Weightless by Christy Lee Rogers
Through September 7
The Miller Gallery
2715 Erie Ave
Cincinnati, OH 45208
“What lifts you up?” asks the prompt for Christy Lee Rogers photography exhibit Weightless, which appears at Cincinnati’s Miller Gallery. It’s a question that met my curiosity with an initial skepticism, as it’s a question that could’ve have meant a number of things. What the viewer finds, however, is a collection of richly textured, sometimes uplifting and sometimes troubling images. They hang large on the simple, white walls of the gallery, which is tucked in the heart of quaint Hyde Park Square. The work asks viewers “What lifts you up?” by inviting the viewer to meditate on precisely what the word “weightless” means to them.
Further, it pushes “weightlessness” into a realm of liminality; one in which it feels as if “weightlessness” is actually residue of what can range from the uncertainty, to the wonder of one’s surroundings. In her interview on Cincinnati’s Local 12 Rogers says that her work is about “letting go and being comfortable” with being “vulnerable” in the world. I want invoke the term liminality, which was initially theorized in anthropology by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. I encountered the term for the first time studying Michel Foucault’s heterotopias in which he describes liminal space as “a space of illusion that exposes every real space … as still more illusory” (1986). These liminal spaces are not fixed, but spaces where time is uncertain and the subject is – to hearken back to Rogers – vulnerable. The liminal power of Rogers’ work derives precisely from her fascinating technique of photographing subjects in water. By photographing her underwater subjects from above the water’s surface, works in a liminal mode in which her subjects – as well as the image that will be produced – are vulnerable to the movement and power of the water itself.
In 2019 was awarded “Open Photographer of the Year” by Sony for her image Harmony. Rogers’ images could be separated into two categories: the baroque and the abstract – Harmony falls in the former category. In these baroque images bodies are central. She positions them in ways that evoke both classical baroque and renaissance painting as well as the elegant movement of ballet. Movement and light give the images a brushstroke quality, contributing to the visual kinship they share with paintings.
Rogers’ work does not strive for the epic narratives that a painting like Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of St. Matthew suggests. Rather, it invites the viewer to go inward and reflect on personal liminal spaces. The appearances, particularly in Harmony, are grand yet narrative is absent. This is, I suggest, one of the most effective aspects of her work, and part of what binds two visual modes that her works seems to be working within. The floating human bodies appear to be taking part in grand ballet, yet the absence of identity seems to suggest a fluctuation of time and identity. I suggest that this “weightlessness” that the exhibit alludes to is a state of spiritual existence that isn’t static or fixed. The bodies photographed underwater, are physically and spiritually liminal. The clothing cannot be static, nor can the subject’s thoughts.
The central figure in Harmony keeps her eyes and her mouth shut. Her face appears to be meditatively at peace and, as the title suggests, in harmony. The viewer is drawn inward, here perhaps to find harmony with the world’s uncertainty. However, we might observe and ask what happens when the frame unfreezes? What happens when this floating figure inevitably sinks, or swims back to the surface? Inwardness and reflection invites a meditation on liminality – in-betweeness that has yet to yield a method of confronting the uncertainty of the future. The other figures around her might suggest something darker than harmony. Their faces are almost entirely obscured. The body to the left appears more explicitly to be falling. If they suggest darkness, the golden brown light that permeates the image not only adds great beauty to the image, but also complicates it. The light suggests comfort in the image, reinforcing harmony and acceptance of the uncertainty and obscurity of liminality.
Harmony, though, is only one among a group of beautiful classically composed images featured in the gallery. Another that I found particularly striking is called The Fragile, which contrasts Harmony. Here we see four bodies, placed in similar proximity to each other. The two primary differences in “,” are the focus of light, and the faces of the subject. Here only two of four faces are not obscured by water. Unlike in Harmony, masks hide the faces. The figures are illuminated but a black background contrasts their bodies. While the figures of Harmony seem to be floating toward a place of illuminated comfort, these seem to be floating in a dark abyss. The masks suggest an even greater lack of static identity; a greater personal vulnerability. The liminality of this image is situated in a place of turmoil rather than harmony. The spotlight is on the bodies, but the selves are fragmented. The viewer’s eye is drawn from left to right – beginning with the upside-down masked figure, to the right-side up masked figure, and finally to the two figures that seem to be dissolved. For these two figures, masks wouldn’t matter because what might have been there for a mask to cover is so thoroughly obscured. Here liminality takes part in a journey of dissolution.
These images at first contrast some of her other images, but I think share more than one might think. Her other category of work falls into the explicitly abstract. Gone are the gracefully floating bodies. Bodies are still present, but they are obscured beyond recognition, becoming a small piece of the larger equation. These images find acquaintance in the avant-garde (see video artist Stan Brakhage’s films Night Music or Mothlight). While the classical images invite the viewer into a sort of ethereal space of liminality, these images place the viewer explicitly into the realm of dreams and fantasy (one image is even titled Dreamland) Though they look quite different from Rogers’ other images, they still impressively invite the viewer into this realm of liminality that I’ve been discussing. They are also created using the same underwater techniques.
These are dream images – liminal in that they do not visually belong to a space in waking life. They manifest between waking continuations of reality, yet they contribute and comment on waking reality. Dreamland and Ebb and Flow are both images that communicate a form of transient beauty. Their abstractions – like Harmony and The Fragile – don’t communicate a person or a story, but rather a feeling of wonder through crisp colors and flowing movement. One of my personal favorites, Above and Below, is one of the few of these images that we see a snippet of what can be explicitly identified as human. Slightly below the center of the image can be found the bottom half of a face and a neck. This human is surrounded by a chaotic explosion of colors that look almost like rainbow lava. The image of this human who is surrounded by chaos and dissolution is simultaneously terrifying as well as strikingly beautiful, psychedelic and electrifying. It is exemplary of the balancing work that Rogers’ images do. It attempts to find a balance between vulnerability and safety; abstraction and clarity. Her images suggest that liminal spaces should be embraced as places of personal balance. The work suggests that “weightlessness” occurs in these spaces and perhaps the question “what lifts you up?” is more complex than one might think.