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Deborah Roan

The Greenbacked Tip

In vibrantly saturated photographs of panoramic largesse, Deborah Roan portrays contemporary urban textures with a sensibility that is as musical as it is poetic. On the surface, rhythmic interplays of color and form characterize each composition, while the loose narrative established by the imagery of various neighborhoods offers depth. Despite its highly futuristic look, Roan’s work defies digital media and is simply based on the multiple exposure of film, which is repeatedly rewound in the camera. It is this element of surprise that Roan consciously employs to dramatize the re-discovery of what she sought to document during the shoot. Printed and displayed in its Plexiglas-mounted splendor, each photograph manifests as enchanting retrospective of both the actual environment and Roan’s experience of it.

Like a collage of light, the various motifs are layered on top of each other, adding or negating each other’s attributes, shifting in focus, and revealing or reversing details and traditional pigmentation. Lisette Model’s depictions of complex reflections in store windows from the 1930s might come to mind as Roan’s cityscapes unravel as constant flow of familiar and foreign insignia, which mark the viewer’s only keys to the overall riddle. Not until after the film’s development does Roan know if she will find what she is looking for: the successful filtration of the neighborhood’s essence. To Roan, the city’s core is especially ingrained in its inanimate features, in “things that look out at the street” as she puts it. In order to capture these qualities in all their clarity, Roan excludes the presence of the city’s inhabitants.

In cinematic fashion (Roan began her career as a filmmaker and is an admirer of Takeshi Kitano and Fassbinder), Roan’s camera covers 360 degrees, moving in and out at leisure, following facades frame by frame, following the narrative like frozen stills of a short film. The intriguing twist is that the movement is not linear according to the actual timeline, but due to the collaged effect, it is turned completely upside down, simultaneously moving in- and outwards. In “Pretty Pink Vampire,” fragments of a coat, a jar of lemons, and the seductive face of a commercial poster captivate the viewer. The acidic citron of the fruit and clothes heighten the clichéd red lips of the mysterious figure, providing this androgynous face with the lure of a ghostlike siren, or as the title suggests, the danger of a vampire. Faint store signs and busy window displays are contrasted with what translates as aloof skyscrapers in “Orange Pokemon”. While the large architectural masses streamline towards utopian blue horizon lines, a Pokemon figurine, merchandise, posters, traffic and yellow cabs, unite as stabilizing clutter on the ground. More simplified, “Surya Techno” pays homage to the eternal strength of complementary colors. Bright orange and blue verticals of a building’s façade bestow a sense of geometric order to the overall composition, onto which the head of a display mannequin is projected twice. With its mouth stretched into an artificial laugh and a spiky necklace, the figure is as horrifying as it is hilarious. The contrast between the empty background and exaggerated expression of the mannequin leave one flustered. “What is there to laugh about in all this bleakness?” One wonders as if the appearance of one element would have anything to do with the other. Having found one’s self contemplating this divide, Roan has reached her goal: The artificial has become real; her offered vocabulary has soaked us into the lush fictions of her photographs.

—Stephanie Buhmann


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2006

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