A Traveler’s Rests

Exploring the layers of places in the work of Carolyn Krieg

February 22, 2001

The Carolyn Krieg photographs currently on display at the Art Museum of Missoula (through May 12) were “inspired by her travels to India, Europe and Montana,” according to the exhibit notes. Thus alerted, we’re tempted to look for thematic links, location-wise, in the collection. But after strolling round the room and peering at the pictures, most of which require some scrutiny in order to determine what might have been the object of the camera’s focus, we decide that the topics for these photo-works must be serendipitous.

There are some recurring items. There are animals (dogs, cows, elephants—actual or gods?) There are figures (maybe a cowboy roping, maybe a woman doing puja). Several pieces are surrounded by bits of Sanskrit and/or bits of Hindu gods and goddesses. Still, one is reminded of those occasional roadside signs that lure travelers with promises of “soup, moccasins, beanie babies, etc.” Just as those signs seem to refer to a veritable grab bag of travel needs, so “India, Europe, and Montana” could be seen to represent a grab bag of destinations.

Billboards for those oddly stocked traveler’s rests, by the way, are disappearing, as more predictable franchises such as Cracker Barrel and Granny’s Buffet take over. These latter-day places, too, may count soup, moccasins, and beanie babies among their inventories, but in the Cracker Barrel world, such a wealth of possibility is now evoked rather than enumerated. And a similar high-concept phenomenon can be spotted in travel art—be it plain old photography or computer-jimmied photo art, or, on the literary front, travel writing. No more is it enough to simply go places and respond. Now an artist, photographer, writer, etc., even if only quasi-ly within the travel genre, must try to find a point to his or her travels, preferably one that can be communicated shorthand, i.e. “extreme travel,” “toxic travel,” “eco-travel,” etc.

“A place is not an idea,” travel magazine editors will admonish would-be contributors in the magazine’s guidelines. (Exempt, of course, is Paul Theroux, who is so extremely peevish editors don’t have it in themselves to cross him, especially as he likely would claim that it’s his own self that is the object of interest for the reader, the grand idea.) You can appreciate what these editors are trying to avoid—the literary equivalent of somebody’s stultifying Back From Africa film fest, or the anecdotal replication of what is simply in any travel brochure or Lonely Planet guidebook. (Paul Theroux, because of the peeve factor and because he’s a provenly wonderful writer, has been grandfathered in.)

“A place is not an idea,” the rest of us dutifully mutter to ourselves, as we rack our minds for our continent-spanning themes (we’d settle for a weird spin), wondering about this question all the while, and worrying about the implications of our wondering for our mindset—are we unimaginative to think simply “China” suffices as a topic—are we romantic, racist?

I don’t think a place counts as an idea in Carolyn Krieg’s work. But if there’s some unifying meta-theme in these India, Europe and Montana based photo-arts, I didn’t see it. Krieg seems to be in between things, in the place-concept grid, or maybe outside it altogether. Except for the bits of Sanskrit and the Hindu images, it would be very hard to place any of these works at all.

The exhibit notes say, “[Krieg’s] process mirrors the exploratory concerns of her travels,” but these concerns are not apparent in the works, which involve taking a photograph, scanning the image into Photoshop, manipulating it within the program, and printing it out on Polaroid. I couldn’t have recognized that process; I read about it in the notes. As I read, I thought, “Ah, yes, the Photoshops of our brains,” but then I couldn’t seem to go anywhere with that. It did occur to me that travel narratives of any kind are akin to Krieg’s next step, in which “she ... takes the layers apart, applies ink and oils, and ends up with a positive image.” Travel stories seem to evolve something like that, whether idea-laden or not.

“The photographs,” the text concludes, “are metaphors for a journey and are a mere memory of a trial and error experience.” I didn’t quite get that last part and wouldn’t want to trivialize it by having it serve as a description of my last foreign adventure. So I’ll just conclude, myself, by saying that Carolyn Krieg can go ahead and do whatever she wants: The result—these photoworks, misty and obscured—are sometimes beautiful.

Note to Reader: A name is not a person, as you’ll discover if you try to find “Carolyn Krieg” on the Internet and stumble into another Carolyn Krieg’s website, designed in preparation for the Minnesota Family Reunion. You’ll read that this Krieg likes Italian food, finds children annoying, and her favorite song is “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” by REO Speedwagon.
This all might also be true of the artist Krieg, who attended the University of Washington and the American College in Paris, is represented by the Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, and lives in Bothell. But it isn’t, or at least these facts don’t belong, Web-wise, to that person.

Note to Self: Try to link this observation to a final statement about the accidents of travel.

Original Sources, featuring work by Carolyn Krieg, is on view in the Second Floor Gallery at the Art Museum of Missoula through May 12. At 335 N. Pattee. Call 728-0447.

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