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Romanticizing and Revising the Past: Kerri Sherman and Camille Iemmolo

 

Watches, Photo Courtesy of Kerri Sherman

From the distinctly different works of photographer Kerri Sherman and mixed media artist Camille Iemmolo come two parallel narratives.  One focuses on romanticizing nature and conveying nostalgia for craft and perception, while the other explores surreal disillusionment of childhood dreams not completely coming true.  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the companion shows is that the two wildly different aesthetics and mediums mysteriously complement one another and create greater context for the other.  Sherman and Iemmolo’s joint shows at Re-Invent Gallery in Lake Forest, entitled Coveted and The Others respectively, suggest cherished accounts, memories, or dreams of the past.  While one artist captures their images with sharp slickness and accuracy, the other presents a distressed and crumbling view of the past with whimsy and malice all at once.

Opening Reception of “Coveted” & “The Others” Exhibitions, Photo Courtesy of Brian Willard

I attended the opening of the simultaneous shows at Re-Invent Gallery more as an exploration than evaluation of the work on display.  Initially the juxtaposition of the two artists’ work was slightly jarring, mostly due to the divergent aesthetics, but as I slowly followed the trail of Kerri Sherman’s elegant macro photographs of natural elements, aged tools and workshop materials, I became captivated by the nostalgic aura of her photographs.  The vibrant photos sharpened and injected energy into the weary mechanics and rusty tools of an antiquated era.  While pocket watches have nearly become obsolete, capturing the precision of inner clockworks with glowing gold hues effectively resuscitates a dying craft and casts it in a prism of romanticism and vitality.

As I came to the last of Sherman’s photographs, I turned to the first piece by Camille Iemmolo Watch Your Mouth – On Sugar Mountain.  It was startling to move from pin-sharp photography to slightly surreal renderings of childhood tropes in rough paint, crumpled papers and vintage objects.  Circling the gallery and following the trail of Iemmolo’s pieces reminded me of a Hansel and Gretel-like journey – fantastical and whimsical with a hint of sinister undercurrents.

“Oh to roam the Hills – Self Portrait” by Camille Iemmolo, Photo Courtesy of Brian Willard

A sculpture in the center of the gallery of a papier mache deer appeared delicate and violent at once.  Initially, the deer looked decapitated until I saw the subtle indications of ears and a nose from a piece of loosely molded wire sticking out of the blunt stump of the neck.  In place of a deer’s signature white tail was a sharpened target dart, aggressively jammed into the rear end of the animal.  Also, instead of hooves, the deer sculpture modeled metal claws reminiscent of a wolf or wild dog.  The small sculptures culminated in an otherworldly installation in a small walled-off room at the back of the gallery, with real grass substituting for carpet and winged paper doll-like figures assembled from waxy paper stamped with “butter” in red ink calling to mind an old fashioned nurse’s uniform from the Red Cross.

What rose to the surface for me, oscillating between the work from these two shows, was two distinct reflections on the passage of time; what becomes unappreciated and what dreams remain unfulfilled fantasies.

 

“Guitar Blueprint” by Kerri Sherman, Photo Courtesy of Kerri Sherman

After the show, I was able to sit down with each artist and discuss their work and the experience of showing alongside one another.  The first discovery I made was that the two artists are longtime friends and great admirers of each other’s work.  They even mentioned that they deferred to one another for curatorial advice, addressing how one another’s opposing aesthetics might complement and enhance the other’s work.  The second (and third) discovery I made was that each artist was on the brink of exciting new ventures.  Kerri Sherman was about to open her own photography studio in Lake Forest called Bloom and Focus, where her large prints are on display alongside her elegant interior design.  Camille Iemmolo had one of her pieces, a life sized free-standing house composed entirely out of wrapped Johnson & Johnson band-aids, accepted as a public works exhibition space to be shown alongside several of her works on paper with Packer Schopf Gallery in the Context Art Miami show in December.

Meeting Kerri Sherman at her newly opened photography studio Bloom and Focus, I learned that Sherman, who grew up on the south suburbs of Chicago, has had a long background in photography beginning with a successful career in film editing.  “I was a speech major at Eastern Illinois University. Then I worked with Disney at MGM over a summer and shortly thereafter changed my major,” Sherman laughs.  “When I got back to EIU I got my hands on any crew job I could and worked with the university photographer who was a student of Ansel Adams, a great man named Gene Wingler, who taught me a great deal about photography.”

Hearing about the indirect influence of Ansel Adams’ aesthetic immediately enhanced her sharply defined and at times majestic depictions of nature.  She went on to detail her years working double shifts – by day at a production company as a production assistant and then at a post-production company at night.  “The post-production house took all the film shot for commercials and pieced the stories together in house, and then sent them off to air.  I was fortunate enough to be paired with a very busy editor and he would pass a job to me to finish while he moved on to another.  I caught on naturally and I was promoted to a film editor quickly.”  The fast-paced environment seemed to nurture her creativity as she described becoming slightly addicted to the quick editing and routine collaboration with clients.  She went on to work at Red Car post-production studio in the River East neighborhood in Chicago.  When I asked her about the differences between working as a fine arts photographer today and her time as a film editor, Sherman alluded to the pace of her work at Red Car.  “I miss the energy of moving so fast in that creative environment.  I miss the technical, creative negotiating.”

“Keys” by Kerri Sherman, Photo Courtesy of Kerri Sherman

Sherman then took ten years off to raise her two children, dedicating her time and energy to them.  “I thought about getting back into film editing but I picked up the still camera and found that it was really a great outlet, so I made other plans.”  Sherman combined her rich and painterly photographs of nature with various textured papers and created a line of cards to sell locally. “I produced a website and it really took off from there.  I had a couple showings locally which went really well.”  As Sherman continued, it became clear that much of her work process from her film editing days had become transmuted into her creative photography.  Most notably she shot a series of mesmerizing photographs entitled Parts and Labor: An Award is Born.

“Tagged Drawers” by Kerri Sherman, Photo Courtesy of Kerri Sherman

The gritty factory machinery and bars of zinc were in fact the components of the Oscar.  At the early stages of production the materials resembled metallic bars of butter but more than the fame and glamour associated with the award, Sherman trained her attention on the equipment and labeled drawers that appeared neglected and worn.  “I like to find the beauty in things you normally wouldn’t see.  I love tools and things that people use with their hands,” Sherman explained grinning. “I like dirty old factories.”

Her Re-Invent show features photographs similar to the pictures in her Parts and Labor series.  Amber-hued brass from clock keys and an old man hunched over a pocket watch with fine tools suggests a kinship with the forgotten arts and trades once associated with status and quality.  These pieces, alongside macro photos of flowers, tomatoes, and aged bark from the Dominican Republic effectively become stunning abstracts and marries nature with the sweat and grime of man, and in turn softens and creates a juxtaposition between hard and soft, masculine and feminine, old and new.  Death and rebirth are also apparent as the inner vortexes of a hibiscus flower seems to swell out from the frame, while the images of machinery and antique toys recede into the shadows.

“Blue Bark” by Kerri Sherman, Photo Courtesy of Kerri Sherman

Regarding the lush colors in most of her photographs, I asked if polishing and enhancing her photographs was a natural extension for her as a former editor.  “I don’t push for it, but I love photo editing.”  Mirroring her quick and efficient work mode from film editing, Sherman shoots many photos very quickly on her excursions, and later pieces together collections once her digital images are loaded into her computer.  “I only shoot in natural light but when I put them into my computer I sometimes break all the rules and experiment.  Framing and finding the moment is important but exploring them and making them painterly is also important.”

When I asked about showing alongside Camille Iemmolo, Sherman detailed their long friendship in Chicago.  “Camille and I have been friends for thirteen years.  We were neighbors in the city and our husbands worked together in advertising.”  The two seemed to have a symbiotic relationship creatively as they both sought the other’s opinions as they grew creatively over the years.  When the simultaneous shows were pitched to the two friends, Sherman and Iemmolo were mindful of how they curated their own shows based upon the other’s work.  “Camille came over and looked at my work and I trust her opinion.  She recommended a couple pieces based on the venue and the audience.”  Iemmolo told me later that she specially crafted several pieces in response to her friend’s strong photographs in order to create shows that would harmonize.  Sherman was surprised to see her friend’s work on the day of installation.  “I didn’t know what Camille was going to put in the middle of the gallery.  We knew there would be a piece on the wall and that she was going to create a piece in the [back room], but that was it.”  Indeed, the decision to create an installation featuring real grass beside organic photos of flowers and bark certainly unites the two artist’s different aesthetics.

“Wolf Wonder” by Camille Iemmolo, Photo Courtesy of Kristin Mikrut

Audiences are probably familiar with Camille Iemmolo’s work from the cover of the Midwest Gallery Guide, featuring her sculpture Wolf  Wonder depicting a voluptuous female torso with a snarling wolf head at the top and a copy of Joseph Conrad’s book The Secret Agent contained within the wire/mesh belly of the anonymous anthropomorphic female figure.  That sculpture was the centerpiece of her February show at Packer Schopf gallery in Chicago entitled Secret Society.  Shortly after the show closed, she was approached by Re-Invent to show alongside Sherman.  She was reticent at first after wrapping up an extensive solo show, but she ultimately accepted.  “I was hesitant because I just ended a great show in February but I initially thought I’d just whip up a few small pieces but that’s really not my style at all.  It was another opportunity to make some great pieces.”  The opportunity created a collection of mostly new pieces as an extension of her last show.  Iemmolo and I discussed her artwork and the fantastical nature of her charming yet sinister pieces over tea.  Our conversation began with her family background – a family composed of furniture makers in Sicily, painters, sculptors, and performers from true Vaudeville.  With a life that ripe in creativity, and her own sense of rebellion as a young girl, Iemmolo was bred to have insatiable creativity.  “I’m a rocker at heart,” she laughed.  From sewing purple disco pants to constructivist paper assemblages she sent out in the mail, it sounded as though Iemmolo created non-stop growing up.

When she was not making her own art she connected with horses, riding her own horse and developing a close connection with animals and nature.  When I asked which animals she related to specifically, she smiled and said, “wolves, deer, and horses.  I’ve pictured myself as a wolf in the past.  I can feel like a caged animal at times because I have quite a rebellious spirit.  I’m happiest on my horse running through the woods.”

“It Was at That Moment That You Crawled Inside My Suitcase and Left” by Camille Iemmolo, Photo Courtesy of Kristin Mikrut

Her love of nature and wild athleticism has come with great hardship for Iemmolo as well.  She recounted a pivotal encounter riding her horse through the woods and seeing a coyote chasing a mother deer and her two fawns.  “My horse spun around in fear, and that jolt I broke my finger,” she gestured wiggling the fingers on her right hand.  Countless events such as that strengthened Iemmolo’s hypersensitivity to nature and animals by identifying her horse’s natural connection to predators.  Not even a year ago, Iemmolo found herself in another deadly situation with her horse at a Hunter sporting event in Kentucky.  At the end of a jumping course, Iemmolo’s horse pulled out of the last jump, sending her over her horse’s neck and breaking thirteen bones and requiring extensive medical treatment and physical therapy.  “If it had been one vertebrae higher, I would have been paralyzed,” she smiled grimly.

“The Eternal Thought of Pain” by Camille Iemmolo, Photo Courtesy of Kristin Mikrut

 

 

Despite the pain of the injury, the event spurred on Iemmolo’s creativity leading to her recent body of work.  “The pieces are based on pain and constant thoughts of body parts in relation to pain and my inability to move my body in ways I’m accustomed; I thrive on movement,” Iemmolo stated.  Honing in on the feelings of emotional and physical pain, she began creating pieces with found objects, tape, and paint to identify with aching body parts and the confines of her temporary immobility.

As she recovered, Iemmolo began focusing on the roles of female identity in contemporary society.  Shattered expectations and disillusionment permeated her new pieces but with an uncanny sense of dark humor about it all.  Building upon her frenetic childhood process of making pieces, and with a large collection of vintage artifacts at her disposal from years of collecting, Iemmolo’s pieces combine a naïve child-like quality of simplicity and rough craftsmanship with embittered wisdom and humor.  Camille Iemmolo’s figures of angels created out of waxy paper stamped with the word “butter” perfectly matches this paradigm.  While the figures are simple and resemble paper dolls, they are affixed to the wall aggressively with nails, strategically placed on the male figure in the pelvic region while the female figure is held in place with two parallel nails at her chest.

“Bang Your Head” by Camille Iemmolo, Photo Courtesy of Kristin Mikrut

Another sculpture in the collection, entitled Bang Your Head, is at once whimsical and aggressive.  The base of the piece is a small snare drum, to which a delicate embroidered antique pillow with a woman’s serene face in the center.  The pillow is covered with wire to create a cage over the woman while two hunting arrows create a cross through the drum.  The resulting sculpture is at once funny and quietly subversive, as the arrows and embroidered head creates a contemporary skull and cross bones symbol.  “It’s important for me to find humor in all aspects of life,” Iemmolo smiled as she sipped her tea.  “My work is sometimes quiet and simple – childlike even, but I hope that the wisdom of experiences plays out in a subversive nature at the same time.”

When we spoke, Iemmolo repeatedly used the word “subversive” to describe her work.  When I asked her if her intent was to try and normalize that which is dissident and on the fringe, she shook her head.  “The word needs to retain the aggressive, melancholy tone,” she explained.  “I come from the world of garage punk rock that in a way [carries] a great amount of humor… there’s a dark side in everyone that people try to ignore and keep hidden but we need to acknowledge that…but keep it in its place.”

Camille Iemmolo’s pieces generate a narrative of fabricated dreams and aspirations, all while suspecting that they may not come true or, more often than not, are prescribed by our surroundings.  Suitably, her installation in the back room of the gallery sets multiple views of the feminine identity within a box in the exhibition space.  Confinement, struggle, and dreamy surreal narratives make for a hypnotic body of work.  Pairing these rough and at times crude figures with Sherman’s polished and clearly defined representations of nature and aging craft offers a call and response nature between these two shows.

“Ken” by Kerri Sherman, Photo Courtesy of Kerri Sherman

Many of Iemmolo’s pieces are composed of gritty, rough materials that Sherman may well have photographed at one time or another.  Sherman identifies the aging and worn elements of craft with stoicism and affection, alongside enthusiastic abstract depictions nature and freedom.  With Iemmolo echoing the call of Sherman’s work, Iemmolo emphasizes the persistence of human desire for things to be perfect – for the watches not to tarnish and for women not to be dropped into clichéd notions of what is feminine and proper.

After meeting with each artist individually, I returned to Re-Invent to view the work on display and again became hypnotized by just how many parallels the two friends unknowingly infused into their separate pieces.  What seems just as mesmerizing is that on paper, these pieces truly do not seem related or harmonious, but they are.  Whether it is the connection of the two artists as friends first or the layout and combination of the their artwork by the staff at Re-Invent, Coveted and The Others is a true companion show that grows and changes with each viewing and exploration.

 

Coveted and The Others will be on display at Re-Invent Gallery in Lake Forest until November 10th.

Kerri Sherman’s photography is currently on display at her studio in Lake Forest, Bloom and Focus.  Sherman also has future plans to host shows at the studio and to offer classes on photo editing. 

Camille Iemmolo is represented by Packer Schopf Gallery and has several pieces accepted into Art Basel in Miami.

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