Exploring ‘The Small Hours’

Joan Sullivan
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“The Small Hours” is a solo exhibition by Rhonda Pelley, and it is an unusual and compelling one. Shows of photography are often about landscapes, or thematic albums (like Scott Walden’s “All the Bars From Holyrood to Brigus”). The 16 works here (all digital photocomposites, in a mixture of tones conveying the spectrum from black and white to full colour), are all concentrated on one character and a singular situation.

An image from Rhonda Pelley’s solo exhibition, “The Small Hours,” on at the Leyton Gallery in St. John’s. — Submitted image

The effect is of stills from a short film, one screened through the mentality of Cindy Sherman.     

Sherman (famously) photographs herself, posed, costumed and positioned in specific, evocative frames. She calls these “conceptual portraits.”

Here Pelley has used her model, Dianne Glass, as a central, anchoring character, and has her hold that character throughout an unspooling drama.

Fade in on: “The Small Hours (as Pelley writes in her artist’s statement). Between sleeping and waking. Between night and dawn. When the night sounds have ceased and the days sounds not begun. When most people die, when most children are born. A time of solitary exile.”

Exterior. We see a woman, well-dressed, wearing jewelry. She is looking out through a motel room door.

Interior. The same woman inside the room, studying herself in a bathroom mirror, then smoking a cigarette, a bottle of wine close by, as car headlights thread their way across the wall.

Dream sequence. Three shots of the woman on a bed, her form and the pillows and linens in sepia and cream. Above her vault expanses of open road, highway signs and telegraph lines in green and white.

Montage. The woman in shadow or profile, counterpoised with a screenprint grey and white image of a stylized jet plane, high aloft. The flight could be a hope or a memory.

Pelley’s media allows for lots of careful, delicate play of panels, veils and layers.

The narrative has its own real time, but it also fractured into diptychs and triptychs and compressed into partially overlaid and underlying sheets of enhancing and competing visuals. For all that these are “stills,” ie. movie stills, they are not still. Time is passing. The world is moving.

And the woman’s thoughts, the hub of her energy, are in motion, too.

Something has brought her to this lonely place, and something will propel her through and away from it.

A lone figure in a motel is a classic film noir scenario. That person not home, where they would be safe, but out and exposed and travelling according to some external circumstance.

The space they are in is all about their journey. In her statement Pelley calls it a “psychological way-station.”

The next step is something to be interpreted and determined.

She also writes that the series was “inspired by the grief” she experienced when two people close to her died. And this character is not happy. But she has presence, filling the photos and drawing attention. The establishing shot, a black-and-white portrait, casts her in blurred focus against a sky like a 1940s movie heroine. We wonder about her, and her fate.

“The Small Hours” continues at The Leyton Gallery until March 1.

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