Entering RNG Gallery this month might evoke the sensation of entering a garden, not unlike the one artist and owner Rob Gilmer’s father created for his family on Long Island’s North Shore. As Merritt G. “Gil” Gilmer writes in his memoirs, “Chaff from the Haymow, Musings and Memories of a Ninety-Year-Old,” “The old orchard was an orchard when we first came. It soon became a jungle of trees and bushes. It was a real retreat, a hideout, a place for solitude. It occupied the lower acre of our property. It was our private game preserve and sanctuary.”
“Gate”, the first photograph in Rob Gilmer’s installation, The Gardener of Eden, currently on display at RNG, uses a vertical framework to stop the viewer while the contrast of turquoise and crimson invites the viewer in. Pausing, one notices the corners of two framed pieces lying on the floor of the gallery. The immediate question is, “What’s going on here?” Across the room on the far wall is a large color photograph of a person’s hands resting on a sheet. “2 Days before Passing” utilizes an underlying diagonal tension to support a presentation of vulnerability and strength. This photograph of “Gil” Gilmer’s hands taken two days before he died provides an immediate answer to the question.
“This exhibition features my Dad, the garden he created for his family, and his influence on my photography,” Gilmer said in his gallery talk. “Seeing the movie The Descendants changed my conception of the entire show. I knew the photograph of my dad’s hands taken 2 days before his passing had to be the centerpiece.”
Strongly positioned in the middle of the wall, the hands appear to levitate. The photograph of clouds to the left, and one of plant life to the right reinforces the sensation of suspension, floating between heaven and earth.
Walking into the room toward this image, the photographs on the floor catch your attention. “Above #1” uses light in the compositional center of captured clouds. It is a reversed placement of sky and earth (or in this case sky and floor). “Trampled” and “Water”, also on the ground, reinforce the notion of “Gil” Gilmer’s hands ascending upward. The presentation asks, how is a person standing on the ground actually oriented in the cosmos? How are we in relation to air, earth, and water?
“Next to Dad’s Bed”, hanging across from “2 Days before Passing”, shows moccasin slippers from a birds-eye point of view. Their placement in the picture plane reiterates this question of location. In his gallery talk, Gilmer pointed out “These are dad’s slippers. This image completes the exhibition, but the journey is still continuing in a different form.”
With this in mind, the rest of the exhibition features various ruminations on space, place, and memory. Rob Gilmer wrote in the exhibition’s press release, “This show looks at what Dad touched and how he influenced my vision as a photographer. It asks this pained heart, what is here and what is there, the space between life and death? I am just a mere mortal who takes tons of photographs and asks a lot of questions.”
The verdant green foliage of “Hedge #1” presents a wall of leaves in different sizes of ascending and descending order. One has to walk around a wall to see it. Walking back into the central room, the hedge appears again on a far wall, this time as five separate photographs. There are several instances of repeated images throughout the gallery, opening up variations in context. One might question what can be known through a photograph, which opens up many more questions. “I came upon these hedges,” Gilmer said. “They symbolize the wall we each have to climb over, the wall of life accomplishments we face every day.”
“Water (on floor)” is placed on the floor beneath “Dock.” Looking down at the water, in contrast with looking across the water from a dock, simultaneously provides two points of view. “Dock” is an arresting composition with two vertical elements framing the water’s motion. Looking back and forth between the two begs again the question of orientation. The larger scale of “Water (on floor)” amplifies this sensation. “The photographer Ralph Gibson was one of my teachers. He taught me the importance of scale,” Gilmer said in his gallery talk.
This exhibition merits more than one visit. The variety of walls and spaces in the gallery prevents one from seeing the whole exhibition at one time. The pacing of the viewing experience is very much like being in an actual garden. Coming upon “Silver” the pony has a different resonance than looking at “The Old Driveway.” The corners and niches of the installation yield other discoveries.
“Memory Wall”, a collection of 19 black and white images contains personal pictures of the Gilmer family shot by Gilmer’s mother. They are hung with Gilmer’s work to create a mosaic of images. His photograph of a tree looking straight up the trunk is particularly striking in its composition, scale, and placement on the wall. Directly opposite “Memory Wall” is “Dad and Cait”. It is a portrait of “Gil” Gilmer with his cat. He is looking out toward his son the photographer, and theoretically across to the “Memory Wall.” “My dad was a great guy,” Rob Gilmer said. “He helped make the passion I have for photography.”
The work of photographer Lee Friedlander also seems to have fueled Gilmer’s passion in the way he uses the camera. Friedlander has been quoted as saying. “It’s a generous medium, photography.” Generosity on several levels is uniquely celebrated in “The Gardener of Eden.” The cumulative effect of image and installation come together to create the meaning Gilmer seeks. Each viewer will have their own answer.
The Gardener of Eden, Photographs by Rob Gilmer continues through February 5, 2012 at RNG Gallery, 157 West Broadway, Council Bluffs, Iowa. For more details go to dixiequicks.com