Sandra-Lee Phipps reveiws

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A Haunting First Solo Exhibit in Atlanta
June 6, 2013
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.