On the Scene & Interview: Austin Irving's 'Portals'

Reportage by Heika Burnison

With drinks in hand, a young crowd gathered around eleven photographs in the CURIO Studio & Collection by Anne Faith Nicholls in Venice Beach, California on March 3rd. Some framed and others beaming from light-boxes, the photographs are part of emerging photographer Austin Irving’s latest work and her first solo show “AUSTIN IRVING / PORTALS”–– a new series that presents an international landscape (Irving travels extensively to capture her images) of everyday spaces (walls, mirrors, stairways); Irving’s images ask viewers to examine the mundane in-between areas of architectural transit that we occupy daily but rarely notice.  Playing with both the idea of passageways that lead to nowhere (we cannot traverse the photos’ thresholds) and the dynamic play of geometries and frames-within-frames, Irving’s series complicates our understanding of these architectural spaces by carefully composing shots that provide many questions but few answers. Where a wall begins, and a doorway ends, is often unclear. Moldings, wallpaper, and stairways merge into one another, and the boundaries between nature (or man-made nature) and edifice blur. Optically, one has difficulty distinguishing between the 2-dimensional and the 3-dimensional, as space simultaneously collapses and expands with these images.

The crowd at CURIO.

“Phuket, Thailand,” one of the most alluring works in the series, is perhaps most representative of the types of questions Irving explores in her larger body of work. The image depicts a mysterious jungle stair carved from iridescent lava rock, and the scene beams with fuchsia and emerald light. At first the viewer believes he or she is entering an underground cave. But artificial lighting and strategically molded concrete quickly reveal the artifice, and a mini-portal in the background proves that we are only yards away from the real world of fresh air and moonlight. A cheap bar chair and fake ivy cascading along the banister provide an element of sleaze to this otherwise magical space; where are we? And where do the stairs lead? Teasing out these questions, it turns out, has become paramount to Irving’s work.

As the show’s opening came to a close, Irving and I found a quiet place to talk about her process and creative concerns.



What do you hope people take away from this Portals series?


What excites me the most about image-making is presenting something that requires a little extra time to look at. I think we live in a world where imagery is metabolized so quickly that it's alluring to create work that someone would maybe want to stare at just a little bit longer, because they are asking themselves questions like ‘Is this real? Is it fake? Where was it taken? Is it a doorway or a mirror?’ I like that Escher-esque moment of wondering where we are going.

The other thing that's interesting to me about this series is that the spaces that are pretty mundane -- hallways, doorways, an entrance to a hotel -- I am trying to make them into something different. Making something out of unexpected places.

I also think the fact that your spaces are people-less gives the work a sense of quiet, or peace, that allows the viewer to examine a space that they would otherwise ignore or pass by.

Yeah. I'm also very drawn to shapes and lines and geometries… I feel like photography is so much like a logistical puzzle. Even when you're doing commercial work with lighting and locations, it's a huge puzzle that you have to put together. Being alone with my 4x5 camera is another type of puzzle too -- it's an architectural, geometric puzzle. And that feeling when you finish a puzzle -- the sense that everything is where it's supposed to be -- that's how I feel when I know I've taken the photograph properly. Something clicks inside me; a bell goes off.

Are there other threads that you see in your work? What do you feel your subject matter is as an art photographer?

Having just moved away from New York, I came to realize that I had spent most of my time indoors, so it's interesting that I'm drawn to caves and closed windows and doorways and hallways. I love photographing landscapes and exteriors, but there's something really seductive about a maze. I think that's a large part of growing up in Manhattan – that feeling that you're always on your way to being somewhere else that's inside; and even when you're outside you feel that you're inside, because of all the buildings.

Another thing that runs rampant in my work is finding these places that have no social signifiers or recognizable location -- you can't place the images to any particular city or area, and that kind of universality is really exciting to me. There's no way to know, for example, that this photo was taken at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur; it looks like it could be a Ramada Inn anywhere. I love those weird architectural choices that people make -- and some of the really bad choices people make. I'm drawn to the kitsch of so many common spaces.

Would you say that your photography is driven by your sense of travel adventure?

Yes, I really love being in new places and discovering that new place with my camera. It's an exciting experience for me -- I'm never bored or lonely.

Where are some of your favorite places in the world?

I love Thailand a lot -- the North in Chang Mai and Bangkok and Phuket and Koh Samui and all those islands in the South. Chang Mai was particularly special, and two photos from the show were taken there. The interiors were so out-there and strange.

What's the story behind the image “Phuket, Thailand”?

This was in Phuket, and it was the ground floor of a muay thai boxing stadium, but the ground floor was just a whole arena of bars and stripper poles, and everything was made out of fake rock -- so it was jungly, but it was terrible. It was very flashy and had all these jelled lights. This was a 2 or 3 minute exposure, so the colors became even more saturated.

Why did you decide to take this particular shot?

I loved the kitsch of the chair, and I'm really drawn to fake rocks and wood. I like man-made attempts to create nature, and how those can just fail miserably because they are so poorly done. I also like staircases a lot, and this may speak back to the theme of occluded exit paths that lead to a place you're not privileged to see. It's an inviting come-hither moment.

You moved to L.A. almost a year ago exactly. Do you feel like living here is offering your work different opportunities? How is it affecting what you make?

I'm extremely inspired by the landscape of Los Angeles. There's something very weird and wonderful about this city -- especially the architecture and the nighttime. For the past year I've been compiling a shot list of every place I need to re-visit to photograph. And this one new project is all about plant-life at night -- these weird plant clusters that have been sculpted in a particular way or lit strangely. They look like aliens to me; it's so exciting.

What type of camera do you usually shoot with?

I use a Toyo field camera, it's a 4x5 camera that has bellows -- it collapses -- so it's easier to travel with. I also have a Sinar monorail, which is not as travel-friendly, but which I think I will start using for the nighttime plant series.

How did you get into photography?

I've been taking photos since I was really little. My first camera was one of those long thin hot-pink Ninja Turtle cameras -- so every photo had a little Ninja Turtle on the bottom. Man, I loved that camera so much. And then my dad let me borrow his Nikon FG, and so I had this great 35mm camera for a long time… I was the nerdy lab technician girl in high school who mixed all the chemicals and didn't talk to anybody because she was too busy being in the darkroom. Growing up, my room was painted black, and I had red light bulbs because I wanted so badly to feel like I was in the darkroom all the time. It's so dweeby. Maybe this shouldn't be in the article. And I applied early decision to NYU Photo. I wanted it so bad, and I still do. It's the coolest thing. 

The photographer Austin Irving at CURIO.

"AUSTIN IRVING / PORTALS" is currently on view at CURIO Studio & Collection by Anne Faith Nicholls until April 7, 2012. 324 Sunset Avenue, Venice, CA 90291 - Thu - Sat:12:00 pm-6:00 pm

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