Erica Sherwood’s photography at Mahtay Cafe is diverse, in terms of subject matter. Some are more nature themed, and other images straddle a visceral sensibility with a detail and colour that is arresting. However, the works that held my attention on repeated visits are both from a trip the artist took to San Francisco, and are scenes of Alcatraz. These are scenes that are evocative not only separate from that historical site of contested narratives, but in their soft tones and silence. These are serene images, and that in itself – considering the mythos of Alcatraz, both factual and fictional – makes them worth consideration, with this formal and conceptual contrast.
Soles of Prisoners is a very literal title for what Sherwood has captured with her camera and eye. But the serenity of the scene – and the absence of any person, with the empty, discarded shoes – alludes to the ‘soul’, and that some only leave prisons when they die. The idea of what is left behind, when you’re released from prison, or to consider how some prisoners have spoken that though they’re grounded, physically, they are free to dream, is also hinted at, in the empty shoes. That a site that’s all about containing people is shown as empty, with indexical leavings of the past, of the people themselves, almost makes the image haunted….
The ‘dusty’ quality of the room is contrasted by the diffuse light from the window, and the freedom of outside: but the bars are still prominent, and in knowing where the image was captured, the history of the site informs our interpretation. This is true whether in the legacy of it as a prison, nearly inescapable, or in the occupation of the site by Indians of All Tribes (IOAT), that is reminiscent of Foucault’s ideas of how the designation of what is ‘criminal’ says more about society than about any larger ‘morality’…..
These rich colours and textures are in all of the images that Sherwood has presented, and her play of digital – which she often refers to in painterly language – and ‘real’ manifests in details that pull your eye in, before it roams to other segments that engage visually and viscerally.
The ‘other’ Alcatraz image, Office Alcatraz, is less immediately unnerving than Soles of Prisoners: a pale yellow, the file cabinet and the sparseness of the architecture are almost bland. In seeing this, it’s worth imagining how this was a hub of activity, with a guard ever present, and that prisons are not just cells, but a whole administrative framework. In a wonderful series I read a long time ago, a new prisoner is given a tour of the facility by an older, cunning and callous lifer: the latter gives brief, blunt descriptions of the gangs and factions. He ends with the gaurds, whom he describes as the ‘craziest’, ’cause those bitches be here by choice.’
I’m offering only a glimpse of what Sherwood has on display: other images, from Mexico, are richer and more celebratory, and others – such as ‘self portrait’ built around her ‘eye’ – are necessary to experience in person, as the finer and worked elements of the scenes are as painterly as they are photographic. Some of her images are vibrant and active: others are quiet and forlorn, as with the ones that I spoke of here, as ever time I visit her work, those are the ones that pull me back to them…
Erica Sherwood’s work is on display at the Mahtay Cafe and Lounge in downtown St. Catharines until the end of February: Lauren Regier (who was one of the artists in the most recent St. Catharines Annual Juried Art Exhibition) also has a selection of delicate and dark pieces for your perusal. I would add that Erica has been nominated in the Emerging Artist Category for the 2020 St. Catharines Arts Awards, and would make a worthy recipent.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.