The people are frozen in eerie, perfect tableaux, soft light illuminating their faces. Sometimes they are scarred and scowling, almost but not quite connecting with each other. Their photos seem to capture moments in theatrical productions with the profoundest of plots.
Marcus Williams and Susan Jowsey cast themselves and their children as living canvases, utilizing costumes and props to personify the concrete manifestations of abstract concepts.
“The Forgiving,” the family’s latest photo/video exhibit, will inhabit GOCA 121, the downtown satellite of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’ Galleries of Contemporary Art, through June 17.
Williams and Jowsey, both 48, and their children Jesse, 13, and Mercy, 11, are F4, a New Zealand-based artistic collective formed in 2006.
“We really tried to include the children in the development of ideas, not just as actors in our ‘play,’ Williams emailed from home. “We wanted them to help drive the concepts, to take some responsibly for the project and share the authorship. The process is very much an experiment. We are not sure yet if it is succeeding or if it is sustainable.”
The children often suggest ideas, and one of the exhibit’s two videos, showing “wounds” building up on bodies, evolved from Jesse and Mercy’s “elaborate fantasy games involving battles, slain warriors and the wounded,” Williams wrote.
He sketches the compositions first, then photographs mock setups and draws on the printouts until everything looks right. During the photo shoots, three or four studio lights and a diffuser help achieve the other-worldly appearance.
Williams traveled to Colorado Springs to install the exhibit and to speak to UCCS students about the work and process. That fulfilled the mission uppermost in the minds of Caitlin Green and Daisy McConnell, GOCA’s co-directors.
“An academic institution is really the place to take on work that may be profound and pushes the limits of what people expect,” McConnell said. “We really believe in the strength of this work and all the ideas behind it are very strong. But I do think that some people will find some of this difficult, and we’re perfectly poised to have that conversation.”
Green added: “The work is so content-driven, there’s so much to talk about there. And I think you’d really be hard-pressed to stand in front of it and not have a question or not have a response. For an academic institution, if we’re not asking questions and challenging people to see things in new ways and to engage in more meaningful ways, then we’ve really failed.”
The Coloradans connected with the Kiwi artists through Dr. Suzanne MacAulay, chair of UCCS’ visual and performing arts department, who saw their work while traveling in New Zealand.
“It’s such a different aesthetic for us, it’s really new work, really new ideas, from anything we’ve seen. ‘New’ is always something we’re looking for,” Green said.
Some viewers may worry the children are being exploited, and Williams said he and Jowsey have been asked about that.
“They’re the most important things to us in the world. And so if we felt there was some chance of exploitation, we would stop doing the project.”
Outside of art, Jesse and Mercy keep busy with school, swimming, studying violin and guitar, respectively, and learning Maori, the indigenous language.
Be prepared to be disturbed and provoked, to stand slack-jawed before these nearly life-sized photos that act as mirrors showing us our selves and, perhaps, our souls.
GOCA 121 is at 121 S. Tejon St. (Plaza of the Rockies), Suite 100. It’s open Mondays-Fridays 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; other times by appointment. Call 255-3504 for info.