‘Anderson-Staley’s ‘Documents & Dwellings’ is compelling show at AMSET
It is human nature to tell stories. We are drawn to novels and movies that conjure up imagined narratives. We are also drawn to non-fiction and documentaries, stories that are truthful. But what exactly is truth? Ultimately, someone is telling a story, and that story is shaped by the experiences of the storyteller. Ask 10 people what happened at an event and one will get 10 different answers.
So, how does one find a story’s truth? Keliy Anderson-Staley is an obsessive seeker and masterful visual storyteller who understands that truth is subjective, that it is found through obsessive questioning. Her latest exhibition, “Documents & Dwellings,” at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through Sept. 18, is a fascinating glimpse into the storytelling process.
Anderson-Staley grew up in an off-the-grid cabin in Maine built by her parents, Tom and Ginny. When she was 12, she found out Tom was not her biological father. This led her to reevaluate what she knew about her life — a reevaluation that continues through her work.
“An Incomplete Family Story: Baking Pan Series,” from 2000, is the earliest work in the show. The work is stunning in its simplicity. Using a liquid light process, where she adds liquid silver emulsion to a surface, Anderson-Staley has incorporated photographs of people gathering, playing, posing — the sorts of photos that can be found in albums in every home. She collected the baking pans over two years from stores, friend’s parents’ kitchens and from trash. The images often are “decayed” or difficult to discern exactly what is happening. They are captured memories but in the way that memory loses its sharpness over time and becomes less clear. Some do not have photographs on them and just show the rusted patina of age.
One baking pan stands out primarily because of its absence. The pan comprises two edge pieces that contain no more than 20% of the whole, the rest lost to time. It perfectly captures the missing elements of a story that will never be recovered, lost to history. Anderson-Staley said she deliberately left it blank to represent the father she never knew.
In 2014, she connected with her biological father Bill, and he appears in “Father, Dad: Bill, Tom (Grid of 44),” a collection of tintypes of the two men. The pair are physically similar, and the collected images are often dark or unclear, forcing the viewer to carefully examine each image. Who are these men? What made them tick?
There is a nature vs. nurture aspect to the piece. Anderson-Staley was influenced by these two men in very different ways, yet what part of her personal narrative does she draw from each? I find myself thinking of this piece often. The tintype process requires the sitter to be completely still for 20 seconds, which is why people in old photos look so serious (it is hard to hold a smile that long). The lack of emotion in the 44 images adds to the enigmatic quality of the piece.
Another standout (in a show of standouts) is the newest piece, which Anderson-Staley completed recently.
“Origin Stories with Double Sun” works on multiple levels. From a distance, the composition is affecting and engaging. Anderson-Staley said that when she composes the works, she concerns herself with the visual presentation rather than the meaning of each component part. And the visual is certainly appealing. The collage’s blues and muted yellows form a patchwork that looks like a quilt, which is an appropriate analogy as quilts are often a collection of treasured fabrics, hand-me-downs that embody family stories.
When one gets closer, one is confronted with a collage of images and texts collected from Tom’s archives. Anderson-Staley collected the materials before the original log cabin was burned down by new owners. She said she was looking for a way to present the archive, to tell her version of the story, and the pandemic gave her the opportunity to spend time sorting through the material. Using color prints, inkjet prints, black and white photos, cyanotypes, silkscreens on new and found paper, Anderson-Staley said she is re-envisioning a family legacy that was passed out in pieces — chapters from a longer story.
During the gallery talk, Anderson-Staley pointed out the meanings, but not having the artist there to explain it doesn’t detract from the power of the piece. It is enough for the viewer to allow the imagery and text to work together. It is the artist’s story, but the idea of the story is universal.
The show is worth a visit just to see “Shelter in Place” — a wooden stick frame building covered in 540 tintypes that Anderson-Staley created after Tropical Storm Harvey. The work represents the damage her home and studio suffered during the storm (while echoing the loss of her family cabin) as well as a visualization of what community can look like. It is an impressive and imposing work but don’t let it distract you from the complexity of the collages.
“Documents & Dwellings” is as much an intellectual feast as it is visual, although there is plenty to satisfy the eye. I recommend several visits. Like a good book, there is much to savor in Anderson-Staley’s epic story — and the telling of it is marvelous.
“Documents & Dwellings” is on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, 500 Main St. in downtown Beaumont, through Sept. 18. A catalogue is available.
Anderson-Staley will conduct a cyanotype workshop, 1-4 p.m., Aug 27. The workshop is free and limited to 20 participants ages 5 and older. RSVP is required. Email email@example.com for reservations.
This review first ran in the July 22, 2022, Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.