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Review: Remi Thornton, JCC Ranch

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Located on a four hundred acre property in Elbert, Colorado’s Black Forest, JCC Ranch has been a summer home away from home to kids, like Remi Thornton, since 1953. As a ten- to twelve-year-old camper, Thornton developed a personal connection to the forty plus acres of land during his nights wandering the grounds suffering from insomnia. He would frequent the picnic benches (mimicked in the installation itself for seating), outside of the boys cabins with his older counselors, waiting for tiredness to set in. That experience of waiting, as a young boy, “awakened” a connection to place that could only be felt at night. “Like most places, the camp had an entirely different personality at night,” Thornton says. “The sandy, inner forty acres took on a distinctive look, sound, and feel once the sun went down… Given my love for my old sleep-away camp, and continual exploration of shooting in the dark, it made sense for me to return and document the silent side, as I remember it.”

Remi Thornton, Cabin 10. From JCC Ranch. Courtesy of Remi Thornton.

Remi Thornton, Cabin 10. From JCC Ranch. Courtesy of Remi Thornton.

Last September, Thornton returned to Colorado, this time with his camera. The artist was granted complete freedom over the JCC Ranch property, specifically within the forty acres of sprawling pine tree forest that contained the camp’s main buildings. Thornton’s admission also included access to any building and the light switches outside and within the campgrounds. Each work on view in “JCC Ranch” is a mid-night encounter taken over the course of several hours. While Thornton had specific memories of the place he spent his formative years, subtle changes such as renovations and cabin facade upgrades, kept the experience thrilling and unfamiliar for even a photographer who has been credited for creating, “that emotion that has been chased by writers, poets, filmmakers, and artists forever.”

Thornton’s photographs use only available lighting already found on site. The images on view are not sets or strategically lit backdrops, but real places captured through extended exposures by an artist who sees with more than his eye, but a feeling as to what is really there. The rustic quarters of Cabin 6E is reminiscent of a life-size Lincoln Logs cabin. At the far left of the bunk, a cluster of emerald green light glows from the distant woods, slowly encroaching closer to the cabin. The vibrant color canopies the entire work, particularly on the facade of the tiny house, almost camouflaging it against the green grass and woods that surround it. As natural as the rural setting of the photograph is, it’s almost unnatural to imagine how something so hauntingly beautiful could result, and more so captured, without artificial lighting.

Remi Thornton, Red Dumpster. From JCC Ranch. Courtesy of Remi Thornton.

Remi Thornton, Red Dumpster, JCC Ranch. Courtesy of Remi Thornton.

As vital as light is to Thornton’s work, so is shadow and the entry of darkness.  Compounded by the sentimental attachment Thornton evokes from the space, and his eye to create compositions of composite colors and shapes is what makes “JCC Ranch” memorable. Thornton’s arrangement of the work around the gallery's unexpected, but insightfully scripted. The layout is not a smooth transition in the sense that it gradually builds the introduction of a new color or shape captured by natural light. Rather, Thornton has created an ordering that meets its audience head on, mid-wall when you’d least expect it. It stops you in your tracks good and keeps one navigating the space, enthusiastically awaiting the next snapshot from the rustic site. Cabin Windows is one of those surprises.

Installed to the left of Cabin 6E, Cabin Windows is compositionally focused on the convergence between warm and cool tonalities. As with works such as Cabin 6E and Big Dipper, the chromatic green glare cast against a string of cabins, divides the composition. The shiny, almost metallic-like finish is something out of Dorothy's Emerald City. A stark contrast to the burnt orange glow of the perpendicular cabin overgrown with shadows cast from wild weeds, the two structures visually try to collide at the center of the photograph, only to face a divisional moat of cast, black shadow. Additional works on view such as Pavilion Lights and Red Dumpster use shadow as a means to draw the viewer closer to the surface of the photograph. Thornton’s exceptional ability to make what is illuminated as interesting as what’s masked by the darkness makes the viewer feel like an active participant in walking the campsite alongside him.

Remi Thornton, Cabin Windows. From JCC Ranch. Courtesy of Remi Thornton.

Remi Thornton, Cabin Windows. From JCC Ranch. Courtesy of Remi Thornton.

The exhibition’s venue is a direct contrast to the aesthetics of the ranch camp. Concrete floors, exposed brick, and windows spanning the front facade at street level make you feel like a passenger in the cars buzzing by. But Thornton chose his site perfectly, unapologetically letting it be exactly what it is while interjecting effects such as picnic tables, coolers filled with juice boxes and charcoal grills filled with campfire treats. For some, the space itself might reference some of Thornton’s previous bodies of work such as, “Self Park,” which captured multi-storey parking garages and concrete infrastructures. But the urban and rural juxtaposition signifies a new direction.  Thornton’s previous bodies of work presented gas pumps and bus stops in the dead of the night, creating a kind of urgency and unspoken tension. These works place the viewer at the threshold of a potential mysterious or thrilling encounter while the mood at “JCC Ranch” is compelling and enchanting. Each of the mid-night encounters is personal (but not self-indulgent), beautiful (but not ornate), and reminds us of a summer (or two) we wish we could revisit.

In keeping with the atmosphere of being away at camp, on Saturday, March 26 at 7:00pm,  Thornton will project Wet Hot American Summer, on the wall of the gallery. Drinks, pizza, popcorn will be provided along with checkers on the picnic table. To RSVP: Email Remi@remithornton.com or use the event page. Thornton's JCC Ranch exhibition will be on view through April 3 at 267 Western Ave, North Allston, MA. The off-site exhibition is presented by Miller Yezerski Gallery with support from Harvard University.

Installation shot, JCC Ranch. Courtesy of Remi Thornton.

Installation shot, JCC Ranch. Courtesy of Remi Thornton.

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About Author

Pam Campanaro is the Associate Curator of Exhibitions & Programs at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA. She received her MA in Exhibition and Museum Studies from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2011 and a BA in Art History and Museum Studies from Juniata College, Huntingdon, PA in 2009.

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