Pamela Bannos

Temporary Quarters: A Site-Specific Installation

September 5 - October 13, 2002

The Three Arts Club
1300 North Dearborn Parkway
Chicago, IL 60610

(Click on each image below to see a QuickTime Virtual Reality depiction of the installation.)

 

(essay from the exhibition catalogue - scroll to the bottom for photographic reproductions of the installation from the catalogue)

Pamela Bannos’s Temporary Quarters

By Lynne Warren

In the realm of images, photography has no peer. Its purest essence is to stimulate our imaginations and trick us into mistaking its patterns of dark and light as recognizable things. Photography flaunts this power, sometimes coyly, sometimes blatantly, but always ultimately reminding us of how vulnerable we are to the photographic image. This vulnerability – or predilection for the optimists among us – is that we want to see, or rather discern; it is built into our biology. We are driven to construct meanings from what we see and have been trained to discern. It is what kept us alive, most likely, during the course of our evolution as a species, and marks us human. And in recent years, as photographs are deconstructed down to their very chemistry or bits, they paradoxically seem to gain more and more in ‘thingness.’ The more thought we heap into attempting to understand these strange objects – photographs – the more impervious they seem to become. It is ironic that in these realms of shadow, we relentlessly seek more and more definition, hoping one supposes, to understand our quest for clarity and meaning once and for all.

*******

One hundred plus eight faces stare out in two separate, but contiguous rooms. One hundred are black and white, small-scale, framed carefully in precise black frames, unembellished except for a large date etched into the glass that protects each image. Eight are color, large-scale, presented casually propped up against the backs of a circle of mismatched chairs. These photographs are unglazed, hanging free against a backboard, tacked in the upper corners with hand-sewn threads. And all of those one-hundred and eight faces are women.

You are in the Three Arts Club, tucked into the genteel elegance of North Dearborn Parkway in one of Chicago’s most established areas of urban wealth, just inland from Lake Michigan and the Gold coast with its high rises and upscale shopping. The Three Arts Club was founded in 1912; it is thus its 90th anniversary as a residential facility for women in the arts – the performing, the literary, and the visual arts. The artist Pamela Bannos was invited to commemorate this anniversary in an exhibition in the Club’s common quarters. A happy choice, for Bannos’s project over the course of her twenty-year career has been to test the veracity of the photographic image, an artistic trajectory that fits extraordinarily well with the aspiration of the Three Arts Club to document and commemorate its unique history. And Bannos dove deeply into the Club’s history while she conceptualized the project, ultimately conducting a research project not unlike one an historian might undertake.

The Three Arts Club has always been a place of transience – Bannos’s research revealed that over 11,000 women have stayed at the Club over the years. As its maximum occupancy at any one time is one-hundred residents, this transience has been considerable. Its public spaces have also been places of transience: the Club has and continues to present a great number of lectures, recitals, concerts, and exhibitions. And its public spaces have themselves, so to speak, been in transit, taking on different functions than their original intent.

Bannos utilized two rather modest-sized rooms in the south-east corner of the Club’s main level for her installation: one that was originally used as a library and another, smaller adjoining room that was originally a “sitting room.” Aware of these original functions and wishing to evoke in her work a sense of the original use of the rooms, she placed the collection of black-and-white faces – the one-hundred photographs symbolizing Three Art’s maximum occupancy – and the catalogue of names in the once-library; the adjacent room with its beautiful carved stone fireplace featured the color photographs “sitting” on their chairs – chairs, incidentally, gathered from various places around the Club.

But look again.  The black-and-white photographs, like their color counterparts, are also sitting, but on a shelf that circles the former library. Above and below this shelf are columns and columns and banks and banks of names. Hundreds of names, thousands of names, in fact the names of all the women for whom records existed who passed through the Club in its ninety years. The names are pressed directly onto the wall, and arranged in alphabetical order by year. The names so displayed cannot help but transform this gallery of faces into a memorial, so strongly do we associate names on a wall with war and other memorials. But the faces are disassociated from the names. If one locates a particularly interesting face and sees it marked with a particular year, let’s say 1937, there is no way of knowing which of the dozens of names listed under 1937 this photograph might connect with. All one knows is that there is a mass of information, an overwhelming mass of information in this “library,” some of it “shelved,” some of it out in the open. And as in the case of all libraries, it is impossible for any one of us to know of everything contained within; one must pick and choose one’s areas of interest. For some that will surely be reading the names, for some looking at the pictures, for some trying to make connections between the two categories of information.

And look again at the photographs in the sitting room. They are all contemporary faces – current residents, in fact, their portraits recently taken by Bannos. Arranged on their chairs in a semi-circle in front of the fireplace, these women appear strikingly guileless. All but one have open, sincere smiles, in striking contrast to the women in the black-and-white pictures, many of whom are in stylized poses and wear blank “portrait” expressions. And the sitting room photographs are approximately human scale, and seem appropriately living and present and further contrast the documentary quality of the pictures in the library. The encountering of this friendly group is somewhat of a release after the overload in the library installation.

 

Bannos’s common method over her career has been both to make imagery and collect images as well as objects, and transform these things into photographic series. Not quite objects, more than pictures, her works rearrange and reinterpret her found materials, sometimes in an effort for the artist herself to understand just what is this strange thing she found in a Paris flea market; sometimes in an effort to poetically re-present images and objects to which she was drawn.

An example of the former process is Bannos’s recent Vestiges series (2002) which presents lovely, ghostly photograms – enlarged as positive prints – of a number of common items and things (a practice perhaps modeled on her father’s penchant for collecting ethnographic and other objects). The worn objectness of these items is identified in the straight-forward titles: Glass Vessel, Venice, Italy, 1995; Ivory Buddha, China, 1962; or Spider, Chicago, 2002. These wonderfully evocative images speak eloquently of the mystery of these simple objects and evoke the realization of the impossibility of any contemporary individual’s ability to know all the eyes and hands that have touched them, or how they were used or cherished and indeed ultimately cast off that they might pass into another’s possession. In the photograms of the once-living creatures, the ghosts of their bodies made an indelible impression of the essence of their being, uncapturable by observations of the living thing.

The eloquent stating of the inability to capture any detailed history of these objects is very akin to the ennui that surrounds the black-and-white images of the purported Three Arts Club denizens. Who are these faces? (One hesitates to call them more than that, so mask-like they are.) Which were artists? Which were actresses, singers, poets? Where are they today? What are their stories – can we know anything, really of their lives? The answer is most assuredly “no.” In fact Bannos reveals that only some are portrait shots of actual Three Arts residents that she culled from their personal files. Many are found images; a number are of Bannos herself, her mother, and various friends. (In fact, if one knows the artist, it is more than a little diverting to try to pick her visage out from all the others.)

Another earlier series, Madrid 1951-1956 (1998) also deals with unknown women and conventional yet ultimately mysterious modes of presentation. In 1998 Bannos found nearly 350 negatives that were discarded in the garbage in Madrid; she determined that the 9 x 12 cm glass plates most likely had been prepared as a step in a process to create painted portrait miniatures. These negatives showed the various sitters with their heads pasted onto stock female torsos, most draped with gauzy veils and wearing pearls. The sitter’s heads had been retouched and as the ultimate format of the portraits was to be oval, the backgrounds outside this oval are messy and filled with evidence of their manipulation. Yet by straightforwardly presenting these images in “third generation” prints from the glass negatives, Bannos stripped away the artifice and revealed their extreme manipulation. In no “real” way do these portraits represent actual women except how they were imaged in the conventions of portrait photography of the early and mid 1950s.

What initially strikes the viewer as “wrong,” however, is the messy revelation of these photographs, for our notion of women of a certain era and a certain place is often exactly that highly manipulated image that was  presented by professional portrait photographers. The “layering of history and meaning and reading of the pictures,” Bannos stated, is what interested her. But what is revealed to the viewer is the gap between how we have been trained to see certain sorts of photographs and our knowledge of how they were created.


At the same time as she re-presents found imagery, Bannos also takes her own photographs, often of simple things, altered. In the series Topiary Suite (1999) the artist created her own strange topiaries by twisting or tying plants, or punching holes in their leaves. Yet she presents these “sorry specimens” (Bannos’s words) in beautifully modulated prints that recall the work of great still-life photographers such as Karl Blossfeldt. The discrepancy between the thing depicted and the way it is depicted speaks volumes about Bannos’s specific interest and the nature of photography itself

         Bannos has made pictures of herself, presenting series of objects. She has taken pictures of a ball of clay and made photographs of it as the moon in its various phases. She has taken pictures of the hands of some of the members of Northwestern University’s Department of Art Theory and Practice (where she teaches) and presented them anonymously, arranged in a grid. In short, Bannos makes documents of transformed things, and yet these “documents” themselves further transform that which is presented.

         Often it is not clear exactly what the original “real” thing was; occasionally the “evidence” is shown, as in B-2 Stealth Bomber (1998). In one panel of this work a figure holds what appears to be a piece of cardboard cut into the shape of the stealth bomber. In another panel, a stealth bomber appears against clouds in the sky. Unlike the phases of the moon piece where there is no doubt the “moon” was most definitely not the moon, in this work one wonders if the cardboard cut-out is “faked out” to appear to be the real stealth bomber in the sky, or is it an actual stealth bomber, or frankly, does it matter? As we have all been told over and over, nothing in a photograph is “real” – that is the whole point. It is a matter of having faith in one’s ability to decipher images and connect them with the names of objects in the world, perhaps hoping the correct name has been found, but ultimately realizing that is not where the truth lies.

 

In the Three Arts portraits, it seems essential that the viewer recognize the color portraits are “real”; insofar as they are of current Three Arts club residents. Yet even knowing that some of the black-and-white photographs are of “real” residents, how could one possibly identify them (unless one happened to know the women personally) and once identified, how would the meaning shift? The inability to ever really know this history or any individual histories remains. All one can ever know is the objectness of these things and the experience of this installation, opening up to innumerable stories lost or unknown:  stories imagined, stories assumed.  The “stories,” of course are all inevitably created by each viewer’s imagination, prompted only by the “vintage look” of the faces, hairdos, makeup, clothing, and eyeglasses (which also gave the artist her cues in assigning dates to the images), or by any historical knowledge any individual viewer might bring to bear (for instance, that minorities were rare until fairly recently and not welcome during much of the Three Art’s history).

         Thus all these faces are fictions, together they form a fiction which possibly tells a truth beyond the factual details of the “real” Three Arts Club and its 11,000 residents. Who were the “real” women? Daughters and wives, most away from home for the first time in their lives. Women interested in the arts. Women of some means. Women. We end up knowing how little we know, really.

*******

Around the turn of the century, a number of “clubs” were set up to house respectable single women as they pursued careers. Some catered to “working girls” – secretaries, sales clerks, school teachers. Others, like the Three Arts Club, focused on those interested in the arts. All assumed women needed special protection, and at the time of their founding, most women did. Society-at-large was not comfortable with independent, single women. One has to believe the welfare of the women was the paramount concern, as sheltered young ladies could be profoundly naïve and easily preyed upon, but one suspects beneath this concern lurked darker thoughts: That independent young women might prey on others, using their wiles and sexuality in ways that disrupted the social order. Around the turn of the 20th century, the stereotype was of the “Gibson Girl,” a wholesome, lovely creature. By the1920s the Gibson Girl had been supplanted by the flapper, who proudly declared her sexual freedom by flattening her bosom and shortening her skirts that she might move freely, like a man. By the 1930s, the “vamp” had become the scintillating image of the single female. Seductive, even predatory, Mae West and her legions of imitators invited men up to their “rooms” to be shown things men had theretofore only imagined in their fever-dreams. World War II, ironically, did more to liberate women than decades of suffragette marches, and by forcing women into the workplace, the image of woman, the reality of women, changed markedly.

         By the late 1970s, the Three Arts Club was in crisis. After the sexual revolution, the notion of a women’s residential club seemed as outdated as Monday washing days. At one point, the Board voted to sell the building; it was only after considerable maneuvering, fundraising, and politicking did a dissident and visionary faction of the Club’s leaders obtain landmark status for the building and weather the crisis. Now the Club’s purpose doesn’t seem as quaint. Women have many choices, but finding close-in, low-cost housing in Chicago is not easy, and the Three Arts purpose in providing a residence for women in the arts seems revitalized. (The Three Arts’s neighbor down the street, the venerable Eleanor Club, however, closed its doors only last year.)


This history is not explicitly dealt with in Bannos’s piece, yet the vestiges of these social currents and political and financial struggles hang over any examination of Temporary Quarters. By so strongly contrasting the past with the present (the library installation with the sitting room installation), the artist structures an almost jarring juxtaposition of the dusty past with the vibrant present and by extension, future. Yet it is interesting that for such an ambitious and deeply-rooted work Temporary Quarters is strangely quiet. It doesn’t seem to insist on commanding any more attention than any individual is willing to give, unlike so many contemporary installations which are predicated on the assumption that the viewer must have his or her very powers of observation questioned or challenged.

         Bannos, through all her previous endeavors in photography, understands that the images that present anonymous faces ultimately need to be personalized, and it is ultimately up to each individual to determine what that personalization means. She can structure and present the information, but she cannot demand that it be read in a certain way. She understands that in this realm photography also has no peer amongst the forms of visual art. In their very ubiquitousness, photographs are personal. Few of us have had our portraits painted, fewer still probably have had busts done, yet each of us has literally thousands of photographic representations of ourselves.


We can thus identify with these women’s portraits, at the same time we resign ourselves to the fact there is little more we can do than know the feeling of having one’s picture taken and displayed for others. And think about all those lives that were once collected together for various periods of times in the Three Arts Club, and were in late summer of 2002, briefly all collected together again in their Temporary Quarters.

Excerpts from the catalogue: