Figure, Ground, and All Around
The Middle “Woods” of Terri Weifenbach
By Gareth Branwyn

Consider that it's next to impossible to open your eyes and deliberately stare at the world unfocused. You can hold a blade of grass in front of your nose, focus on it, and the background will blur. But you're not really seeing the background. Our brains are apparently hardwired to avoid such things.
- Audubon, June 2001 profile of Terri Weifenbach

In the science of human perception, figure-ground relationships are a key to visual awareness. We see a differentiated world because a thing is rendered distinct from everything else. It is the edges of things, where they interact with the rest of the world (i.e. “the background”), where our perception occurs. Our eyeballs actually make little micro-movements, constantly comparing thing to non-thing, figure to ground, so that we can perceive and organize the objects within our visual field.

This dynamic relationship, between figure and ground, has always been a persistent theme in Terri Weifenbach's work. Her photographs unapologetically challenge our everyday visual awareness, provoking the normal conduct of the eye to quickly and categorically assess the visual information we take in. Using narrow depth of field, selective focus, forced perspective, and other techniques, she's confidently taken photography to a place that is both familiar and strange, a realm somewhere between painting and photography. Her work attempts to employ color, line and other terms of the photographer's vocabulary, while conveying the energy of abstract expressionist painting. In executing this work, she's always intent to not pull away from the subject completely, while still working in an expressionist domain.

When we look at a photograph (or any work of art, for that matter), we can't help but look to the photographer to tell us what we're supposed to pay attention to, what's important, what's figure and what's ground. A dominant theme in Terri's work has always been to subvert that perceptual desire.

In much of her previous work, Terri has frequently explored urban and suburban landscapes, using her camera and restless curiosity to reveal pictures of a natural world that frequently goes unseen, unappreciated. In her latest series, Woods, she wanders deeper into the thicket, the less-tame territory of woods; lush, overgrown spaces where density of information increases and figure-ground relationships become more problematic, especially inside of her painterly lens.

In this series, Terri has gone to the woods on the outskirts of town, literally and aesthetically. Such woods are both inviting and somewhat unsettling places, an interzone between civilization and nature untouched by human hands. It is this in-between space where urbanites and suburbanites go to dip a toe in the natural world, where kids (of all ages) go to get feral, where teenagers go to drink, smoke weed, and grope each other. It is a place that embodies everything from the positive associations of our childhoods and the neighborhood woods to a scary place we see on the evening news being sniffed by cadaver dogs in search of missing persons. Elves, fairies, and sprites live in the woods. But so does the Big Bad Wolf.

Aesthetically, Terri was drawn to the woods because of the profusion of visual signals it offered, the density of line, the layering of color and texture, the sheer overwhelming amount of information she found there. If she's played with figure-ground relationships in the past by hyper-separating figure from ground, in this series, she teases out more of a middle ground, an aesthetic interzone at the edge of clarity and confusion, meaning and noise. There's an equanimity to a lot of these photographs. Your eye goes everywhere and nowhere, images wash over you. They're atmospheric while also conveying a clear sense of place. And season. Gaze at them long enough and you'll also discover “Easter eggs,” hidden anchorage, pathways, fence lines, windows.

There are always open questions encoded in Terri's Weifenbach's photographs. She hints, she teases, she alludes; she rarely resolves. And that's okay. She leaves the final dots for us to connect. Or not. For sometimes, luscious, full-color questions are far more interesting than black and white answers.

Gareth Branwyn is a writer, editor, and media critic.

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November 13 - December 19, 2009

Opening reception: Friday, November 13, 7-9pm

Woods, Terri Weifenbach's first solo exhibition in seven years in Washington, is a new series of photographs taken within the woods of the DC metro area. "Attracted by line, mass, and sheer density of information, I went to the woods. Attracted to the idea of making that information dynamically equal through the flattened plane of the photograph, I stood inside those woods and recorded," says Weifenbach.