Think of the words “now” and “here,” whose meaning depends on the moment of their utterance and the position of the speaker. Such indexicality is at stake in Eileen Neff’s latest exhibition, “A Prologue” (a scene-setting that points to the future while describing the past), which features new photographs that often literally incorporate her own early work from the 1990s, in a dizzying and virtuosic web of relations in space and time.
There are three types of image in this hall of mirrors: a detail that Neff notices; something that she pictures (a hand-colored bush spliced into a bedroom in The Visit, 1990); and something no one sees (specimens that she spotted in the spring migration lend their name to Northern Parula and American Redstart, 2014, smeary images of woods shot from a moving train). Her curiously familiar subjects recur, conveying an astonishing poetry: an electrified space supporting a surreal mobility of presence.
Consistent with Neff’s working method, “A Prologue” accommodates many layers of reference to location. The story of this latest exhibition begins in Neff’s studio, where she “took in” three of her photographs from the 1990s, recently unearthed from storage, and demonstrated her innate gift for placing objects just so: The Visit atop piles of bird guides on a table; Forest for the Trees half-hiding a shelf holding another artwork; Outing amid objects echoing its own palette. Neff soon realized that they were ready to be “fixed” as they were: re-photographed in a new context, rescued, brought into the present. In the gallery, which the artist considers as thoughtfully as the studio, the early works and recent works are united. The Visit, 1990, hangs next to Visit in the Studio, 2014, accompanied by the dark, transcendental meditation Marsh Light, 2014. Nearby, an edge of Marsh Light reappears in Switch, 2014, along with an “on” light switch and a small taped-up test print: part of a painted wooden bird, one of a pair featured in Yellow Birds, 2014, across the room—themselves superimposed on an upside-down speeding-train shot. Such riffs abound in Neff’s work; objects turned, doubled, enlarged; space interrupted, invented, spliced (by hand at the outset, digitally later). In A Planet’s Encouragement, 2007, a faked golden sunset illuminates a row of real trees; in Sun Setting, 2014, artificial trees glow in late afternoon light hitting the artist’s studio wall. Between them rises Half Glimpsed, 2014, a Newmanesque zip of sky: a crack of negative space.
In the apparent simplicity of these poetic images, her subjects represent true attentiveness. Cornered, 2014, hangs low, near the edge of the main gallery wall; the image captures the opposite corner of the gallery, flipped as if reflected. Uncanny, this image colludes with the real corner; the room seems to spin around you. Like the photographs, you are manipulated; you face both the illusion and the impossibility of the image’s space. Significance is always applied, multiple, indexical. Real and surreal coexist. Neff’s work offers you the rare chance to calibrate your own ever-shifting gaze.
– Nell McClister