A f t e r w o r d
by A.S. Hamrah
I went with Amy Kubes to Sears after she decided she needed a pair of little girls' underpants to put on a cantaloupe. "Do you want to go with?" she asked, and I said, "Sure." We walked the aisles of the Children's Department, and Amy chose a package of Size Three Toddler Girls' Panties that looked like they'd fit the melon waiting at home. Neither of us had ever shopped for children's underwear before. The shopping trip took on a furtive quality that made us queasy and giddy at the same time, like maybe it was wrong to buy toddler girls' underpants and put them on a cantaloupe and take a picture of it. The sense that something's wrong, an unease you can't quite pinpoint amidst the fleeting goofiness -- that's the feeling Amy's photographs evoke. Something's gone missing in the universe she creates, space has been emptied out by small tragedy and all that's left are sad or absurd gestures meant to affirm that something was there but isn't anymore. What's exciting about her work is that she can evoke these feelings with nothing more than fruit she has lying around the house, some cloth, or a pool of water. The way she photographs and prints her subjects is far more interesting than the way Konrad Cramer, for instance, used similar material.
"Cantaloupe Underpants" is the picture that emerged from our excursion to Sears. It's a photograph that bothers people who don't laugh when they see it, or gasp, or go, "Eww." Some people just look sourly at it. They don't see a perfect longing for one's own child in that photo, maybe because of the way it reduces the absent child to a monad, a swaddled butt and nothing more, one part of a baby made to be assembled when the other parts are in-season at the supermarket. "Corncob Girl" similarly uses produce to portray both a Midwestern farm child's homemade doll and the child herself, and elicits equally unsettling sad, comic, icky feelings. Yet somehow "Cantaloupe Underpants" is upbeat. It's the kind of affirmation Susan Sontag described in On Photography as post-Whitmanesque, the result of "a sharp-eyed witty program of despair." In that same sentence Sontag mentions "paper ghosts," and there are plenty of those in Amy Kubes' work, too. She takes filmy emanations as her subject matter and that's what her photographs are.
I was Amy's roommate in Allston, Mass., in the apartment where many of the photographs in Surrogate were made, and it's strange to think now of Amy at a mall shopping for a gourd's underpants. Amy hasn't taken a picture outside the house in ten years. When I think of her working she's always at home, in a corner of the big fire-damaged and aluminum-sided Victorian house we lived in, crouching in front of some tiny object and waiting for the light. When she was out of sight I knew she was holed up in the extra bedroom she'd turned into her darkroom. There, while she played the Pablo Casals 1930s recordings of the Bach cello suites over and over, she made the gigantic Viscera prints, all 30-by-40-inch murals, huge and threatening and perfect for Times Square if she'd had enough room to make them even bigger. I'd rather see "Insomnia" over Forty-second Street, or the "Cantaloupe Underpants," than a liquor ad or an airbrushed supermodel. They should be on billboards, the Viscera photographs, deep black-and-white and without text, an antidote to advertising's insistence on plasticized human forms and bright labels.
By contrast the Little Worries are tiny, 3 1/2-by-5 inches, the exact size they're shown in this book. Amy says she wanted to make them small and unthreatening, so people would want to hold them, or nurture them like you nurture a wart you've grown to love, something you want to cultivate even if it's unpleasant or unattractive. I remember Amy's first surgical experiments with peppers and pears. They were unpleasant. A time or two the smell of rotting produce might've peeled the wallpaper off the kitchen walls if it hadn't peeled off already.
The house we lived in was on a bare corner in the section of Allston (itself a section of Boston) known as Lower Allston. There wasn't a fence around the property and there were no trees in the yard. The lunatic landlord (or "Land-Lord," as he always signed his barely legible and not infrequent notes), a 60 year-old garbageman named John Pyne who lived upstairs, mowed the lawn but once a year. Month after month the grass was visible at the level of the first floor windows. Sitting on the couch we'd notice the blades had grown to armrest-level. The tall grass swayed in the breeze like wheat, and without even shrubs to set the yard off from the street it was exposed to the sidewalk like a flat Midwestern field, a patch of the Plains inexplicably set down in New England. Visitors came up the walk to our porchless front door like they were strolling through alfalfa. Once, as our landlord finished his yearly harvest of the lawn, we swore we'd heard women's faint voices singing "Bringing in the Sheaves."
Amy was born and raised in Minnesota, and I think the hayfield aspect of our house made her feel at home, in other words isolated, and helped her work. Our flat-roofed, 19th century house took on the appearance of a grain silo in that yard. Inside it was like the interior of the house from Meet Me in St. Louis, but abandoned and dilapidated. The surfaces in that house, the walls, the floors, the windows and the tabletops, became a stage for her work, and they all reflected a spare Midwestern ethos that combined profitably for her with the faded elegance of that part of Boston. The house had lost its third floor in a fire and it had never been replaced. Across the street was a house the exact copy of ours, except intact. The people who owned it had restored it to its former glory, painted it and made it picture perfect. In our house there was a back stairway to the third floor with a last stair that ended an inch from the ceiling. The amount of headroom decreased to nothing as you climbed. The floor of the basement was covered in the broken glass of unreturned deposit bottles and piled with wire hangers and forgotten, rusted bicycles. The two houses across from each other were like The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was in the Gray manor, the portrait house, called the House of Pyne after the landlord's last name, that Amy made pictures like "Insomnia" and "Pea Pod Parade." Across the street they rebuilt the widow's walk; here, Amy photographed frozen fish.
Not long ago I was reading a couple of biographies of American artists who were both born in the Midwest and, like Amy, left it for the coasts. One book was on the novelist Dawn Powell and the other was about the film director Howard Hawks. They were born approximately six months and two hundred miles apart, in 1896, Hawks in Goshen, Ind., Powell in Mount Gilead, Ohio. Early in each book I came across something that reminded me of Amy Kubes's work. This is from Dawn Powell: A Biography, by Tim Page (1998):
Until a few years earlier, the woman for whom Powell had been named -- Hattie Powell's youngest sister, Dawn Sherman Gates -- had also lived in Shelby. But Dawn Gates had died mysteriously in 1906, at the age of twenty. The Shelby Globe attributed her death to acute heart failure and yellow jaundice and did its best to quash a curious town rumor that had her being poisoned by eating oyster sandwiches.
In fact, according to Sherman lore, Dawn Gates [...] had died from the complications of a disastrous abortion. Her namesake had adored this merry, high-spirited young aunt and was agonized by her death.
And this, from Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy (1999):
In May 1911, the most horrible of tragedies hit the Hawks family, the first of three to befall the children of Frank and Helen Hawks. On May 4, Helen Bernice, their youngest child, then five years and four months old, ate a bad piece of fruit and suddenly died. The cause of death was officially listed as acute enteritis, but it seems likely that the fruit, described as "unripe" on her death certificate, was actually somehow infected or poisoned. In accordance with her Christian Science beliefs, the girl's devastated mother instructed the funeral director to cremate the remains, and the ashes were interred at Mt. View Cemetery two days later. Typically, the family kept its grief subdued and as controlled as possible, and what happened to Helen was rarely spoken about subsequently.
Amy Kubes's pictures are redolent of this 1911 world, a world of young women and girls whose real illnesses and dilemmas are inexplicable or embarrassing to onlookers, and get passed off as the results of eating bad fruit or oyster sandwiches. Her photograph, "Tomato Birth," could illustrate the two passages. I think in some way Amy is more comfortable with that world. It reassures her because it reminds her of the way people deal with those kinds of things in the Midwest. At the same time it makes her uneasy and sometimes she's as horrified by it as she is attracted to it. Once she told me a story about how her neighbor back in Minnesota had a six-inch ball growing inside him, and she related the gleeful way her family delivered this news and how they went over it in great detail with all sorts of good will; they went on about how the doctors had to get right in there and cut it out and it took seven hours. This kind of happy lack of avoidance of life's trials, especially when they're surgical, and the discussion of them over coffee in the morning in a place that's snowed-in half the year -- that's one place her pictures come from.
Another is her bout with endometriosis. The three sections of Surrogate form a three-act drama about her illness and how she overcame it. The Viscera series in particular portrays something like the dream life of endometriosis. The surrealist Hans Bellmer was involved with a Romanian dancer named Elise Codreano for a while in the late 1930s. During that time Codreano evidently wrote a still-unpublished book called Preface to a Psychology of the Viscera. Kubes' photographs remind me of that title. Codreano's and Bellmer's interest in what one Bellmer exegete calls "the expressive psychology of the physical body," or "the physical unconscious," is displaced in Amy Kubes' work onto objects. In her photographs vegetables, fish and laundry aren't made to replicate or even necessarily imitate the body, but to stand in for it.
The first series in Surrogate, Duration, describes a period of waiting, one fraught with unease, a period in which life is emptied out and something seems indefinably wrong. The series starts with a picture identified as late-night and wintertime, a picture called "Note," in which life is affirmed, and so is aging. It's Kubes' birthday, and death is present. Significantly, it's the mother of a friend who's died. "Note" is the only photograph in Surrogate that uses text this way. When it appears in her other photographs it's abstracted. From the void depicted in the Duration photographs comes a disaster that's exposed in the Viscera series. A history of physical illness and mental disturbance is exposed chronologically in these sometimes womb-like images of cavities, vesicles and fluids. The picture called "Stain" seems to bring the series to an end. In it, a greasy bill comes due for whatever operation Kubes has undergone or performed. With this picture the pain portrayed in the series seems to float away into the clouds. The situation described in the work is fading yet something of it remains. "Stain" may be the only photograph ever made that compares a stain to clouds. This is the stain left over, the stain Slavoj Zizek identifies in his chapter on Chaplin's City Lights in his book Enjoy Your Symptom! Kubes' stain resists symbolization, it's what's left over, it's that aspect of her illness she enjoyed because she captured something from it, and it comes to her in the form of a bill. As Zizek concludes, "[T]he stain" is:
the uncanny excess that the subjects snatch away from each other, forgetful of how its very possession will mark them with a passive, 'feminine' stance that bears witness to the confrontation with the object-cause of desire. What ultimately interrupts the continuous flow of words, what hinders the smooth running of the symbolic circuit, is the traumatic presence of the Real: when the words suddenly stay out, we have to look not for imaginary resistances but for the object that came too close.
Zizek associates this with a "self-destructive female curiosity." Is there a better description of Kubes's photographic relationship to her illness? Without turning to Jacques Lacan like Zizek does, Kubes has discovered on her own a new way to portray the uncanny. She photographs the Real, and the ordinary objects she chooses resist being reduced to banal symbols. They're too present, an effect she achieves partially with scale, and in her photographs they're too wrong to be made cute, too frigid to ever really be friendly.
From "Stain" Kubes proceeds to the Little Worries, where she repairs what she can out of the shrunken, encroaching world she's discovered. It's a world her illness has broken up into component body parts. Everything she finds bears a scar or a bruise. The vegetable forms that make up life when it's examined too closely have all been in accidents or otherwise exposed to harm. The domestic spaces she finds them in become recovery rooms for the raw and peeled.
It's unnecessary to narrativize Amy's photographs like this, and knowing her history isn't important to enjoying them, but looking at them together in Surrogate suggests it. Reading over what I've written here I'm afraid I've made Amy seem like a shut-in or a sad sack, but she's not like that at all. I've written about her work this way at the expense of its comic quality. I've ignored certain issues surrounding the female body and domestic space. (Issues like that are always described as surrounding things, I don't know why.) I haven't mentioned the way her photographs reflect how these days hospitals throw people out early and force them to recover at home, and the way Amy's aesthetic, despite its dedication to a kind of early modernism, reflects a real situation in contemporary life better than the ultra-clean operating theater of so much postmodern photography. It's a situation from the past that returned by the end of the twentieth century. Working quietly in her house, far removed from trends, refusing filters, toning, artificial light or superimpositions, more influenced by the Tolstoy novels she reads than by current photography, Amy Kubes has created an arresting body of work animated by twilight and by her initial disbelief that her ovaries had exploded. Since I know her it's amazing to me how everything that happened to her resulted in photographs like "Fur Pear."
When Amy and I lived in the House of Pyne we watched a lot of movies together because I had to write about them. She likes the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Coincidentally, like him, she only uses a 50mm lens on her camera. (She abandoned the 35mm lens midway through the Duration series.) Like Ozu, she realized early she had to severely limit herself or she wouldn't be able to accomplish anything. There are just too many choices for photographers today, and I think Amy realized that bothering with them could be counterproductive or paralyzing. After a while, as our Land-Lord descended further into madness, it wasn't too easy to get anything done in that house, anyway. At night we'd watch Son of Frankenstein or The Big Heat or Faces for as long as we could until the music started upstairs. Pyne owned a dozen 45 r.p.m. records that he'd play loudly, again and again, in sequences only he understood. The records were plucked and saved from some painful time in his life, as far as we could tell they constituted the only music he ever listened to. He used them to keep himself frozen in his past, to hurt the pain. Sometimes he'd play Nilsson's "Without You" eleven times in a row and follow that with Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry" eight times. Some nights he'd play Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" so many times I knew that if every last copy of that song were destroyed and no one could ever hear Hank Williams singing it again I wouldn't care.
As the night grew longer and lonelier for him he'd try to lessen his solitude by switching to Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life." When repeated doses of the Boone Novocain didn't work he'd put on the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited." Then he'd thump his living room floor with his feet, dancing like he was the Frankenstein monster himself and making the light fixture on our ceiling shake. The Pointers were always his last recourse, and he'd play "I'm So Excited" for hours. Once, the soundtrack of the movie we were watching completely obliterated, our ability to concentrate on anything else shattered, we rang his bell and asked if he might turn down the sound a notch. "The volume's only on Six!" he shouted in our faces when he came to the door, his eyes fixed on a spot behind us. "It goes all the way up to Ten! Six is not loud! It is not loud!" With that he loped back up his truncated staircase two steps at a time, slammed the door and returned to the Pointers' celebration, still scratching its way through the grooves on Six. Into the night we heard "I'm So Excited," a song which includes the lyrics "I'm about to lose control/And I think I like it," lines that in the House of Pyne took on an ominous tone the Pointer Sisters didn't intend.
The house was a crime scene waiting to happen. If we'd stayed there long enough Amy would've been able to photograph it like a shot from Luc Sante's Evidence, a book we admired so much our love for it was calling its singular mood back into the world of the living. In an attempt to soothe Pyne and make friends Amy baked him some cookies once. She wrote a nice note and left them for him in a box on the doorstep. He crushed the package, and forced it into our mailbox, and never said a word about it. For weeks afterward when we opened our bills crumbs fell out. Living under Pyne was horrible but living with Amy was great. On the humid summer nights when Pyne was at his loudest we'd turn off the movie and make drinks and wait for him to exhaust his rage and his record collection. We had to wait for Pyne to pass out before we could. Without air conditioning it was too hot to sleep anyway. The rent was cheap and we were free, and every time I look at "Pool" or "Insomnia" I remember it again. Especially "Insomnia."A.S. Hamrah
Allston, Mass. 2001
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