James Dinnerville has a story for each of his photographs. During the reception for his debut show, “Non People” at the Beverly Arts Center, Dinnerville happily recalled anecdotes about 34 small black-and-white photographs of Chicago window displays–about his mood or the weather while taking them, or simply which neighborhood he was in.
“I found it interesting how this display covered the mannequin’s head, as if [the display’s designers] were taking away her humanity,” he says of one photo depicting an upscale window display in Streeterville. Across the room, he discusses “Alien Baby,” a tightly-cropped image of a child-sized mannequin with a band of bunched stocking “skin” wrinkled around her neck, black almond-shaped felt pieces for eyes, pipe cleaner “antennae,” and a large star cut-out perched atop her head. “I thought this one was just weird,” he comments frankly.
Amidst the soft sounds of classical music, delighted cries of children, and the excited chatter of the reception’s attendees, Dinnerville speaks of long solitary Sunday walks around Chicago, photographing the displays. The course of a typical walk might take him from LaSalle to Printer’s Row to Chinatown to Bridgeport, diverse communities whose attributes are perhaps best appreciated on foot. “You have to walk,” he says, “or you’ll miss something.” In simple black frames spaced evenly along three walls of the room, his photographs, with their locations as “bylines,” reflect the process of placid and solitary exploration that Dinnerville describes.
Despite their simple presentation, the photographs are striking in their visual complexity. In many, streets and surrounding buildings, reflected in window glass, meld seamlessly with interior displays, creating a spatial ambiguity. This dimensional open-endedness allows, for example, gilded sculpted elephants to seemingly roam Chicago boulevards and faint, human-shaped forms to become indiscernible from their backdrops.
“This is my favorite,” Dinnerville says, as he leads the way to a photograph nestled in the back corner of the room. Entitled “Girl,” the image features a “young” mannequin wearing a party dress and a knit headband. She gazes calmly outward from the picture plane, her plastic features molded into a radiant smile and her face fenced in by the black diamond pattern of the shop’s metal security gate. The window’s reflection reveals a single-story brick building marked with graffiti script and the artist’s forearm as he approaches the window to shoot. “She was smiling, she was looking up. And yet, she’s in a cage in the middle of the city,” he says.
Dinnerville insists that his photographs read as “visual records” of the communities that dress, arrange, and display the mannequins. He remarks on how Chicago has changed since his youth, saying that he wants to “document things before they’re gone,” and mentions that he admires photographers Harry Burton and Timothy O’Sullivan for infusing documentation with aesthetic beauty.
Yet Dinnerville’s photos display more than an impulse to preserve advertising strategies across Chicago. His images also possess an eerie absence, an unforgiving sense of loneliness. Although some images depict buses, cars, or the occasional tourist’s leg as she marches past a display without pausing to window-shop, the mannequins stand in for live subjects. As Dinnerville acknowledges, viewers are forced to read humanity into them, to interpret their plastic smiles as indices of joy or to imagine emotional connections between two blank and emotionless pieces of foam. One ten-year-old girl chooses “Syd,” a photo of a male mannequin, wearing a dark three-piece suit and hat, his face bathed in eerie shadow, as her favorite: “I like it because it looks like he’s hiding…I like action.” The viewer projects meaning onto these inert forms; we create a narrative in which they can come to life.
Dinnnerville’s photographs deprive us of human relations, even with Dinnerville himself, whose reflection appears in many of the photos. In some images, we see a whole body; in others, it’s spliced. Yet, like the Streeterville mannequin’s, Dinnerville’s face is always hidden, obscured by his camera. We are left without anything animate, only a host of anthropomorphic approximations.
Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111 St. Through April 30. Monday-Friday, 9am-9pm; Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 1pm-6pm. Free. (773)445-3838. beverlyartcenter.org