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When things go missing

When things go missing

Photographs by Joel Whitaker April 25, 2019

Things in our lives go missing.

Car keys are misplaced.

A single sock sits lonely in the laundry basket.

In 2011, supercell storms spawned tornadoes that ripped through the American South, causing loss and

Joel Whitaker, professor of art, saw its effects as he traveled to his home state of Alabama to help care for
his mother.

“I was not there to witness it, and I didn’t want to go photograph that damage,” he said. But he was drawn to using art to explore the concept of what happens when things go missing. It’s the notion of moving from recognition to acceptance, he said: “That it’s there one minute and gone the next.”

Since 2013, Whitaker has been creating art for the series When Things Go Missing. Four sections of photographs were installed in an exhibit at The Contemporary Dayton gallery last fall, supported by grants from the Montgomery County (Ohio) Arts & Cultural District and FotoFocus, a nonprofit arts organization.

The project began with a single image of a boat on the river, a remnant of a collection of discarded glass plate negatives used by Whitaker to create Cities, a previous series of manipulated photographs. The boat and its passengers are indistinct in a sea of gray and silver tones. 

In When Things Go Missing: spaces between, it’s the space between the photos, their physical relationship to one another, the difference between what we see and what we know, and the thought of what happens both before and after the photograph is taken that preoccupy the onlooker.

The installation includes a photograph of plastic purple grapes adjacent to a black-and-white image of a field that sit on a long, wooden shelf. The subject matter is intentionally incongruous. These flat printings of three-dimensional objects again take on a 3-D quality as the photos sitting on the shelf bend and curl under their
own weight.

In his second section, When Things Go Missing: in memoriam, the photographs focus on plastic flowers, silk ribbons and other memorials blown away or discarded from previously ordered gravesites.

“My photographs are a reflection of my original distraction,” Whitaker said. But in their scattered existence is also another message of loss, the loss of the order and organization of internment and memorial.

In the third section, When Things Go Missing: dirt and air, Whitaker explores the space we occupy with nothing but nature to suggest our place in it.

Whitaker said he was struck with the idea that we simultaneously stand on dirt and breathe air. While these images have hallmarks of traditional black-and-white landscapes, Whitaker said he veers away from the burden of the genre by choosing impermanent scenes — a mud puddle, a wooded hillside — and intentionally saturating the paper with image.

“I wanted these photographs to be these dark velvety surfaces that you just move over,” he said. “They carry that kind of quality of dirt rather than that quality of image.”

In the final section of photos, When Things Go Missing: shovels, Whitaker has some fun with both the subject and the audience. He explained his original intention was to dig a hole large enough to stand in. “But it’s a lot of work for me to dig a hole big enough for me to stand in,” he said. So, instead, he planted his shovel in places he might like to dig a hole.

“I wanted an inviting space but I also wanted a space that could look like it popped up in a Cohen brothers movie,” he said. “They don’t carry that sense of threatening, but they carry that sense of punctuation.”

In this section most of all, Whitaker’s work takes on the veil of performance art.

“The performative aspect of the shovel is the idea of digging the hole but not committing to digging the hole but then using the prop to actually illustrate that idea without following through,” he said.

The artist’s performance is a part of all his photographs. Whitaker said he chooses a subject and moves in and around it, with a camera in the space between, “considering it in ways that are different from it just sitting there,” he said. 

Whitaker has been making art professionally for more than 35 years — since 1993 as a faculty member in the Department of Art and Design. Like his fellow faculty, he is a teacher who “makes stuff,” he said, an often messy process with no concrete answers and the ever-present taint of failure. But that’s what makes you a better educator, he said.

“It makes you a little more understanding of the struggles that students are going to have because you continue to struggle,” he said.

Similar to other professions, artists discover there are multiple ways to consider a problem, and just as many ways to answer the question, none necessarily more right or wrong than the others, he said.

When Things Go Missing allows the viewer to consider all these questions, free of an embedded narrative, and progress from realization to acceptance of the transitory nature of all things.

“We don’t give ourselves enough credit for what it is we see,” he said. “We don’t look and try to understand what we see. We oftentimes make assumptions based on what we think we see — and there’s just a billion and one examples of how that goes bad — instead of actually looking hard and taking some time to think about what we’re seeing and how we’re seeing it.”

See more at joelwhitaker.com.