Being Alone in the Desert - 8/14/09

Katherine Ware, Curator of Photography

Alone in the DesertHolly Roberts is one of my favorite artists. Roberts likes to use oil paint on top of photographs, so the pictures feel like they are both of this world and of the imagination. Sometimes she uses events from her own life as subjects, but her work always projects universal human themes. 

Since I moved to New Mexico last year, Roberts’s picture Being Alone in the Desert has been on my mind.  A hulking, blue figure dominates the picture, surrounded by the big empty sky and a patch of land sparsely studded with plants, emphasizing aloneness. Is the figure afraid, crossing its arms protectively against the cold and the unknown, or is it taking a defensive posture? Is the open-mouthed grimace chattering with chill or terror, or is it baring its teeth aggressively? The aura around the figure is both red and black, which could suggest anger, dark thoughts, a visitation of spirits, or even simply the glow and shadow created by the sun. 

The most inexplicable part of the picture is the patch of black-and-white at the figure’s throat, the only part of the underlying photograph that isn’t covered with paint.  It shows a jumble of unidentifiable forms that might be the figure’s innards or is perhaps symbolic of inner turmoil. Even though we can see right through this person like an X-Ray, he or she remains unknown to us, holding on to its mysteries just like the desert. I like that ambiguity.

Being Alone in the Desert, 1986
Holly Roberts
Oil on gelatin silver print
28 3/8 x 24 ¾ inches
Purchased with funds donated by Mel and Dickie Pfaelzer
1986.563.1

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