Read the AJC’s Review of “Safe”

For Sandra-Lee Phipps, a haunting first solo exhibit in Atlanta

by Felicia Feaster

A woman wanders through the forest alone, dressed in a poncho the same obscenely bright shade of orange as traffic cones and highway warning signs. The color and her solitude make her a beacon, a human exclamation point in the muted natural browns and greens of the wilderness surrounding her. The woman’s face is never seen; she is more an idea of “lost” than an identifiable presence.

Photographer Sandra-Lee Phipps conjures up an array of associations in her solo exhibition at Inman Park’s Whitespace Gallery — to Little Red Riding Hood, to crime dramas and missing child newspaper stories, and to any number of real or fairytale stories of girls lost in the woods and the potential for harm that lurks in reality or our imaginations.

Phipps is a professor of photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta and a former contributor to the storied New York alternative weekly “The Village Voice.” This solo exhibition, her first in Atlanta, is titled “Safe.” Here the idea of safety seems less a certainty than something longed for as this unnamed woman passes through a vast, threatening wilderness — the rural landscape of Maine familiar to the artist.

The woman is made doubly vulnerable by that flimsy, inadequate plastic garment running interference between her and the elements. As the “story” of her progress through the woods continues, she is joined by another woman in a light blue poncho, and the pair begin to navigate the wilderness together. That additional figure hints at the frequency with which such stories of lost girls circulate in the media and fiction, but also conveys an idea of progress, of passing from one realm to another; from threat to safety perhaps, but also from life to death, or from lived experience to legend.

In “Belly of the Whale” the woman stands ankle-deep in water beneath a large metal drainage pipe, as if sheltering or hiding echoed in the hood often pulled over the woman’s head. The sky above is bright, but she is caught in a dark, shadowed alternate reality.

In “The Call” the woman stands in the middle distance holding a bright orange gas can. The power lines flanking the road hint at civilization, but her solitude is emphasized by the towering trees that dwarf her. In “Rescue from Without/Magic Flight” the woman lies in a shallow pool at the edge of a river. Her splayed legs and vulnerable posture suggest injury or death. Multiple scenarios of helplessness and searching for shelter play out in these vivid, haunting color images and two video works depicting that same woman traversing a narrow wooden bridge or flailing underwater.

The work is moody, strange and capable of inducing a vicarious uneasiness at these women’s ambiguous plight. There are suggestions, near the end of this linear series, of rescue. The woman in orange poncho is joined by the woman in blue and they can be seen skirting the edges of civilization, standing at a screened door or a home, as if finally rescued from the wild.

Phipps’ narrative can be a bit one-note: on one side preoccupied with variations on the lost-in-the-woods theme, and then hinting at — depending upon one’s desire for a happy ending or tolerance for ambiguity — a sense of closure. You sense Phipps tentatively reaching for something in “Safe” but not quite reaching her mark. The series can feel a little repetitious, though it shows Phipps’ talent for mood-setting and for creating a feeling of uneasiness, isolation and threat through fairly economic means.

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