by Emma Newbery
For Vaughn Sills, the pull of aesthetic appeal and the eventual tug of personal meaning is a familiar territory. “I begin making photographs because I am drawn to the beauty of something or because I care about a subject,” she explains. “Then, over time, I begin to understand the deeper meaning. And that conscious understanding of my work influences me as I continue to make more images.” Sills’ show Inside Outside, on view through the end of February at Kingston Gallery, inhabits this dynamic space, exemplifying it with touching clarity and depth.
The gentle arcs of stems and petals against the strict borders of Sills’ chosen photographic scenes cleave to reveal a set of processes, each one seeping into the next. As she notes, her work lays bare a deep, personal grief for her own mother, as well as a larger sense of urgency and disjuncture between the cultivated reality in each installation and the peril of the natural world it references.
Sills’ work combines photographs of her ancestral home of Prince Edward Island, Canada with the immediate, aesthetic appeal of seeing a bouquet of flowers. “It was mid-winter, such beauty was much coveted,” explains Sills. “I succumbed to buying more flowers and culled through my photographs looking for possible ‘backgrounds.’ I soon found I had created a set of parameters for these quietly surreal photographs.” Indeed, the emotional layering, with a literal “background” of nostalgia for a time long past and a foregrounded appeal to the senses of the present, brings Sills’ work to a deeply surreal place. All the more surreal, she acknowledges, is the virtual engagement that COVID has forced upon her show this year.
“It crept in unannounced, unwanted: the pandemic and its isolation seemed to show up in what I would say are the more mournful images,” explains Sills, referencing Hydrangea, Carraher’s Pond and Ranunculus, Wright’s Pond, among others. “In fact,” she adds, “most of the photographs done in 2020 seem to me to reflect my sense of the fragility of life, the sorrow of this time.”
She echoes my own sentiments about having my experience of the work relegated to the screen: “Seeing the actual prints is very different from seeing the images online. But compared to what is happening in the world, my disappointment is nothing. And there is something helpful about seeing one’s work on exhibit, seeing relationships between photographs I hadn’t quite noticed before.”
“Having a show sometimes feels like it might be the end of a book; I’m hoping this one is just the end of a chapter. Or, a better analogy: I hope this show may be just one set of poems in a longer book of poems yet to be written.”
Another layer of Inside Outside finds itself in the small installation in the Center Gallery, where several of the photos that set the scene in the Main Gallery exhibition are shown by themselves in a small selection from Sills’ True Poems Flee series. Seeing these nine by themselves not only allows them to come to the fore in their own right, but, as Sills explains, allows the viewer to see how “the mood and ideas of those images also strongly affected (or amplified) the meaning of the flowers.” We have all been forced into solitary, often uncomfortable positions in light of COVID, and allowing the works to shift between contexts allows a sense of release for the viewer, freed from the bounds of signification with “alone” and “together” meaning such different things for each of us.
Sills further explores the nature of isolation by amplifying her grief for her late mother throughout her work. Aside from the more traditional understanding of flowers—“being short-lived, they are often a symbol of the brevity of life, a hint at mortality”— Sills protracts the process of grief, drawing out the natural, acceptable elements, and those that are harder for the self to reconcile. The disconnect that comes with a dramatic shift in what was a constant in one’s life. “The landscapes and seascapes from True Poems Flee were in large part about my mother and my grieving for her,” she explains. “My choice of using my photographs from that series was an unconscious bringing together of the two elements, the flowers and the past series of images.
“Photographs are always about the past. These photographs contain two past moments, both of which connect and change how we see both moments.”
The contemplative, almost moor-like quality of the backgrounds certainly represents a kind of melancholy, but there is an undeniable peace that also blankets Sills’ show. Her description of the feelings her work draws to the surface as “quiet” belies the almost unsettling emotional response that her photographs evoke. Their ethereal quality, the almost preternatural stillness that is magnified in seeing the work virtually connects each of us in our own sensations of solitude. Removed or not, this is not a show to miss.
“Without COVID,” she muses, “I wouldn’t have made the same photographs that I have in the past year, and my show therefore wouldn’t look at all the way it does now.”
“There’s a quote from Mary Oliver,” says Sills in closing: “‘Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness, it took me years to realize this too was a gift.’”