I’m a sucker for a storyline involving a protagonist’s search for identity across generations and distant lands. More often than not this fascination is satisfied by reading a novel or watching a film, maybe listening to a three-verse country song. It’s not often that such a sprawling narrative emerges from within a work of art, but such is the case with the series of photographs by San Francisco-based artist Danielle Nelson Mourning in her debut solo exhibition at Taylor De Cordoba Gallery in Culver City.
Homecoming presents large-scale ink jet prints of the artist’s pilgrimage across the country and the Atlantic to understand herself and her ancestry. This is no documentary, though; Mourning has visited old family homes in Marks, Mississippi and Niagara Falls, New York to make self-portraits in which the self is more fictional than real. She assumes the dress and style of domestic women from decades past, recalling in part Cindy Sherman’s Complete Untitled Film Stills, though in a decidedly less aggressive way. Mourning goes to Ireland as well to recreate haunting scenes of life during the potato famine of 1845. The work is endearing in its earnest investigation of family history and self, and in its multidimensional presentation of women of certain eras and of domestic life. It seems to be an intensely personal practice, as if the project would mean as much to the artist regardless of whether it had an audience. Sometimes work comes across as so prepared for an audience that there is a paucity of the artist’s own identity, but there’s none of that here.
The most affecting work in the show is the 8mm film, Memories from a Pleasant Visit, which mimics vintage 8mm home movies authentically with its camera shake, jumpy scene cuts and film noise. In it, the characters from Mourning’s Mississippi and Niagara Falls photo narratives are brought to life, though there is still a sense of disconnect between the intent of the characters as they move about, and any narrative that the viewer should draw from the quick scenes. Perhaps the film is the least narrative piece in the show because its presentation of ideas is so hectic, like scraps from the reel of life lying in disjointed piles on the cutting room floor of one’s mind. I actually wonder if I’ve ever been more taken with a work of video art, however. Maybe I relate to each of these divergent female characters, respond to grandma’s chatter as she flips through old photo albums, and possibly—most of all—enjoy the private thrill of being frightened by the subtle Hitchcockian tones of the film. The dull tapping of ivory keys, the lone voice of a choir girl singing, the black-and-white footage capturing the manic twirling of a woman in a gown—it’s chilling. But more so, it’s entrancing.
Danielle Nelson Mourning lives in San Francisco, CA. She earned her MFA at Royal College of Art, London. Her work has been included in several group exhibitions, including at Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito; Hoopers Gallery, London; and the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Prague. Homecoming closes today, June 26. The film Memories from a Pleasant Visit can also be viewed at this link.