In Stephen Tourlentes' visionary photographs, light is a seductive and ominous revelation. In less than a dozen photographs, Tourlentes has managed to take a liminal event - our imprisonment of our own human species - and move it center stage to create a subtle, powerful manifesto.
Raw and lyrical, ordinary and extraterrestrial, companionable and stark, these “snapshots” tug us into narratives that are writhing with metaphor, yet evoke a meditative calm. Where to begin?
I’m looking at a postcard reproduction of “Yazoo City, Mississippi, Federal Prison,” 2007. At a generous 40” x 50”, it could be a simulation of a post-World War II ranch house’s picture window. Across the cornfields, in the distance, is your neighbor profiled against a crepuscular sky in a shower of light.
As words are proverbially outshone, a thousand to one, by photographs, a reproduction of a Tourlentes original is a penlight to a klieg light. In the original, there are so many gradations of black, from velvet to whitey-grey, that the security lights of the distant prison are, by contrast, molten.
One can almost hear, in country accents: “Ma, call the sheriff, it sure looks like one o’ them alien vessels has landed itself in Yazoo City.” And yet, though we are that viewer looking out toward the middle distance’s unsettling, unearthly eruption, just to our left are nearer and more comforting neighbors. A homely dirt path behind a sheltering line of mature trees suggests an approach to a homestead as snug,well fed and microcosmically patriotic as any painting by Grant Wood — say, “American Gothic.”
But, just as contemporary reviewers are finding layers of ambiguity in Wood’s seemingly pure paeans to the American dream, so do layers of irony temper the purely aesthetic pleasures of Stephen Tourlentes’ painterly landscapes. Sometimes the irony is blatant; sometimes it’s so liminal you wonder if you’re making it up.
Prominently front and center of Tourlentes’ portrait of the Federal Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado, is a cracked and weathered sign on high poles reading “The Well.” There is a rusty gate, a broken chain and in
the distance, across what used to be a ranch or farm, is, once again, that signal line of molten lights stretching like a wound or, counter-intuitively, but insistently, a blessing across this dark, abandoned landscape.