Like all good fairytales, Finding Peabrook, the most recent series by photographer Patricia Heal, balances beauty and darkness. In her ninth solo exhibition at Robin Rice Gallery, Heal takes us on a strange and fantastical journey through her home in the country. At first the show appears incohesive as Heal introduces interiors, still lifes, and unearthly figures. Some photographs are presented as negatives, the next revert to positives, then color, then black and white. Moving through the exhibition, it becomes clear that her ethereal style is consistent, while the disconnect between subject matter is intended to disorient the viewer, like falling down the rabbit hole.
Robin Rice Gallery is a beautiful, tiny space in the West Village of New York City, and, while the opening reception was quite crowded (a good thing to be sure), I felt that the intimate size of the photographs fit perfectly in the small gallery. At roughly 4x5” each, Heals’ pieces are like looking through a keyhole into another world. In “The Visitor,” a small silhouette of a peacock is camouflaged among the leaves of a tree. I spy the bird through the mat opening of the frame the way that I might see it through a bird watcher’s scope. At times the keyhole viewing effect made me feel as though I had stumbled upon a place or moment that was not meant to be seen. In “Staircase,” a glimmer of light shines under the door of a dark hallway, in another, a woman disappears into the woods.
The images of ghostly figures, while stylistically cohesive with the rest of the work, seem like a more heavy-handed attempt at nostalgia and mystery than the others. Some of the most successful photographs are those where Heal is not afraid to put her trust in her viewers and tasks us discover what might be hiding in the shadows.
Many of the images were made with Polaroid Type 55 film, which is no longer produced. I spoke with Heal at the opening, who told me that the scarcity of the discontinued film pushed her to “beg, borrow, and steal” whatever sheets she could find from the internet and fellow photographers. A large quantity of the film she used was expired, exaggerating the imperfections inherent to the process. Each precious frame became a currency of sorts, not to be spent recklessly. About her process she remarked, “You can’t just shoot a bunch and see what comes of it.” Despite this, every image reads as a serendipitous moment. For example, “Winter Picnic” is a scene that Heal appears to have happened upon, and yet she studied her surroundings for months before choosing to photograph that particular tree in that particular fog.
The series took a year to complete, which is evident from the different moods, tones, and seasons represented. Using sepia tones, soft focus, and negatives as prints, Heal blends these techniques to show what cannot be seen with our eyes alone—the feeling of a place. She has created a Narian realm in this series, and, serving as a guide, shows us the beautiful world she has found.