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In Sanctum, photographer Robert Stivers continues with styles he explored with success in his Listening to Cement (2000). His pictures are dark and monochrome, mostly in black and shades of gold, sepia, or soft white. His subjects are people, buildings, clouds, bees, paintings, trees and plants. The tone is subdued and depressed: most of these images would work well as the artwork for a release by a ethereal Gothic band; Joy Division, Dead Can Dance or the Cocteau Twins all come to mind. These are pictures of isolation, despair, fragility, sacrifice, and death. Some of the people pictured look dead, or we just see parts of their body. In others they appear distorted, in negative image, or with hollow eyes. These are beautiful pictures but they seem too familiar. The worst pictures are the old self portraits -- "Self Portrait in Water" (1991) and "Self Portrait in Noose" (1989) which are far too explicitly dramatic. The essay by Eugenia Parry refers to these and Stivers' journals, romanticizing Stivers' suffering and artistic angst, and really adds nothing to the book. But the most interesting images are very dark, showing people with expressionless faces.
Stivers also experiments with taking photographs of people in pictures - and here the faces are much more full of expression. This makes them curious pictures, but it is hard to know how to react to them. There seems to be no sense of irony, but the effect is a little bizarre, and is somewhat alienating.
It turns out that the images of inanimate things are more gripping. "The Yard" from 2005 shows a patch of grass at night but the distortion of the picture make it look as it the ground is rushing toward you. The images of bees are beautiful and creepy, one in sepia, the other in a much colder white. The images of plants are lovely and striking.
Overall, these pictures are very distinctive and technically accomplished, and a few of them are memorable. However, they are a mixed group that does not cohere so well together, since too many have a comic book simplicity to their gothic feeling.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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