Paula McCartney: A Field Guide to Snow and Ice

BY Jordan G. Teicher, March 5, 2014

Paula McCartney, Queen Anne’s Lace Snowflake #21, 2008. ©Paula McCartney, courtesy Klompching Gallery

All photographers invariably walk the line between truth and fiction, but few as imaginatively as Paula McCartney. The Minneapolis-based photographer’s seasonably appropriate exhibition at Klompching Gallery, A Field Guide to Snow and Ice, is evidence of that.

Like her earlier series Bird Watching, which winkingly highlights the limitations of scientific observation through photographs of synthetic birds in natural environments, A Field Guide to Snow and Ice is a collection of images that slyly challenges notions of reality. On view through March 29, this is the first New York exhibition of the work. 

McCartney says she sees winter everywhere, “in every environment, in every season.” By variously documenting and re-creating visual themes associated with the season without explicitly acknowledging which is the document and which the re-creation, McCartney asks us to think about what we’re seeing and then to re-think it. Is that delicate geometric configuration a snowflake or a pressed flower? Is that tumultuous accumulation of matter the icy tower of a frozen waterfall or a cave’s towering collection of stalagmites?

Paula McCartney, Black Ice #1 and #2 (diptych), 2011. ©Paula McCartney, courtesy Klompching Gallery

McCartney’s experimentation is not simply material, but technical. While some images are made using medium-format photography, others are photograms made in the darkroom with natural materials including ice and water droplets. Regardless, they’re gorgeous. All modestly sized, the photographs are a uniformly sparse display of clean architectural lines and boldly contrasting dark and light.

Seen side-by-side, the images can be disorienting. In one photograph, a massive piece of floating ice on Lake Superior appears to be as large as a fist-sized shard in a nearby picture. On another wall, two photographs of white mounds hang next to one another, looking nearly identical. Upon further inspection, it becomes clear that one mound is made of sand.

Indeed, in this photographer’s vision of the world, distinctions of place, size, and perspective melt away, leaving us only with raw visual data. McCartney, clearly, delights in toying with viewer expectations. In an exhibition characterized by the questions it poses and the inconsistencies it presents, that playfulness may be the only quality not to doubt.