Pinhole orientation: Mikula’s dream-like abstracts are meant to be unsettling

By Loren King
Thu. Oct 22, 2009

Susan Mikula with one of her abstract pinhole photographs, made all the more dreamlike with a reflection of the gallery windows, showing at T.J. Walton's in Provincetown.

PROVINCETOWN – Susan Mikula’s passion for photography began almost at birth. She hails from a family of photographers: her sister is a medical photographer in Boston; her parents both took pictures throughout Mikula’s growing up in New Jersey and later in New Hampshire.

“It is time-honored in my family and a big part of who we are,” she says.

But Mikula’s interest goes beyond visuals: her abstract images are inextricably connected to her keen interest in cameras and film, specifically equipment formerly made by Polaroid. Before she even begins to shoot, Mikula embarks on a long process of deciding which camera and film to use, and then explores the “indescribable part” of her art: what the project means to her and what response she hopes to evoke.

“My whole art life changed when I discovered old Polaroid cameras and peel-apart film,” she says. Polaroid’s inexpensive and easy-to-use cameras and instant film made photography accessible to the amateur, and have long been used for practical purposes, from passport to police photos. Mikula says once she “got hooked on Polaroid, I read about it, tried different cameras, and talked with people who worked for Polaroid their whole life.”

Mikula’s first show in Provincetown runs Oct. 9 to Nov. 1 at T.J. Walton Gallery, 148 Commercial St. The opening reception takes place Saturday, Oct. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Her show, titled “Bearings,” consists of photographs shot in Provincetown in June and July. Mikula chartered the Beth Ann fishing boat out of Nelson Bait & Tackle. She used a pinhole Polaroid camera and discontinued monochromatic Polaroid film in one of three colors — blue, brown or pale grey, and worked only with available light. The resulting images, she says, “are about finding your bearings, your location in the world.” Mikula admits that the work is intended to be disorienting, disquieting and even agitating.

“I wanted a sense of physical and mental location — for people to ask ‘where am I?’ — as they question what is interior and what is exterior, as they experience location and dislocation.”

Mikula’s large-, medium- and small-sized digital Fujiflex prints will be face-mounted to Plexiglas, which further diffuses the light, she explains. There will be one very large 64-by-49-inch print, and eight 9-by-7-inch mounted prints spread throughout the gallery space.

“Bearings” expands upon themes Mikula explored in her recent show at the CHC Gallery in New York. In that show, called “Sic Transit,” from the Latin phrase “sic transit gloria mundi” (which has particular resonance from Mikula’s Catholic girlhood), Mikula moved away from more recognizable objects to abstract, dreamlike images. Mikula’s next show will be in San Francisco in February of 2010 and will feature new photographs taken during July and August.

“The idea of two or three great shows has been beyond my wildest dreams,” says Mikula, whose first exhibition was in 1999 in Northampton.

A resident of western Massachusetts, Mikula’s affection for Provincetown dates back many years. The first trip she ever took with her partner, Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” was a visit to Provincetown.

“I had an off-season rental on Atwood. Rachel had never been to Provincetown. I can remember what she looked like as we were driving in. She was very moved by the physical geography, the physicality of the buildings, and that’s saying a lot for a native of California, where the landscape is so beautiful,” says Mikula, adding that the couple has returned nearly every year since that first visit.

Dividing their time between their home in rural Massachusetts and a tiny apartment in New York City, Mikula says her 10-year relationship with political analyst Maddow works because their differences balance one another.

“Rachel’s work requires that she’s working, reading and thinking all the time. She’s far and away the smartest person I know,” she says. “This is coming from a filter of love, but she is true to herself. When you see her on TV, she is saying exactly what she thinks.”

Mikula planned her Provincetown shoot even before Walton invited her to exhibit the work in her gallery.

“It could have ended up being shown in western Mass., or New York or anywhere. It was luck that T.J., whose work I love, love, love, asked me to show at her gallery,” Mikula says. “As an artist, it hooks you into a long chain of fabulous artists who’ve worked and shown here. It’s a coming back home.”