Shelly Corbett - Abyssal Tarot
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david berger
catalog essay
 

   

“The Period of Athletic Muteness”

Catalog Essay - December 1994

Artists of the past painted heavenly figures among the clouds, animated by an upward- pulling metaphorical light. Something of that fabulous impulse inspires Shelly Corbett’s phantasmagorias of light, movement and nudity.

Her photographs are taken underwater in a pool, and have an intense, “otherworldly” quality. The figures, nearly all females, are blurred, though arms, legs, and breasts emerge in sudden clarity. Colors range from flaming vermilion to grainy black to frigid blues. Surfaces are rich and shiny. The dramatic, opulent extremes tease new dimensions from her subject, which is in many ways traditional: the female form as a vehicle for the sensual.

Corbett has pursued underwater photography since 1987, when she was finishing her BFA in photography at the University of Washington. She is enamored of water’s metaphorical richness, and its dramatic visual effects reflected images, shimmers of light as luminous as a sunset — but the photographs are not obviously taken underwater, a measure of her growing skill and control.

The relationship with the model is collaborative, says Corbett. “In the pool, every one has a language in their movement, and a comfort level. That’s going to determine the mood, and how well we connect.”

Corbett wears a mask, bathing suit, and weight belt during a session, the model nothing at all. The pool is set up with underwater lights and suspended curtains of cloth that serve as background. The typical session occurs in about 5 feet of water; in deeper water the logistics become very difficult. Holding her breath, Corbett submerges to take pictures.

In the watery arena, “a couch as deep as a tomb,” in the words of poet Anne Sexton, the model moves in unfamiliar ways, and up and down nearly disappear. The environment is dislocated and psychological. There are no clues as to place. For props there are only pieces of brightly colored cloth and, in some, a bouquet of flowers.

The model’s dynamic postures imply narratives, but these stories are mostly unresolved and ambiguous. Faces, with their more public and readable expressions, are generally absent. Sometimes the works are sexual in nature; mostly the story is hidden. But there’s a sense of expectation. Something important is about to happen. The erotic heart is not pictured; rather it is the charged prelude, leading towards climax, or, occasionally, the quieter postscript.

For this exhibit Corbett used many different types of film: slide, negative and underwater and held many sessions in the pool. From these exposures she selected those whose qualities of light, motion, gesture, image and high-keyed color resonated with her baroque sensibility an notion of sensuality for the modern era: a rich process of controlled spontaneity and editing.

— David Berger

 
david berger
catalog essay
 

Shelly Corbett - Abyssal Tarot
  the deck  |  slide show  |  statement  |  biography  |  dealers  |  email  |  prints