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Noelle K. Tan at Civilian

By Jessica Dawson
The Washington Post, September 28 2007

One hundred eighty degrees from Ian Whitmore's exuberance stand Noelle K. Tan's pared-down, painstaking images -- emphasis on pain. Her technique is achingly worked through. Her subject is, for the most part, nothing. She presents large-scale photographs that don't look like photographs. They look instead like delicate charcoal or graphite drawings penciled into a tiny fraction of massive sheets of white paper. A fire here, a small building there, two people and a dock -- the wispy images appear as if out of a dream.

Tan works in a darkroom using poster-size sheets of fiber-based photo paper, which travel through a fixer and stop baths while remaining remarkably pristine. One wonders why the artist goes to so much trouble when an inkjet printer could probably produce similar results. But process is the point.

She travels west from her District home to seek out barren landscapes befitting her barely-there images. (So barely there, in fact, that we won't try to reproduce them here; you'd mistake them for a printing error.) The line between abstraction and figure is a wide gulf here, much wider than in Whitmore's paintings. They're a rapturous nothingness for a overwrought world.

Negative Land

By Kriston Capps
Washington City Paper, September 19 2007

Black-and-white landscape photography doesn't exactly fall along the leading edge of contemporary art. But Noelle K. Tan still finds something exotic in casting the familiar world in light and shadow. In fact, it's the boundaries she's concerned with: In her latest photos -- split into a white series and black series -- the features of the landscape aren't even apparent.

"The white is subject without environment, and the black is environment without subject," says Tan.

The work that's currently on display in "From Here to the Salton Sea," a solo show at Civilian Art Projects, is the artist's white portion. In a series of small- to large-scale photographs, the Shaw resident portrays scenes around the Colorado Desert's Salton Sea in Southern California. The photographs -- custom-printed and overexposed -- look more like incomplete pencil sketches of a smattering of trees or a pair of telephone poles.

"When I take the pictures, I overexpose them as much as I can," says Tan, 37. "That already starts to pare down the landscape. When I print them, I print very lightly on a very light white matte paper, so they look like drawings."

The artist arrived at her white period after exploring the black. That body of work, developed as she pursued a master's degree in fine arts at the California Institute of the Arts (which she completed in 2002), featured scenes shot in the dead of night. She photographed various cities -- primarily in Southern California, Oregon, and Wyoming -- on their outskirts. Features in these photographs barely emerge, shot in dim light over long exposures.

For the white series, Tan has preferred to shoot in the desert for technical reasons, though she notes that some of her white work captures parts of Key West and ice fishing in Maine. "The project requires an already pared-down environment," explains Tan. "I tried shooting in this area…but it's too busy." The desert, Tan says, also epitomizes the opposites that play into her work: day versus night, black versus white.

"One half of [Salton Sea], they attempted to develop. The other half is more parklike, more agricultural," she explains. "A friend of mine had been out there. Sometimes it rains a lot in the desert, and she said it looks nothing like the dry season. Things were flowering, it was all moist and pretty. But when I went out, it was intense heat and barrenness. You don't really see any people around."

Tan prints the works herself: the smaller ones at New York's Print Space, the larger "Salton Sea" pieces at San Francisco's Rayko Photography Center. The costs of the process are considerable. Tan applied for and received a finishing grant from the Creative Capital Foundation in 2005, which allowed her to shoot and print "Drawings," a series of 16-inch-by-20-inch photographs. "As soon as I finished the small project, I started conceptualizing the large project. So I asked them for more money, and they were like, 'OK,'" says Tan. "They have to say 'no' to so many people, but once they say 'yes,' they like to [keep saying] 'yes.'"

The artist is done shooting the desert for the time being, but she isn't leaving it for good. "Even when I'm done with this project, I'm going to go out there once a year," says Tan. "[T]here's something so incredibly soothing about being able to see forever."

Beyond Literacy

The innovative photography of Noelle K. Tan

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri
The Montserrat Review, September 7 2007

Throughout Europe, altar art displayed in the cathedrals can only be fully seen by depositing a coin. After depositing a coin, it takes a moment before the painting is illuminated; and, because it is timed, luminescent energy suddenly turns off.

But there is one moment between the time when reality is rendered in the dark, and in the light where expectation flares. A psychological phenomenon occurs. This is when we realize we do not insist on the object of art to be our only reality. The art stays, yes; but -- as the one and single human perception -- it may be refused. There is more than seeing and non-seeing. There is hesitation in the moment between. This is the balance that Noelle K. Tan captures in her art. There is no single reality for Noelle K. Tan, but only the pulse between realities. It is a feat joining form and eternity.

Every artist has a vocabulary and Tan's is of super literacy, beyond and between the moment where life meets death. A map of the artist's sensibilities can be seen in her art. In the places of knowledge she depicts, we find an artist who extracts, rather than intrudes upon life. But what is this life? Only time in motion. All has been somewhere. All is going somewhere; and, on the wing, when we are lucky, may be apprehended. Tan knows human form begins on a horizontal plane between birth and final passage. She also knows there is a vertical plane of light and shadow in which every artist lives to record the passing through light, so that both states - life and death - are made forever permanent and can be seen at once. What is her product but a map of consciousness?

"The tear is an intellectual thing" said poet Stanley Kunitz. Tan's "maps" point to a time, and reckons with a time that will never be used again. There is knowledge of grief but not mourning, for, remember that it is ultimately light the artist seeks.

Narratives contain story. Narratives can be the form that holds our art, both with writing and the visual arts. Without narrative, Noelle K. Tan shows what preexists and what is always leaving. This is without reliance on ordinary nomenclature, and is replaced with a deep sense of trust.

The lack of story is the significance here because we have no race, no gender, no age ---just immediacy. The central moment. A recognition. These are photographic strokes that make meaning despite the terrain of daily life. In each work there is a moment of stillness, just as in every poem there is a place where meaning turns a corner...where something that was meant, now means something different. It is a tiny turn but essential, for this is the place the audience, the reader, the viewer, enters the intuitive state and completes the experience. On a physical map, there are bridges over land. The invisible bridges Tan creates are spiritual paths - landscapes of white and black- zen combinations.

We expect every map to have a beginning and an end. Noelle removes the edges so that instead of land, we would see shadow, instead of land we see light. There is no one who can behold these works of illumination without realizing that illusion and disillusion are never far from each other...that expectation and disappointment hold hands, that the present time is a meditation, and the future its hand maiden, and the past coexists in that moment outside of time in eternity.

The impulse to create is done effortlessly. The result must surprise even the artist who embarks on the map for one reason only - that of discovery. We look at this work and realize that it is without manipulation or persuasion. A map of literacy will last for years; a visionary map will remain forever.


Grace Cavalieri is a poet, playwright, and essayist. She produces/hosts "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" for public radio.