‘Family Matters’: A visual representation of lives lived

By Reyes Navarrete, October 3, 2023

“Family Matters” is a visceral photographic series by Los Angeles-based artist Jane Szabo in season until November 9 at the Huntley Gallery on the fourth floor of the University Library.

The series conceptualizes Szabo’s family history using objects she acquired from her family home before her parents moved into assisted living during their last year of life battling dementia.

“You know, it was not a particularly warm and cuddly family,” Szabo said. “A lot of this work is about sort of that lack of an emotional family connection. And my mom and I did not have a good relationship through the bulk of my life until she had some strokes. And my husband says she forgot what she was mad at. And they are quite late into their 80s when this is happening, her whole personality changed. For the better.”

The exhibition is a deeply personal project for Szabo. The photographic collection captures a tableau of still lives that invite the viewer into her family and their interpersonal dynamics. The series represents her roles as daughter and caretaker after her parents moved to assisted living following a number of strokes that left them physically and mentally in decline.

Szabo had to take on the ordeal of sorting her parents’ belongings and packing up their family home of 35 years for an estate sale within a month due to her parents’ decline in health — something her parents were reluctant to do.

A close up of Jane Szabo’s “The Old Man and the Sea” from the “Family Matters” exhibition displayed at Huntley Gallery.

“They sort of let go and gave us that space to help them,” Szabo said. “It completely changed the dynamic of the relationship. And those last four or five years with them, it was a whole different relationship. And then it was such a healing process to be able to help them without me feeling the anger and the resentment I had for so many years.”

Szabo began collecting objects with personal significance and visually beautiful objects. The collection of photographs spans six years, picking up and stopping during times of family transition.

“I was focusing on possessions that I had a close connection to,” Szabo said. “I think when I got the objects and I started working with them, I would sit with the object and think what is this? What does this make me feel? Is there a story within this object?”

In “Things Come Undone,” the artist shot a half slate of buttons still intact on their cardstock packaging. Yet, only four buttons remain, one hanging by a thread. Szabo pieced together vignettes that communicate the passage of time and touch on themes of age and lives lived. She used her family heirlooms and her familial relationships as a muse.

“Once Upon A Time” from Jane Szabo’s “Family Matters” exhibition displayed at Huntley Gallery.

The series is like a scrapbook in that the collage of objects oriented finds new representations of metaphors and meaning that provide insight to the family as Szabo knew them.  In “Lost,” two bird-like salt and pepper shakers are face to face, yet the shaker on the right has its head removed with salt piled beside it. This is a reference to her mother’s dementia following a stroke as her father can only look on.

Szabo weaves narrative and metaphor with photographic snapshots that harken to the past with family heirlooms but are recontextualized in the context of her parents’ last years of life.  In “Touch,” the viewer is met with a thimble with blood running down, creating an uneasy tension.

“What was left behind was their home full of memories full of objects that have all of this nostalgia and memory,” said Michele Cairella Fillmore, director and curator at the Kellogg and Huntley galleries. “And, you know, in some cases, even maybe traumatic memories, things that weren’t necessarily always happy. But then there’s also the happy times.”

The exhibition allows room for the viewer to have space to make connections.

Matthew Rose, a photography lecturer, noted Marcel Duchamp’s sentiment about art not being complete until the viewer interacts with it.

“‘Family Matters’ grants a synchronicity between the viewer and the object and what is being seen — not just the objects within the photo, but the object of the photo in of itself,” said Rose. “And that creates a universal sort of understanding.”

Szabo described an interaction she had with a viewer the first time she showed “Family Matters.” The person told Szabo her piece started to make her cry.

“That’s not because they know my story,” Szabo said. “That’s because they know their story.”

Szabo’s photographic collection depicts, at its heart, relationships commemorating family matters. But the work is more than an ode to her family; it speaks to the human collective experience. The exhibition medium showcases aspects of life that allow the viewer to make connections about life, death and the mark others leave on each other.

Photographic collection from Jane Szabo’s “Family Matters” exhibition displayed at Huntley Gallery.

Feature images courtesy of Reyes Navarrete

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