artbeat (2006-01)

Tangled Lenses

Four young artists embrace their diversity

SWING KID: Sarah Long’s photo captures a child’s exuberance amidst the rubble in his Cape Town, S. A. township.

by Molly Kincaid

Like infinitely diverse snowflakes, human perspectives vary without end. It’s with that in mind that four young artists, Sarah Long, Amira Inas, Jesse Swanson and Caleb Wilson, come together for this month’s First Friday exhibit at the World Grotto in Market Square.

While many young artists tend to try to make sense of it all, wrangling myriad thoughts into conceptual works, this group of four artists seems to have a collective disregard for healing or explaining through art. “It is what it is” might be the common cerebral thread through each of the photographers’ sentiments, while their respective styles are staggeringly varied. All recent graduates of UT’s Media Arts department, they tend to relate the world without theory or agenda, capturing different perspectives that are as unposed and raw as young adulthood itself.

“I’m a mess,” says Long, absentmindedly stirring the horseradish flakes in her Bloody Mary. It’s New Year’s Day, the quintessential morning after, and it seems half of Knoxville is at Sunspot still slightly buzzed from last night’s ball drop. Inas adds, “But it’s about the mess, you know. It’s about garbage and femininity and what we do to try and change ourselves.” We’re talking about their collaborative film, Tangled , a visceral exploration on how women strive to be beautiful.

Jesse Swanson, who happens to be at Sunspot, ambles by the table but doesn’t seem too interested in talking. Long explains that Swanson was always a bit elusive; he’s rumored to have an elaborate treehouse with no ladder and fancies sneaking into nuclear reactors to snap photographs. “I would always think, ‘Let me get behind your eyes,’” she says. “But then you see his work, and it reflects what’s behind his eyes.” Though not sure what Swanson plans to display this Friday, Long and Inas are sure it will be equally brilliant and obscure.

Not eager to talk about their own work, Inas and Long could go on for days about each other’s. “Sarah captures children in these gorgeous moments,” says Inas. “I think her stuff is really raw. It’s what’s really going on, but it’s something we may not want to see.” Long pulls out prints of work she’ll be showing, mostly taken in South Africa while she was on Semester at Sea, a studies-abroad program. From the resolute child perched on a trash heap amidst scrap-metal shanty houses in a township, to the halo of light shrouding another child as he swings on a makeshift tire swing, Long’s work freezes a range of emotions, despite the saturating backdrop of poverty and still-present segregation. But her work isn’t necessarily as political as it is observational. “You understand your own country, but then you go to other countries, and you see the same themes, even in children.”

“She does beautiful work about genealogy,” Long says, shifting the focus to Inas, who pulls out a binder of photos, many of them collages or “quilts” made of repetitive patterns of photos, fabric and script. “Quilting is an art I’d always admired because it’s a piece of history,” says Inas. “Not only was it a necessity to keep warm, but someone put a lot of love into it. The artistry comes in bits and pieces—a little piece of someone’s jacket or a scrap of a hat.” Similarly, Inas incorporates bits of recipes and journals from a favorite great aunt, who was once a caterer. Inas’ other works might feature a bride’s and groom’s dangling feet or the crossed legs of a friend. “I like to be sneaky,” she says. Other times, she’ll arrange a shoot and let the chips fall as they may. “I got these girls together because I wanted to see how their skins looked together,” she says of a series of what looks like a demure yet sexy sleepover. “I just like to see what surprises I’ll find.”

Surprise is perhaps the most important element of Caleb Wilson’s work. When his camera broke a year ago, he decided to follow in the footsteps of Dizzy Gillespie, who once dropped his trumpet but continued playing it, thus developing his trademark style. “I’m not even sure exactly what happens inside the camera,” says Wilson. “It’s a functional aspect of a dysfunction.” He’s learned to harness the glitch, using long exposure times to create swirling effects with lights and movement. “It’s not so much of a statement as it is finding beauty in something that’s broken,” he says. “I’m not trying to make compositions. I’m just taking a bunch of pictures and seeing what I get, kind of like fishing with a dragnet.”

With wildly different styles and personalities, one thing all four artists embrace is a unique lens on the world. Wilson calls his collection Integral Lens , which he says means, “Philosophically, you could look at any situation from all perspectives, but sharing your own perspective is what photography is about.”

What: First Friday Photography Exhibit