In Rear Window, Hitchcock’s Cold War era film about a holed-up man who starts watching his neighbors because he can and then becomes too captivated and paranoid by what he sees to stop, it matters that Jimmy Stewart’s character is a photographer. He has an eye for looking already, and so the fact that his voyeurism is, from the film’s start to finish, aesthetically adept makes sense. The results of photographer Arne Svenson’s recent foray into voyeurism, on view through February 9 at Western Project in Culver City, are similarly adept, sometimes lyrical. They look the way a Milan Kundera novel sounds – removed and hazy, melancholically preoccupied with small moments.
In one image from his Neighbors series, The Neighbors #1, you see through rain and window glass the right forearm of a woman reaching forward for something. Her left arm in the background holds a pair of scissors, and the white curtain covers the top of her face. Her deliberate mouth isn’t smiling. Her dark sleeve becomes a block of color among the other blocks of brownish and greenish grays behind her and, in the foreground, the light gray exterior wall of the building she is inside. In other images, you see the torso of a pregnant woman in a striped shirt, the legs of a breakfasting couple, a forlorn looking dog appearing through the window panes.
Had you not read the press release, you might think these were film stills from some slow-moving art-house picture. But according to Svenson, they are what resulted when he acquired a telephoto lens from a friend, a birder who recently passed away, and turned that lens to the glass-walled apartment building across the street. When you know this, the images begin to make you slightly uncomfortable in the way seeing surreptitiously shot footage and pixelated stills from surveillance cameras wouldn’t. How are you supposed to react to stunning surveillance, moments that are stolen and then impressively crafted? Should knowing beauty has dubious origins make it less beautiful? Of course, these are questions Svenson’s project doesn’t even attempt to answer, but they’re there, hovering over the work.