Peeping through Pinholes 

Ethan Jackson and the camera obscura

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For the past three years, Portland-based artist Ethan Jackson has devoted nearly his entire practice to the creation of site-specific pinhole camera installations. Using this ancient technique, also known as "camera obscura," Jackson uses sunlight, precisely sized apertures, and mirrors to transform lightless spaces into naturally occurring cinemas. Though previous projects in his Polyopticon series have taken place in Wyoming and Vermont, Jackson has unveiled three more in Portland this month at the New American Art Union, galleryHomeland, and 1313 West Burnside Studios. It's a fascinating instance of natural phenomenon trumping electronic media, but these installations actually achieve their meditative–if disorienting–affect through their inverted contexts.

In "Polyopticon VII" at the New American Art Union, Jackson has partitioned off the front of the gallery, carefully blacking out its front window—minus the pinhole—to create a light-tight room with heavy drapes. Inside, a view directly opposite the gallery is projected, upside-down, on the make-shift room's three walls: a greenish one-story building, parked cars, a pair of trees, and power lines slicing through blue sky. At first, the images appear static; the fluttering of leaves could just as easily be the subtle shifting of the drapes. But as a cyclist breezes by or clouds scroll across the walls, the installation asserts itself as unfolding in real time. On the one hand, the room mimics a darkened movie theater: In representation, the scene seems somehow larger, more vibrant, and grandiose. But in lieu of some Hollywood narrative, Jackson simply replicates a space that one could just as easily step into and experience firsthand. In this sense, "Polyopticon VII" is far more concerned with the act of seeing than with what is actually seen. For the viewer, it becomes a site of invisibility, a place where one can inhabit a space from a second, remote vantage point.

As such, Jackson's "Polyopticons" become symbols of that innermost space: personal subjectivity. In the upended contexts of these installations, the viewer is immersed in a darkness where only perception exists. It's as if Jackson wants to remind us that there's something far more unnervingly revelatory at stake in looking at art: that we can look at all.

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