Alexis Anne Mackenzie’s hand-cut collages borrow from found photographs of vintage female nudes and natural landscapes to create new scenes of dreamlike blended realities. A selection of these intricate pieces are on display in Never Odd or Even at Eleanor Harwood Gallery in San Francisco. Digital images of the work may look deceptively simple, but up close Mackenzie’s precision and artistic intuition are undeniable.
Each piece is created by physically altering one, two, or three images. Set to Rise (all works 2016) demonstrates this process most clearly and is also one of the most captivating works in the exhibition. On one side of the diptych a woman holding herself up on her hands and knees overlaps an image of crashing waves. The photograph of the woman has been sliced, with tiny strips of the image removed every few millimeters. The result is an image interrupted by a series of bars, like the scan-lines visible when a computer screen is recorded on video. But in this case, the two conflicting images work to create a new one, in which parts of the woman’s body seem to melt into the waves. The strips of the photograph that were removed are seen flipped around on the second side of the diptych. This mirror image overlaps an image of the rising sun, which appears to emanate from the woman’s torso. The flipped fragments in the second side create a more angular effect that contrasts with the natural blending on the seashore.
In some cases, Mackenzie’s images generate a mythical sensation. This is largely due to the visual metaphors that are created with humans — in this case all women — and nature. The lunar and solar imagery in Set to Rise create these associations, as does the more cheeky Wake Up and Dream. One of the two source images is a lush jungle scene with ferns and dangling vines. Below the canopy, on the jungle floor, a woman reclines in a relaxed yet alert position that would befit Venus in a Renaissance painting. The two images overlap almost seamlessly, and just one of the woman’s eyes peek through the scan-lines with a look that could be interpreted as either seductive or cautionary. In this setting she resembles a jaguar, simultaneously at ease and vigilant. The imagery is regal, animalistic, and divine all at once.
Other works in the exhibition are sourced from only a single image. See You Inside is an image of a rocky shoreline with dozens of concentric circles excised and then rotated 90 degrees. The kaleidoscopic landscape resemble a nautical hypnosis pendant and the original scene almost becomes a backdrop to the unidentifiable form that now commands attention. The collage is a meticulous reimagining of a single scene that demonstrates how sometimes nothing more than what is already present is required to create new realities.
These imaginative realities are created in partnership with Mackenzie and the viewers. Where one person might see a spider web, another might see a constellation or star chart. A sunbather in one viewer’s eyes might be a deity in another’s. I am hard-pressed to see anything but a portal to another universe in See You Inside, but that is unlikely to be the only interpretation. As viewers, we don’t only bring our individual associations with jungles, celestial bodies, birds, and beaches, we bring our own emotional responses to abstract forms and color combinations. Though Mackenzie put great care into constructing these images, the randomness of viewer reactions completes them.
Never Odd or Even, through Dec. 17, at Eleanor Harwood Gallery, 1275 Minnesota St., 415-867-7770 or eleanorharwood.com