Near As Grass

Susan Jennings is a multimedia artist in the most basic, accidental sense: her projects don't come from some prior commitment to video, or sculpture, or photography. Instead they rise out of a peculiar, inquisitive temperament, liberated to amuse itself in serious ways. What marks out that temperament as Jenning's? A fascination with modest materials; a tone that blends shrewdness, delicacy, and humor.

Her recent photograms of women's hair are a kind of oblique portraiture, as literal in its own way as fingerprinting. The double format of the images gives each a symmetrical unity, a spurious completeness. They're still recognizable-- we can guess something about the subjects' ethnicities and ages. But they're also alien, with the cool glamour of botanical or astronomical imaging. Hair, in Jenning's hands, turns out to be a kind of corporeal radiation.

Jenning's “light photographs” seem, at first, to have no subject at all, to be just elegant numinousness, lovely Hoola hoops of ectoplasm. To make them, Jennings shines a lightbulb or flashlight in an otherwise dark room, and then photographs the illuminated wall, keeping the shutter open for the twenty minutes or so that it takes for the light to register adequately on film. So what we're seeing is again, a kind of portraiture: look carefully, and you can just make out, distorted but recognizable, the glowing filament and glass halo of the light source itself.

Jenning's process is more or less materialist. But its effect is to create, in different ways, intimations of immateriality. That quality is embodied most beautifully, to my mind, in Bubble Dance , Jenning's quietly stunning video. It begins with miniaturized, pastoral violence: bubbles drift downwards onto grass blades and explode, sending up sprays of miniscule droplets. When the bubbles finally accumulate, we discover, reflected in their silver-and-mauve surfaces, a human figure--the bubblemaker herself, a solitary child-woman turning cartwheels in a meadow. As she dances, the bubbles that carry her thin out, tremble, and vanish. The tape loops: the bubbles descend again. Bubble Dance touches art historical categories: it belongs to the august genre of the memento mori , and the more recent tradition of elegies for the 1960s. But it's too delicate, too open, to be so easily pigeonholed; Bubble Dance's significances feel, in the poet Richard Wilbur's phrase, “as near and far as grass.”