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Pained Vistas: An Exhibition of Beautiful Landscapes Framed by Conflict and Contradiction

When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and [yet] with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience.” ― Edmund Burke

In an exhibition curated by Jon Feinstein and Roula Seikaly called Pained Vistas, we are able to experience what Burke describes as a delight beyond our everyday perceptions. Pained Vistas, currently on display at the Photographic Center Northwest, forces us to apply our minds to our surroundings and reflect upon how trauma and conflict can arise in the most unsuspecting of places. As described on PCNW, Pained Vistas looks to the potential for picturesque views to be fraught with catastrophe and contradiction.

Works such as that of Kiliii Yuyan really bring to the fore elements of the sublime, and yet through them, we get to learn how to step outside our own fears and perceptions and into this alternate space where beauty and pain perfectly intersect.

Other exhibiting artists include:

Kris Graves

Selena Kearney

Yazan Khalili

Dionne Lee

Irina Rozovsky

Griselda San Martin

Kelsey Sucena

Donna J. Wan

Wendel White

Marc Wilson

Roula says, in response to a question about this body of work: Part of the classical definition of curator includes caring for the objects in a collection or discrete installation, and this definition needs to expand to include the people and cultures who have weathered trauma as well as those who spend time in front of the images.

Similarly, this portrayed vulnerability captured our attention and led us to ask Jon and Roula the questions we did.

About The Exhibition

1. The exhibition is called Pained Vistas, which is an interesting title. Tell us about where it connects with the concept behind the show, and how did you decide on it?

Jon: The title, and really the exhibition as a whole, was largely influenced by a talk that one of my photo professors, An-My Le, gave when I was at Bard around 2003. When discussing her work around conflict and Vietnam reenactors in the American South, she talked about conflict happening within a beautiful landscape, and the contradictions that arise when we think about visualizing that. Her work and words have stuck with me for decades, and now felt like an appropriate time to work on an exhibition around that idea. The title directly reflects and responds to that - the timed and intergenerational pain, trauma and weight that can build up on the land. And the precarious role photographers have in depicting that space with sensitivity and respect.

2. As curators, what is your take on conflict, trauma, and beauty? In what ways have they influenced your choices in the artwork?

Roula: Working with photographs that depict trauma or conflict has changed in my practice over the last three decades. That comes after engaging with the artists and the people who are, or whose ancestors were, affected by the violence portrayed photographically. I think more about the potential long term impact that exhibiting such images may have on viewers, and if that will aggravate existing traumas, and make image selections much more carefully. Part of the classical definition of “curator” includes caring for the objects in a collection or discrete installation, and that should be broadened to include the people and cultures who have weathered trauma, and those who spend time in front of the images. I do think these images should be seen, and that care should be taken to minimize additional harm.

3. What are some of the most important considerations in putting together an exhibit of this magnitude?

Jon: I think it was a difficult task, and often felt like we were just scratching the surface of a pretty ambitious theme. So, of course, there are going to be curatorial gaps that we have to grapple with, mainly due to limitations of space. The concept of trauma and the land could easily fill up an entire museum without redundancy. For us, it was important to, within these parameters, cover a mix of cultural experiences, perspectives and viewpoints, and also to look not only at a land brutalized by war, but by personal and mental health catastrophes. For example, Donna J. Wan’s photos of landscapes with high suicide rates.

4. The still titled Confluence from Yuyan's series Rumors Of Arctic Belonging almost reminds us of the sublime and the idea that there is an underlying darkness to nature and, by extension, within us. What is interesting, though, is that Yuyan emphasizes that this is a celebratory image that defies the darkness that initially confronts the audience. Tell us more about what this image triggered in you as curators.

Roula: Jon and I are long-time fans of Kiliii’s work, and we talked at length about which of his works we wanted to include in this exhibition. Your remark about the sublime is spot on, too. We’re looking at something that is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. What’s so remarkable about the image Confluence, in my mind, is that it can hold space for the cultural celebration or beauty, if you will, of a successful hunt, and the ongoing trauma felt by First Nations people as climate catastrophe and ravenous industrialized fishing practices threaten their existence.

5. A series of works on Pained Vistas have a sub-theme of survival, where works by artists such as Marc Wilson and Dionne Lee highlight historical survival practices and situations in history that require one to constantly be in survival mode. What is your perspective on how conflict and beauty intersect with survival? Would you consider the existence of such landscapes a sign of some victory over conflict in and of itself?

Jon: I don’t know that I’d consider it victory (and I want to be cautious about projecting my interpretation onto their experience), but in the case of Lee and Wilson, maybe it’s about “conquering” that trauma. For Marc, in my mind, it’s tied to his ancestor's experience in the Holocaust – traversing the landscape as a therapeutic way of navigating their experience + the intergenerational impact as well as with Lee, navigating the ghosts of enslavement, Jim Crow, and systemic racism on the American landscape.

6. Donna Wan's interpretation of the theme has a profound effect on us. We feel the importance of viewing these landscapes through the lens of grief. What are your thoughts on this artwork and the ways in which memory and grief attach themselves to landscapes such as the ones captured by Wan?

Jon: As discussed a little earlier in this interview, I think Wan adds a different layer to the show than what we had originally intended - one that’s framed separately from political conflict, oppression, unrest, apartheid, etc, and into a much more internal/inward struggle.

Roula: I’ve lived in the Bay Area for nearly 14 years, and regularly visited San Francisco with my parents when I was a child. All of that fond nostalgia aside, I also know that the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most popular destinations for people seeking to end their lives by suicide. I had no idea that a grim network of popular suicide destinations dot the northern California coast until I sat with Wan’s Death Wooed Us. While I’m not surprised that these locations are so well known, I think the way that knowledge of suicide destinations spreads rhizomatically among vulnerable people is devastating. I’m also thinking about grief associated with these locations, and how that will spread among the family and friends who mourn those who die here.

7. What do curators look for when it comes to photographic works? And what advice would you give to artists looking to exhibit their work?

Jon: I think different curators look for different things. Personally, I take a somewhat simplified approach - the work has to move me on some level aesthetically and on some level conceptually. There has to be meaning, and I have to want to look at it (or in certain cases, it has to compel me to look away)

Roula: I agree with Jon’s statement that curators look for different things. I get excited by work that approaches well-known subjects from a unique aesthetic or conceptual perspective. Lately, I’ve loved looking at or talking about projects that may not have succeeded as full series, for whatever reason. Something useful or interesting almost always comes out of an earnest attempt.

8. What can we expect from the events related to this exhibition?

Jon: We have a virtual talk coming up on Feb 16th at 6pm PT where we’ll discuss some key issues in the show and many of the participating artists will be present. Stay tuned on our + PCNW’s IG for more details! Also, as a means of expanding the show and creating more artist opportunities, we hosted an open call for an online companion exhibition, in partnership with PCNW, which will go live by early March, if not sooner.

Pained Vistas is on view until the 17th of March 2022 at the Photographic Center Northwest.

About The Curators

Jon Feinstein is a Jewish photographer, curator, writer, co-founder of Humble Arts Foundation, and Content Director at The Luupe. Jon has curated numerous exhibitions over 15+ years at galleries and institutions including Blue Sky Gallery, PDX; The Ogden Museum in New Orleans for PhotoNola; Glassbox, Seattle; Colorado Photographic Arts Center, and Barclays Arena in Brooklyn, NY for ArtBridge. His projects have been featured in Aperture, NY Times, BBC, VICE, The New Yorker, Hyperallergic, and Feature Shoot, and he’s contributed to VICE, Hyperallergic, Aperture, Photograph, TIME, Slate, GOOD, Daylight, Adobe, and PDN.

Roula Seikaly is an American of Palestinian descent, an independent curator and writer, and Senior Editor + Co-Curatorial Director at Humble Arts Foundation. Roula has curated exhibitions at SF Camerawork and SOMArts (San Francisco), Axis Gallery (Sacramento), Filter Photo Festival (Chicago), CPAC (Denver), Blue Sky Gallery (Portland), and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Her writing is published virtually and in print at Hyperallergic, Photograph, BOMB, Afterimage, Aperture, Strange Fire Collective, and KQED Arts.

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