By Mary Phan
A camera obscura, in its most basic form, is a lightbox. It has often been used as a rudimentary tracing tool, a way for artists to capture the details and geometry of their subjects in light and space. Aaron Suggs’ exhibition, Camera Obscura, at Tops Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee, is a mixed-media installation show exploring the camera obscura as subject, object, and device.
The installation owes much of its success to the one-of-a-kind layout of Tops Gallery itself; Camera Obscura exemplifies a show that features an artist effectively integrating the unique qualities of their installation space. Through a small door separating the gallery from basement space, industrial fixtures and concrete pair well with the forms of Sugg’s work. Acrylic, resin, light, video, found materials, and photography play with the unique corners and crevices in Tops Gallery. Transparency is the foremost quality of the pieces in this show.
The central piece in the main gallery, Untitled (Dispersion), features a transparent acrylic dinghy paired with video and natural light – the prismatic quality of the sculpture casts rays and rainbows throughout the space, the size of the sculpture takes up most of the room. The video is a film of the dinghy in its first installation, transforming the subterranean gallery into a portal to wind and water. The sole source of natural light into Tops is a circular coal chute, perhaps two feet in diameter. The artist has cast a resin aperture to replace the above-ground chute cover and placed a mirror directly underneath it on an angled concrete slab. This coy use of the exhibition’s title as the device of the installation itself is evident through the way natural light from above-ground follows the direction of the aperture to the mirror, through the prism of the dinghy, to the far side of the show where the only photograph in the show is affixed to the wall, a bird’s eye view of the above-ground street projected into the space via the situation of light and the playfulness of the photograph’s placement.
Camera Obscura most prominently features the acrylic dinghy and video, but the other pieces in the show pique the viewer’s curiosity through an intentional blending with their surroundings. Cast urethane resin is transparent, and the cast resin, mirror, and filament sculptures almost require a second look in order to find them. Aside from the main Tops space on South Front, the Madison Avenue Park location also shows a Suggs installation for this exhibition, a subtle homage to industry through the mirroring of yellow lines and black streets on the storefront window; the neon yellow glow of the piece is Flavinesque.
Camera Obscura strays from most shows you see around town as an installation exhibition in a commercial space; the artist himself is a native Memphian currently working out of New York City. Tops Gallery with Camera Obscura provides an interesting experience for any viewer wandering downstairs through an old junk-filled basement to its main exhibition space or down an alley to Tops at Madison Avenue Park.
Camera Obscura is up until May 31st. Tops Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee, is open from 1 to 6pm on Saturday and by appointment.
Mary Phan is a writer based in Memphis. She was a recipient of the 2016 National Association for Business Economics and Americans for the Arts Award. She graduated from Rhodes College with degrees in art history and economics.