“The Nature of Things”: Go with the flow

Sarah Knobel and Melanie Flood consider the "natural" world at Newspace Center for Photography

The first thing that popped into my head when I saw the title of this exhibit was “On the Nature of Things,” written by the Epicurean poet, Lucretius, in about 50 BCE. Drop the preposition at the beginning of the title, and I am then reminded of the long-standing and still-running Canadian Broadcasting Company television series hosted by David Suzuki. The former is an exegesis on Epicurus’ physics and the finite soul; the latter is soft science about how the natural world (humans included) manages to survive.

It was immediately apparent upon entering Newspace’s gallery that science has little place in this exhibit, and instead what is very much in evidence is the equally complex and perhaps more mysterious emotional nature of our being. As I let go of any theme based on the above two references, even the overall title for the exhibit faded away, for these two bodies of works each have their own, separate titles. Sarah Knobel’s photographs are from her “Icescape” series, and Melanie Flood’s are each listed, albeit parenthetically, with the title “Suggested Experiences.”

Although each artist’s photography is studio-based and uses color for effect, and both bodies of work share a thingy/found-object quality in content, Flood and Knobel work toward different ends. Knobel has taken an assortment of items (hair, feathers, moss and lichen, aquarium gravel, balloons and weed wacker plastic string), immersed them in water (sometimes colored), and frozen them into somewhat geometric shapes. She then photographs the objects as they melt and begin to dismantle, and an ecological subtext emerges. Flood takes a rather different approach to arranging the objects she uses in her images. An inflatable toy, craft and party supplies, and even cotton candy all provide a sense of play and humor to the work. These are both, of course, cursory reads, and while one may still find the photos rewarding on this level alone, both artists provide more to ponder.

"Icescape - 11" Sarah Knobel

“Icescape – 11” Sarah Knobel

If there is an ecological component to Sarah Knobel’s photos, it has a decided melancholy tone. Against their white backgrounds and despite the bits of bright colors contrasted against earthtones, the items in the forms seem a bit grimy, and the melted ice, oily. I am reminded of winters in Chicago where snow would be plowed into huge white mounds, and as those artificial drifts melted away, they turned into gray piles of mush and garbage. Gutters would flow with this effluence and refuse. Another freeze would come and the litter would be encased in “icescapes.” Not nearly so picturesque as Knobel’s images are and resistant to memorialization, yet the effect and even the end are similar.

Knobel reconfigures her initial gathering of items, all of which could easily have been found on the ground or in the trash somewhere and therefore were already displaced, into a form. This is a process: accumulating materials, fixing those materials into a solid (congealed, if you will) object, leaving them to chance (as much as the ambient temperature of the studio lights dictate), only to become more distributed like they all once were yet still together, and somewhere along the way there is a decision to make a photograph. Something is made, then allowed to become unmade, only to become something else as a documentation of remnants in a “state.”

I presume that Knobel takes several photos of each object over a period of time as each object melts apart, and so the choice of one print to represent each “icescape” must become paramount. Even so, I cannot detect a specific strategy. Some seem to have all but completely melted though components somehow remain attached to each other; others seem to be almost fresh from the freezer. One of the latter, “Icescape – 7,” is perhaps my favorite, not because of its solid state, but for the way the whiteness of the ice partially blends into the white background, reinforcing its ephemeral nature in a completely different way.

"Icescape - 7" Sarah Knobel

“Icescape – 7” Sarah Knobel

Can the breakdown that happens in these objects be seen as a metaphor for entropy? Perhaps, except for the emotional component that comes through the materiality in the images. The frozen masses seems precious, something we might “cling to” were they not so cold to the touch, and maybe even painful if we were to hold them for any period of time. Instead, as Knobel freeze-frames a moment, she suggests we contemplate demise. A melancholy arises like a beautiful memory that also accepts of a certain fatalism.


Memory seems to play a role in Melanie Flood’s photos as well, yet, like Knobel, it is not as simple as a look into the past. In Newspace’s press release, Flood says she is exploring “the passage of time with questions around cultural notions of youth and aging.” There is certainly room for melancholy in such a quest, yet I would not necessarily know that looking at her photos.

In fact, Flood’s photographs, if observed as one might typically approach a series, are first and foremost a bit perplexing. There is a definite feeling of whimsy; but then again, the flip side of whimsy is frenzy.

"Untitled (Rainbow Spandex) Melanie Flood

“Untitled (Rainbow Spandex) Melanie Flood

I will admit to being a little confounded by the images of fabric. They run counter to the other photos (themselves divisible into a couple other categories as images), that is, unless I look more closely at the content in each photo and then begin to draw lines between all of the images. Containers of glitter form the base for a tower that looks as if it is about to fall in “Untitled (Tada!).” This glitter may have been used to create the surface in “Untilted (Glitter Line),” so establishing some syntax for it and the other photos of fabric. Using this same formula, other associations between photos begin to be made. One of the balloons in “(Tada!)” may have been used in “Untitled (Squeaking Balloon).” That particular balloon is lit in such a way that it seems to have two glowing eyes, turning it into a head. We can then approach the two enigmatic self portraits (especially the blurred one) as equal parts in the overall series’ parenthetical title, “Suggested Experiences.”

Why depend upon such a structural approach as a viewer? We are coached in that direction, for otherwise, how else to construct a narrative for ourselves? Then again, is the narrative necessary?

Think of it this way: There are utensils in the silverware drawer you will need in order to eat dinner. Nevermind the food. (Why? Just do and bear with me.) After eating, the plates, knives, forks and spoons are put in the sink, washed, dried (then a little TV viewing) and put away until the next time they are needed. Well and fine. Yet, feet, hands, eyes, mouth and who knows what other aspect of one’s physical self were involved in the procedures. And so was water, a floor to walk across and the aforementioned drawer. Yes, the drawer that squeaks. Oh, and the sun was shining while doing the dishes; birds were at the feeder outside of the window; and your spouse left in the car (that needs gas), and although he didn’t say where he was going, everything seemed fine at dinner. Little Joey didn’t eat all of his dinner and is now upstairs doing his math homework in red ink because he broke his pencil. This will inadvertently affect the boy’s grade because his math teacher moonlights as an bookkeeper.

And on and on and in myriad directions until you get old and die. But before that end, there’s no reason to go through life semi-comatose, plus, there’s all of those memories. Maybe you will get to a place where you can rest easy in the knowledge that “it is what it is,” plus, there is much more you don’t know and things you’ll miss entirely, and that’s okay.

"Untitled (India Airplane)" Melanie Flood

“Untitled (India Airplane)” Melanie Flood

In the case of Flood’s “Suggested Experiences,” one might develop a similar scenario around a child’s party. Some of the images may not make a lot of sense or be as engaging as others unless this effort is made. But that’s not necessarily bad. The best thing about Flood’s photographs is that they further erode the conceit, relativization or absurdity that photography is somehow a purposely empirical art form. And this is, if I may, good enough reason for Flood to make the photographs, for they duck our expectations.

That said, both Knobel’s and Flood’s work heavily depend upon metaphor. The things they have photographed are stand-ins that move along an order/disorder continuum. And in that both bodies of work are studio-based, it is perhaps not surprising both reference other visual art forms. Knobel’s work is very sculptural, and for Flood, we are reminded of performance, installation, and even painting. While not new, this way of working continues to stand in strong contrast to more traditional —pervasive— photographic practices. To the consternation of some, one might even suggest that the fact these artworks are photographs is secondary to what the artists wish to express.


Read more by Patrick Collier

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