Jo Whaley infuses her images with the illusory magic of the theater.
In “Echoes,” the photographer’s carefully constructed and composed photographs pair with Georgia O’Keeffe’s meticulous paintings in an echo of saturated color and deliberate beauty.
The exhibition opens at Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum on Friday, Nov. 2. The show represents the latest edition of the museum’s “Contemporary Voices” series.
“You could think of it as patterned language rather than tit-for-tat,” Whaley said of the dual exhibition in a telephone interview from her Santa Fe home. “It’s a little intimidating. But it’s such an honor.”
As inviting as Whaley’s images seem, they can also be disorienting, former O’Keeffe curator Carolyn Kastner said. Theirs is a disrupted beauty. The butterflies are specimens, the flowers and foliage sliced from their roots.
“It’s dead; it’s isolated; it’s not of its environment,” Kastner said. “It speaks of this moment in our environment.
“They’re beautiful pictures, but they’re disturbing. Flowers are held in vases. Flowers are held upside down with their nectar dripping.”
In contrast, O’Keeffe’s view of the natural world glows unabashedly celebratory.
“When you see the two of them together, it really pops,” Kastner said.
Whaley produced most of the 13 images during the pre-digital age using a 4- by 5-inch large-format view camera.
“They were done by hand, built in the studio, constructed and shot with film,” she said.
“Colias Eurydicei” (2007) is an archival pigment print placing a butterfly atop a daguerreotype of two sisters. The folds in their skirts reflect the folds in the insect’s wings.
“Daguerreotypes are funny in that they’ll act like a mirror,” Whaley said. “I put orange paper above me, so it reflects orange. It’s got two little dots on the bottom. Those are from the underside of the insect, because I thought they needed to be there.”
What appears to be a butterfly placed atop a landscape, “Papilio Ulysses” (2000) is actually a piece of rusted metal the photographer found in a nearby arroyo with the insect pinned at the top.
“I like the pairing of simple things,” Whaley said, “to find man-made material taken back by nature with a butterfly. The insects are adjusting to that kind of environment – into the industrial changes we’ve made.”
O’Keeffe also created constructed still lifes through her famous bone paintings, Kastner said.
Whaley received her MFA from the University of California at Berkeley, where she worked as a scenic artist for the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Ballet and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. She built sets and painted backdrops.
Today, she thinks of her tabletops as stages.
“The performance is clicking the shutter,” she said.
In “Overripe Population” (1994), watercolor paper created a flattened space holding a bursting pomegranate, its seeds scattered across the page. “Datura wrightii,” (2014), with echoes of O’Keeffe’s famous “Jimson Weed,” pairs its blossoms with the bottles found in chemistry labs.
“They’re basically like scientific experiments,” Whaley said. “It’s a composed environment.
“People assume that my work is all Photoshop. Really, I build them and I try to put as much as I can right on the set.”
Whaley’s photographs can also be found in Santa Fe’s Photo-eye Gallery. Her work hangs in several major collections in this country and abroad, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum and the Polaroid Corporate Art Collection.