Memory/Reference: The Digital Photography of Martina Lopez

at the Art Institute, through January 28

The mustachioed man, looking distinguished in his three-piece suit, stares into the distance, his left hand resting on a large bound volume atop an ornate pillar. The familiar pose suggests a powerful figure, the lord of the manor, yet other parts of the image–a large-format computer-composite photograph–seem to strip him of power. Promising the Past, 1, like Martina Lopez’s six other works on view at the Art Institute, places monochromatic figures from old photos against color backgrounds pasted together from images she shoots herself, creating a multitude of contradictions. Neither of the two young children standing in front of the man seems particularly happy, and each of the three looks off in a different direction. Since the man wears a wedding ring, we infer that these are his children, yet their sepia tint separates them visually and temporally from his black-and-white image. In dress and pose he’s many decades old; are his “children” even older?

A deeper contradiction lies at the heart of Promising the Past, 1. In the background is a cemetery filled with monuments, and many of them resemble the ornate pillar, which seems tied to the man’s power and position. This too undercuts his force; the three figures are themselves a bit like cemetery monuments. Time haunts all of Lopez’s images; several have cemeteries in the background–a kind of future for the figures we see, but a future that’s already in the past.

Many of Lopez’s landscapes are wastelands. A smoky factory complex lies behind the upper-class couple in Revolutions in Time, 1. When such a couple pose on the grounds of their estate or indoors amid their possessions, the resulting placid, bourgeois images make the figures seem settled, secure. By placing them in front of smokestacks Lopez undercuts, even parodies portraiture conventions: the factory that may have given them their wealth is so dynamic that it’s visually disruptive, competing with them for our attention.

Lopez not only undercuts artistic conventions in her work but addresses issues of family and time. One of eight children of first-generation Mexican-Americans, she was a photo student when her father died in 1986. She turned to a family photo album then “to review the past,” as the exhibit booklet puts it. That album impressed her with the difference between her memories and the story told by the pictures. “I began to use the computer to create images that documented my own family history,” she says, but soon she started using “images from beyond my personal album as a way to create a collective history, one that would allow people to bring their own memories to my work.” (For the present composite photos, most about four feet wide, a lab made the final color prints from transparencies produced from Lopez’s computer disks.) Her work captures two essential qualities of the family album: its odor of the distant past and the sense of connection between its “characters.” The monochrome figures are clearly from old photos of people already dead, though occasionally other figures point to the future of the central characters. A family album is not only a record of the past, however. Every figure in Lopez’s photos is ensnared in a gigantic web–of landscape, of other people, of time. Their poses, expressions, and gestures never seem the free expressions of independent beings but markers on a grid of relationship and of time.

In View of the Heart, 2 suggests the reason for the large size and depth illusions of Lopez’s work. Behind the young man and woman in the foreground a body of water recedes into the distance, and in the background two young bridal couples whose faces resemble those of the central figures evoke one path the couple might take. At a spot near the picture’s center, where the perspective lines naturally converge, a group of six children and two adults play in the water, suggesting the family life that could result from marriage. Lopez’s images create multiple areas of interest, encouraging the eye to wander about, yet the lines that connect foreground with background also link different figures, at different points in space, with various pasts and futures. In Lopez’s work, space becomes time.

The empty, receding urban landscapes of De Chirico’s proto-surrealist paintings free the viewer to wander about, to imagine. But Lopez’s deep spaces are filled with stuff: figures, more figures, more landscapes. Rather than freeing the imagination, her photos offer a vision of an endless extended family–some dead, some perhaps not yet born–from which the wandering viewer can never escape, any more than her figures can. The almost gridlike spaces suggest the insistent parent, constantly reminding the wandering child that family obligations come first. But since the characters rarely look at one another, her images are also filled with a sense of missed connections: the past is never in full contact with the present.

Because Lopez’s images are so cluttered, their designs so closed, it’s hard to feel that viewers are genuinely free “to bring their own memories” to them. At the same time, the compositions never fully come together–perhaps a necessary result of her approach, but it creates an unsettling effect, as if Lopez hadn’t yet resolved the opposition between open elements the viewer is free to imagine and closed, artistically predetermined elements. Still, her best works, if not fully unified, are nonetheless powerfully affecting.

At first Heirs Come to Pass, 3 seems merely a bundle of unresolved contradictions. Figures throughout the landscape fail to connect. A little girl with a box camera suggests how the other photos were taken–except that she’s not pointing the camera at anything we can see. A hazeless, high-contrast cloudy sky like a theatrical backdrop makes it look as if a traveler could drop off the horizon, as if we’re at the edge of the world. But a blue river distantly receding, stopping only just before the horizon, unifies the image. Tributaries feed the river, and the arid landscape’s brown soil is also filled with a network of deep ruts, resembling the patterns of empty streambeds.

Rivers are often symbols of the passage of time, and the two bridal couples near the river in Heirs Come to Pass, 3 also evoke the idea of life as a journey, with marriage a key passage. Visually similar forms produce a different kind of unity. Mysterious silhouetted figures resemble the gnarled branches of a silhouetted tree nearby, recalling Max Ernst’s paintings of forests becoming beasts. These silhouetted figures and plant forms also start to resemble the irregular white clouds behind, and the striations in the land–the “flow” of the image makes it clear that each figure, however individual, is part of the same temporal journey. Figures disconnected in time and space begin to seem mysteriously linked, and the work movingly evokes Lopez’s central ideas: that every moment is connected to the future and past, and that time rules and eventually consumes us all.