Earlier this year, my gallery partners and I came up with a concept for a juried exhibition for the holiday season at ARC Gallery: “Dollhouse”. We were hoping for artistic visions that took the concept of dolls and dollhouses to unexpected places. One of my favorite works, selected by the juror, Jack Fischer of the eponymous downtown gallery, was a photograph by San Francisco artist, Audrey Heller entitled “Measure”. In the photograph, Audrey has created a fully realized world where two figures pass time waiting on rulers reminiscent of the rulers I used back in elementary school half a century ago. What is being measured? Is it the time that they are spending waiting? Is it the longer passage of time from the 50’s and 60’s until now? Is it something altogether different? Audrey creates a world that implies a story, and then allows us, the viewers, to fill in the text.
One of Audrey’s most prized possessions, as a child, was a miniature farm set complete with a barn, animals and people. Her form of play was to carefully stage tableaux and leave them up for weeks. It was not a surprise when, as a young adult, she went on to study theater, and more specifically set and lighting design, at UC Santa Cruz and Northwestern University. Much of her work has a distinctly theatrical feel.
Recently I sat down with Audrey over a glass of wine and we browsed through her book, Overlooked Undertakings. The images in this book are all staged with German miniatures. Each seems like a snapshot of a scene in a play. While Audrey does not supply the narrative, one distinctly has a sense of a pause in the action. There is something that has happened leading up to this moment; and shortly one feels that the action will resume. For me, it is that feeling of a pause that makes the work special.
One of the pieces that Audrey specifically chose to talk about was “Walkers”. It is not an obvious choice. It is a deceptively simple image: a small girl follows after a group of adults disappearing into the shadows. However, because the image is ambiguous, the possibilities of a story are myriad.
I particularly enjoy some of the recurring characters. A number of images feature scuba divers who seem to be constantly in search of open water. In one work, a diver is poised over a small pot in a watercolor set. In another, a diver searches for the ocean in a bag of goldfish crackers. My personal favorite in this series is “Red Sea” where a pair of divers has climbed up a watermelon in search of the sea, only to be once again thwarted. Her characters are underdogs. They strive and they fall short. But they persevere. Undeterred, they strive again and again.
Another series of works has figurines polishing and touching up roses. It is hard, behind the scenes work that goes unnoticed and unappreciated. It is both clever, but also subtly political. One understands why Fotofolio publishes some of Audrey’s work as greeting cards. The images are amusing and accessible. But, for me, it is the slightly subversive back stories that take the work to another level.
You can currently view Audrey Heller’s photography at DeLaSole Footwear in the Castro. She also is in the current group exhibition at ARC Gallery: “Dollhouse” in SOMA. She will be participating in the Artists Talk there Saturday, January 8th from 1-3pm. And, she will be at the Juror/Artists’ Reception on Thursday, January 13th from 6-8pm.
This spring, Audrey will be showing her work at two Texas art festivals: The Bayou City Arts Festival in Houston – March 25-27th and The Main Street Fort Worth Art Festival in Fort Worth – April 14-17th. You can also see Audrey’s photography at her studio here in San Francisco by appointment.