like more than what/who they are.
Then Geertsen came along, found staid old photographs, began mixing photographic and painterly techniques, illusions, and began to magically rescue people, with extreme dramatization, play-acting, and calling on the power of fairy tales. Think of the birds who helped Cinderella; in the Grimms’ tale birds led her to a ballgown by her mother’s grave; in the Disney tale they soared through the air and made her ballgown in front of her very eyes.
Or think of an old Michael Murphy song about a pony named Wildfire – “He busted down his stall/In a blizzard he was lost” – the girl who loves the pony Wildfire goes out into the blizzard, calling out his name, but she perishes, too, and they become ghosts, returning only “on cold Nebraska nights.”
In her work, Corrine Geertsen goes into the white-out blizzard of old history (many of the people in these photographs, according to her artist statement, are images of her own relatives, discovered in Mormon archives) – goes to find people, rescue them, bring them back, make sure they somehow do not fade away, perish. Animals, birds, are her magician’s assistants.
In Geertsen’s “Mute” two women with stolid faces stand next to each other not speaking or communicating in any way; but the young women wear daring, huge, tilted hats, with a monkey atop one and a baboon atop the other, jabbering animatedly. In another image, “Bird Apprentice,” a joyless-looking young man stands with one hand resting on a side table. But his sad look becomes somehow regal, as you see he has one mechanical wing sprouting from one shoulder, and wild birds-of-paradise designs traveling up his formerly dull suit. He’s mythical prince now, looking, in this gear, suddenly, quite a bit like a sulking, sexy, young, Prince Charles.
Another image: a very small girl in a dress stares at the camera, beside her a rhino, with a tossed giant brass hoop around its lethal horn. On its leathery hide, she’s tallied, with chalk, the number of times she’s sailed the hoop toward that horn while he stood very still and let her rack up a higher score (title: “Game”). Her face is exuberant.
In “Travels with the Queen.” one woman stands brave-faced, about to journey, on the rear platform of a train; but she’s no longer alone; with her are three hulking, real, bears. The magic of being with three bears and a beehive seems to have transformed her clothing: it’s many-striped, sateen, dark brown and gold; she’s not just a woman on a train, but a grown-up Goldilocks, her hair and hat and skin all pale-golden.
Seated men in businessmen’s suits of long ago sit not in a boardroom, but a deep meadow, in “The Board of Directors Takes Up the Cat Problem.” Cats on their laps and at their sides, they look – so happy.
In “Tea” a woman in a long gown sees signs, possible, of imminent ocean adventure: an upholstered settee her teacup is placed upon now has many octopus arms curling around its edges; pale green, antique carpets beneath her feet overlap each other in circles, suggesting ocean waves lapping over each other, on a beach.
In “Sanctuary” a mother’s daughter has a strangely beautiful raccoon face; she and raccoon-daughter, dressed in soft forest-green garments, are embracing, though fire is visible just across the river.
Good magicians must not run out of spells; they must always be thinking of new ones. Rescuing a feisty pony who ran into a raging a blizzard almost seems a simple plight, compared to the strangeness of a man with a fox’s head, somehow gliding on ice skates among swans (“The Fox Who Loved Swans,” one of the most beautiful, classic images here). Or, in another fine image, “The Designer,” a conjurement: a flying machine, just like the one a woman is drawing, arcs across the sky above her head, above her feathered pen and ink-pot. Swans apparently approve: in the sky, they follow the new flying machine.
Consider that in the title of Geertsen’s image “She Subscribed to a Bird-Brained Manner of Thinking” the term bird-brained cannot possibly be an insult: consider how many birds are in Geertsen’s work. In this image, three brilliantly-white swans nimbly grasp at tendrils of red ribbon in the air, ribbons on which declarations from fortune-telling games are printed (It is Not Certain; Ask Again; Very Doubtful). Like plucky bluebirds constantly surrounding Snow White, in Disney’s animated film, Geertsen’s white swans here are like a hovering force-field around the happy-looking dark-haired woman in Geertsen’s image.
Geertsen, who said in a recent interview that once as a child she “found a horse wandering” near her home, and “I was so in love with animals I grabbed its halter and brought it home – I was convinced it was lost,” really does remind one of the girl and the pony in the blizzard in the song “Wildfire.”
With her magic powers, could she have saved them in the song? As she saves people in her art images, from the obscuring blizzards of time? Could dark owls or ravens, sent by Geertsen, have flown above the girl and “the pony she named Wildfire/Who busted down his stall/And in a blizzard he was lost/While she went crying – Wildfire! Wildfire!” led them back? To stable/house? Away from ghosthood?
Geertsen’s work says, Yes. Of course.
Corinne Geertsen, Meyer Gallery, Park City, Sep. 24 – Oct. 17.
Rebecca Pyle is a writer and an artist with work in dozens of art/literary journals, in the United States and also in journals (in the English language) in India and the United Kingdom and in France and Germany. She graduated from the university the Wizard of Oz adored, the University of Kansas, where she studied art and lit. See rebeccapyleartist.com.