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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Bodies Talk

Craig Silliphant
Published Thursday October 1, 06:50 pm
Chad Coombs challenges himself, we reap the rewards


Oct. 1-15

Rouge Art Gallery

Photographer / artist / illustrator Chad Coombs has a long history of trying to jam his finger in the eye of the establishment — as he says, paraphrasing a famous quote, “Art is supposed to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

In his latest exhibition, Bodies, Coombs is shooting the human form as if it were made of clay. Riffing on Irving Penn, the work features anonymous bodies of all shapes and sizes, twisted into positions that are both unnatural and strangely comfortable at the same time — they’re like a surreal game of Twister colliding with soul-affirming yoga poses.

The subjects are faceless, sexless creatures, in positions that could be considered humiliating, but by shedding the societal baggage of gender, sex, body image and identity, they also seem to scream freedom. Or at least, that’s what I’m seeing.

And “That’s what I’m seeing” is exactly what Coombs wants his work to provoke, as he’s far more interested in having viewers come to their own interpretation of his work, rather than offering up a “top-down” explanation as the artist.

I always struggle with explaining my work,” he says, “because I always prefer the [viewer] to explain to me the emotion it brings out. I make all my work in order to disturb, to make you think, to make you feel. So as much as I could tell you what my art, and this series in particular, makes me feel, [I] prefer not to.”

Coombs says that because he saw the idea “from creation to its death as a finished image” while everyone else is coming to it for the first time, it’s unfair of him to ruin the viewers’ experience, as the work should be free to create its own life in their minds. What the viewer imagines will be relevant to his or her own experience — and the emotions they feel as they lay eyes on it — should come from inside them, not from what they’re “supposed” to think about it.

In essence, though the art obviously means something to Coombs, he wants it to have an entirely fluid interpretation now that it’s out in the wider world.

All I want is people to feel something when they see my work,” he says. “And I refuse to tell anyone how or what to feel. I just hope they feel something.”

I’ve been following Coombs’ work for years, and more than once he’s taken me behind the curtain and into his mad scientist art-lab, where he’s shown me all manner of crazy props and equipment — from the modern to the arcane, from digital film and editing techniques to analogue Polaroid manipulation. With Bodies he’s challenged himself yet again, stripping away all the toys and techniques he usually loves to play with and shooting in an all-white studio with a single light source — a starker set of tools, perhaps matching the nudity of the bodies he shoots.

This current series started out specifically as me trying to do everything opposite what I was known for,” he says. “I wanted to shoot on film, not digital. I wanted to shoot portraits without any post-processing involved. I wanted to shoot a series that had nothing to do with sexuality or politics or my inner self. I ended up, after some test shoots, finding my angle, for better lack of a term, and running with it. I used to have so many bells and whistles for my photography; now I try and fit everything into a single bag.”

In Bodies, Coombs plays half-photographer, half-sculptor, as he tried to manipulate the human body through the use of positioning and angles, creating living sculptures which were then frozen on a single negative.

Each shoot was always different — as in, each person’s body is a different size and shape,” he says. “Some people can bend and move more or less than others. People move differently too, so I was sometimes able to see positions between movements. I set out to try and create a series of work that visually could have been shot 50 years ago, or 50 years from now. Very minimal and content-based.

I’ve hidden all the faces by body positioning only, no Photoshop or any tricks. All the bodies looked exactly like they did when I was looking through the camera. I hid the faces because it strips the humanity out of the bodies, leaving them as abstract forms [rather than] individual people. The faces would’ve brought a level of association to them, and it would then become a portrait of a specific person. Without the faces they’re objects, forms. This also removes the sexuality from the body as well — [although] some may argue this aspect, and that’s allowed and encouraged.”

The work has been (and still is) available in a book format — a 84-page, hardcover coffee-table edition.

It is available on Amazon and will remain so until I reach my limited edition sales number,” says Coombs.

There’s also a showing of Bodies that’s being planned for 2016 in Toronto, but Coombs’ fellow Saskatonians will get to experience the exhibit right away, with a première showing at Rouge Gallery beginning with the opening night reception on Oct. 2.

Show up early, ‘cause I hope it’s going to be busy,” he laughs. “It’s also the biggest solo show I’ve had within Canada to date, and the first time this series has been exhibited publicly.”

The show will have large-scale prints on canvas with additional printed images on fine art paper, which are actually one-off prints.

I personally prefer framed paper prints,” says Coombs. “I believe they look best, [which] is why I only sell in that form. But for this show, the gallery and I decided it was best to do large-scale, thick-mounted gallery canvases. So anyone who purchases [a piece] from this show will have the one and only [printing] of that image, which is a selling feature alone in the art world.”

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