Visual Arts

Object Lessons

Artist Joy Episalla is a student of the past.

The history that she documents through the lens of her trusty 35mm camera isn't one of political turmoil, international conflict or even the lives of great figures. In fact, people don't show up in her work at all. Rather, the history she's after is the one that is revealed through the barely visible remnants of our own transient society.

For Episalla, the marks, tears, gashes, stains, spills, rips, scratches, secretions and imprints we leave in and on empty apartments, hotels, abandoned mattresses and discarded linens provide a mysterious insight into the complexities that combine to make up secret records of our time on Earth.

"The Physical Photograph," Episalla's exhibit at the Jonathan and Maxine Marshall Gallery of Contemporary Art at the Phoenix Art Museum, elevates the level of mattress, pillow and carpet stain to high art while reminding us that though the dead certainly tell no tales, the objects they leave behind are fluent in many tongues.

Take carpet #3, a photograph mounted on Plexiglas of a seemingly unremarkable segment of generic apartment carpet that Episalla has installed on the floor of the gallery.

"It was a really cool day. There was an ugly beige carpet; all of the furniture had been removed from the room and there had been a lot of traffic. There were stains and impressions left from where the furniture had been and footprints. I just thought: 'There is the whole world here. It has so much information. That's fascinating. The human presence which is absent.'"

In the darkroom, Episalla manipulates the color of the print to turn the ugly beige carpet into a deep shade of something resembling alien green. The extreme focus of the photograph reveals deep shadows, dark imprints and strange cloven-looking pock marks all coming through against an ultimately hazy rendering of color that suggests computer pixels. If the name of the piece didn't clue us in to the fact that this is actually carpet, one would think he had stumbled upon some forgotten Voyager photograph of an other-planetary landscape.

"I give them basic names -- carpet, purse, pillow -- because I want the photographs to work like objects where people bring their own ideas to it," says Episalla. "They become personal because the viewer projects their own idea of what they think they see onto the objects themselves."

Carpet #1, which unlike #3 is installed traditionally on the gallery wall, includes a strange reddish-brown stain dripped across the middle of the photograph. In the context of a home, its presence is hardly monumental; yet, caught in the lens of Episalla's camera, it comes across as an eerie, almost sinister relic of some moment of human passion.

In pillow #2, Episalla has shot two stacked pillows and converted them into a triptych that measures almost five feet in length. Rife with corner tears, countless stains of a whole range of colors from deep browns to rusty yellows, the pillows bear the marks of the totality of a life lived. Yet, the size and shape of the objects seem to imply the human body that is missing from the work.

"The three pieces don't really match up, and I was thinking about home movies, other memories, that are kind of spliced or worn so they jump around and don't match up, either," says Episalla. "And, as pillows, they hold so much -- sex, drooling, sickness, death -- it's a whole microcosm of our experience."

It's not just the subject matter that reminds us of the human lives that have lived with or on these objects. Through the nature of her photographs, the objects actually take on humanlike qualities of their own. Radiator #1, stacked across the entire back wall of the gallery, shows the top portion of a radiator, which, when isolated, takes on the impression of a bony, human spine. Cushion #1, with its purplish-green dimpled surface caught against a backdrop of a fleshy skin tone, takes on the appearance of bruised or tattooed bodies. It's a result that comes out of Episalla's ability to pay very close attention to inconsequential and mundane objects that our eyes aren't usually trained to focus on.

"I want to re-create that feeling you have when you are sitting in a room and not really focusing on anything when suddenly you just happen to come across something, like a pillow, and suddenly you see it in a way you've never seen it before."

This belief also shapes the way Episalla has installed the show. Some works lie flat on the ground, others are stacked and propped against the wall, while others are hung at various levels. The installation is meant to follow the way the human eye works; first you notice something on the ground, and that leads you to the bottom of the wall and then, gradually, up to the wall itself.

Sharing a floor with the museum's gigantic Norman Rockwell exhibition, Episalla's work takes on an even stronger detached and alien feel. However, it's a contrast that the artist relishes.

"I like the Rockwell show. I can relate to the details in his works. One even has an actual safety pin stuck to the canvas," says Episalla. "I think we're a little similar in a way; while he paints the Thanksgiving feast you would partake in, I would photograph the chair you sat in."

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Joshua Rose