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Deliberately Visible: The Multiple Meanings of Tammy Rae Carland


Tammy Rae Carland, who teaches photography and video at UNC-Chapel Hill, has exhibited both internationally and locally (at Chapel Hill's Ackland Museum of Art and at Raleigh's LUMP gallery). She is also one of the ladies behind Mr. Lady Records, an independent music, video and distribution company that she runs with her partner, Kaia Wilson. Carland's photographic work overlaps with Mr. Lady in both material and philosophical ways. Like Mr. Lady, Carland's photography is about making the invisible deliberately and beautifully visible: lesbian domestic scenes, alternative familial relationships, poor and working class people, and Durham, N.C.

Carland's color series of lesbian beds is stunning. Taken from above, the beds become landscapes of love wherein abstract expressionist fields of color, patterns and textures express uncharted territories, complicated lands. The bed is a place of intimacy, but also a site of legislation--a private space turned problematically public.

The possibility for reading multiple meanings in Carland's work makes it more democratic. Carland's beds remind me of another famous artist's bed: Robert Rauschenberg's "Bed," a combine painting from 1955. Legend has it that Rauschenberg's bed symbolizes his romantic relationship with Jasper Johns. The bed hangs on a wall--quilt, pillow and all. Paint is splattered and dripping, the quilt turned back a bit, inviting one to get in. Carland's beds also invite: You want to lie on the sun-warmed sheets, wrap yourself in the chenille bedspread, and rest your head on the worn pillows.

Carland's lesbian domestic scenes, a series called Keeping House, are mini-narratives--such as the photo of Tammy Rae and Kaia wearing blue facial masks, sitting at a kitchen table with flowers, fingernail polish, a basket of fruit, and a book by death row activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. There is always a detail in each picture that gives them away as radicals. In another photo they read in a morning-lit bed, light glowing through the venetian blinds and gauze curtains. Tammy Rae reads Gertrude Stein's Wars I Have Seen and Kaia reads Mab Segrest's Memoir of a Race Traitor. While these scenes appear to be "normal" (i.e., heterosexuals do the same things), Carland is not interested in assimilation or mockery. She works to reveal the very real circumstances of her lesbian life.

One of Carland's current projects is a color documentary series of Durham. This series is similar in some ways to Andrea Gursky's enormous color photographs of hotel and grocery store interiors that almost become abstractions, but Carland's photographs are ultimately more reminiscent of Walker Evans' photos of American towns during the Depression. Durham's buildings and parking lots are empty, worn billboards are painted on brick walls, pools are surrounded by weeds and the Palace International Club is condemned. Durham is Carland's hometown now and she tries to reveal the beauty found in such post-industrial landscapes: the slope of modernist architecture, the pattern of the 1950s hotel balcony railing, the surprising geometry of corrugated metal and the blue of an old cement wall.

Carland captures the subtle tones of surfaces and the radical implications and effects of queer, feminist and political activism. The Triangle will see more of her in the spring of 2002, when she curates an exhibition of queer artists at Raleigh's LUMP gallery. EndBlock

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