A masterful poetess of the outré, Polly Borland has produced a deftly disturbing oeuvre of visual subversions for the past decade and a half that function along that psychological breaking point where the most familiar of things rotate radically into the domain of the utterly bizarre. Borland’s photographs are at once gloriously stunning and deeply disquieting. A profoundly original voice from the very start, she’s more remarkable for just getting better with each successive body of work.
A self-described weird kid from Melbourne, Australia, who lived for many years in England before recently moving to Los Angeles, Borland first came to attention in the states with the publication Babies by powerHouse Books in 2001. A shockingly literal documentation of the world of infantilism, the book showed grown men dressed up like babies and lying in oversized cribs soiling their diapers while maternal surrogates alternately disciplined or coddled them. Even with a top-of-her-game essay by Susan Sontag, it was destined to be a doomed project, and I, for one, felt very much alone in seeing the beauty and humanism evident in these pictures. The power of Borland’s vision, and its true provocation, however, is not in the stories her pictures tell but in the narratives they allow the viewer to imagine. Since then, with a trio of books — Bunny (2008), Smudge (2010), and her latest, You (2013) — Borland has delved further into the obsessive anatomical and emotional distortions of fetish while increasingly abstracting these terms beyond any obvious recognition.
Borland has continued to explore the psychosexual topography of love, desire, and longing along with the full range of pain and joy associated with such fraught sentiments in images that fall somewhere between metaphor and allegory. Her fans number among the most fantastical of contemporary storytellers, including Will Self and the musician Nick Cave, both of whom have supplied texts for her books. Suffused with the polymorphically perverse tonalities of childhood, “You” is a registration of the other in the self.
No doubt an internalized investigation into those shadows of alienation, solitude, doubt and discomfort within this artist, the skin-toned, nylon-covered blob shapes that populate Borland’s latest pictures, recently on view at Paul Kasmin, are just as surely about the dislocation of a real person into the plasticity of Los Angeles, aberrant descendents from the Surrealist legacy (most notably Hans Bellmer), and pathological kin to the kinds of sock-monkey craft outsider art made in highly medicated insane asylums. The valuable truth they convey, however, is not in their difference but in their uncanny capacity to engender in all of us some real point of identification.