by Kathy Curtis Cahill
Susan Sontag observed in a brilliant essay, “Literature is writing that one wishes to reread.” So, it is with Kathy Cahill’s Night Echoes, a confident visual theme of want, desire, and contemporary exploration of cultural fantasy. These images of fashionable and quirky store window displays, captured long after dark, are visual literature, and viewers will want to read into them again and again.
Cahill’s images of storefront mannequins, each of them posed, dressed, and designed to induce and seduce us to purchase garments, are texturally interesting in and of themselves. But the role of an artist is often to dismantle the existing communication codes and reassemble some of them to present the world with new views and thematic novellas. While the fashion and storefront designers have constructed garments and a presentation that pushes the boundaries of institutional art, Cahill presents work that is at odds with the structure of art culture at large. Her photographic viewpoint transcends the documentary pictures of seductive storefronts by positioning the viewer inductively. You are on the outside looking in, sometimes on the inside looking out, but you are not window-shopping as one does during the day, but ‘window wondering’ in the loneliness of the night, your personal quiet mirrored in glassy echoes.
The decorative power of the storefront displays portrays traditional aesthetics of contemporary fashion, or perhaps ‘fashion sales art’ in each image. However, other elements in the images make us lose our sense of ground and figure. Reflections from adjoining windows ricochet other ideas, streaked lights from passing cars, or bare-bulbed street lamps taunt us with reality as we explore the fantasy of mannequins who are often more real than material. A bold Queen, gowned in gold, radiates from a darkened men’s store, lingerie clad women from a New York fashion house teeter between sensuality and sexuality, while sheer clad mannequins from a Melrose Street store in LA provide interactive sexuality without pretense, only proposition.
Lamp shaded heads, featureless but formed faces, wedding gown hopefuls all rush at us with the fresh fashions of the moment, each of them echoing more than just style. They resonate with reflections upon ourselves and our social norms. Without reservation, Cahill tells us we are a consumer society, one searching for the new, the next, the creatively different, but her images transcend obvious consumerism. The 16 prints in the exhibit give us a strong opportunity for interpretation versus objects of consumption.
Cahill has a natural resonance with this subject because of her many years as an Emmy nominated TV and cinema set decorator with such shows as Criminal Minds, Judging Amy, and many others wherein she brings a background reality to the foreground script. Educated as an art teacher in New York State, where she learned fundamental photography at the college level, she continued to explore black and white images after college and managed her personal darkroom. However, it was after developing skills in digital photography and postproduction that she was able to develop this theme.
“Over time, digital capture allowed me to develop a voice to express this theme,” she explains. “The project and several iterations continue to develop, evolve, and live. I cruise the night streets with my husband Larry looking for store windows, searching for these perfect window tableaus, windows full of provocative stories.”
The storefronts in Night Echoes are certainly first cousins to cinematic set creation. Cahill initially photographed them in the daylight, using a polarizing filter to cut the window glare, but this failed to convey a deeper ‘sense of the night.’ She began to shoot at sundown to reduce glare, then found shooting at night brought the theme closer to her own emotional senses. Reflections still fell upon the glass from stores across the street, streetlights, passing cars, and sometimes, even herself. However, as often happens with a thematic study, what was originally an obstacle suddenly became an invaluable element in each window exploration. Fragmentary, wandering, and iterant night reflections from other sources added depth, harmony or conflict, all of which alter the original commercial intent of the window display. Low light noise filters the smooth thought process and allowing us to feel the grit of night, especially in such images as Melrose Pickup and Stand Out.
Kathy Curtis Cahill’s exhibit destabilizes the thought that what we see at first glance is a reliable depiction of what our senses crave. Night Echoes delivers us imaginative moments that are universal on the one hand, but challenge our very private fantasies and unrecognized desires.
Night Echoes is at the Calumet Gallery, 1135 N. Highland Ave. Hollywood, CA 90038, from January 3rd to February 3rd, 2014.