MacDowell Downtown 2012

Photographer, filmmaker, animator, and visual artist Karen Ostrom will present excerpts of recent work at April’s MacDowell Downtown on Friday, April 6th. Drawing connections between her personal experiences and the worlds she creates through photography, installation, video, animation, and sound, Ostrom will talk about some of the themes found in her work and the varied artistic approaches she uses to explore them.

Echoing the adage “all roads lead home,” Ostrom’s dream-like photographs and videos all lead back to the imaginary fishing village of Hope, which she created as a fictional construct for the characters and ideas she explores through her art. Based on the real-life location of Bella, Bella, Washington — the utopian village her grandparents immigrated to from Sweden — the village in Ostrom’s imagination has become the nucleus from which she lets loose a centrifugal force of creative ideas that flourish, expand, transform, and intersect.

“My work weaves back and forth in time, and comes back together,” says Ostrom, who grew up as the daughter of a fisherman in Sidney, British Columbia. Having generated a collection of work that has continually evolved as it’s progressed (some of which hints at her beginnings as a painter), she has received many art awards and fellowships, including the Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography from Canada’s Council for the Arts. Referring to looping and repeating, literally or physically, her work — which has been featured in numerous exhibitions around the world, including solo shows in New York, Vancouver, and at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) — displays a deliberate fogginess, one that Ostrom carefully balances so it does not obscure the ideas she intends to convey.

Take, for instance, “The Execution” (2005), in which Ostrom is depicted (playing a character, as she often does in her own work), back toward the camera, pointing a finger (like a gun) at the head of the same character, whose eyes are closed as if waiting for the impact of a bullet. A feeling of unease immediately assaults the viewer, who thus may not readily recognize that this photo is based on the well-known 1968 Eddie Adams photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon in 1968. And that’s the way Ostrom wants it. “I don’t like the images I create to be too specific; I like for them to stand on their own. The characters [in the photo] don’t even understand their part, but the tension comes across.”

Ostrom has used her characters to reenact scenes from historical photographs a number of times, but no matter their role, her characters play as much a part in her work as their surroundings. Going back to the handmade industry that was prevalent in the village where she grew up, Ostrom decided that her characters would be named and/or described only by their profession. The Glovemaker is one such character that has generated a series of photographs, a cycloramic installation, an animation (Hand gLove, 2009), and video projections. “My characters dictate their own projects,” says Ostrom. “I have learned to let them take over and go where they want to go.”

Gesture is common in Ostrom’s work, particularly the use of the pointing index finger symbolizing a gun. Her fascination with the power of this gesture led to her Gun series, which includes the photographs “The Hunter” and “Smoking Gun” — the latter of which was displayed as a cycloramic installation at MOCCA in Toronto in 2007. Touching on layers of meaning, the photo depicts a girl and a boy (her, with finger pointed like a gun, him with finger pointed at his lips in a shushing gesture) amidst masses of wooden sawhorses in a forest, a fire burning in the background. Upon closer examination, the idea of imaginary play can be discerned: They are playing cowboys and Indians. Ostrom hoped viewers would see, and engage with, the installation at that level. “There’s similarity between how we play and how we work,” says Ostrom. “With both, there needs to be a context to understand what is going on.”

In some ways, it could be said that for Ostrom, all roads lead back to MacDowell. She is currently in the midst of her fourth residency at the Colony, which, she says, has changed her life. “My first residency at MacDowell in 2003 was the beginning of me realizing I could be taken seriously as an artist,” she recounts. “That experience had an immediate impact on what I was doing. It gave me confidence to try something new right then and there.” Ostrom is currently working on bringing together the pieces of her previous work with Holiday in Hope, a multimedia project depicting the citizens of the village of Hope in interconnected installations, videos, animations, sound pieces, and short plays.


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