(Cob Gallery, 2019)
“She dislikes the abnormal, it is so obvious,” Gertrude Stein wrote—of her own tastes—in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. “The normal is so much more simply complicated and interesting.” This too could be ascribed to Lorena Lohr, whose book of photographs, Tonight Lounge (published by London-based Cob Gallery), showcases snippets of what one might call the normal, or at least the ordinary. The British-Canadian photographer traveled through various American states and documented glimpses of small towns using 35mm color film and assorted cheap cameras. She captured ramshackle bars, shabby motels, decaying façades, and dejected residences, all a part of her ongoing series, “Ocean Sands,” began in 2010, featuring a mix of blurry natural vistas and flash-lit interiors. Unlike a travelogue or a visual diary, the vignettes seem—as writer Louise Benson expressed in the introductory text—“connected to no landscape, an adrift and neglected America.” The images are untitled, although a visual key in the back parenthetically adds varying local specificity (Memphis; Algiers, Louisiana; Stanton Street, El Paso; Cut Bank, Montana). These geographical cues aside, a feeling of placelessness prevails. Lohr’s gaze doesn’t seem to hinge on locus despite her regional approach: rather, she turns tangible terrain into an existential tableau. The series loosely evokes the aesthetic of 1970s Stephen Shore, both through the portfolio’s softened palette and in the perspicacity of finding odd beauty in the seemingly prosaic.
The scenes appear unremarkable due to the quotidian subject matter, yet they exude a peculiar malaise. There are ice cubes dumped in a sink with no faucet, not yet dissipated into liquid, in a pink bathroom. There’s a maraschino cherry lanced with a sword toothpick, the garnish cast aside from its drink in a little saucer. The compositions turn a quiet throwaway scene into something that makes the viewer curious about its previous, unseen gestures. Focusing on such minutiae—loose electrical wires, dried out palm trees, peeling walls, painted brick, forlorn banquettes, formica table tops, and curling landline cords—Lohr implicitly asks the viewer to reconsider what has aesthetic magnetism. The normal, and even the déclassé, gets her attention: these objects become a springboard for imagining past lives and tacit narratives contained within forgettable spaces.
The subject matter may seem offhand, but Lohr’s color palette is considered and striking. She summons a story from both gaudy tones and muted pastels, be it a pink leatherette seat adrift on a watery-looking dark blue carpet, or a wave of brown discoloration cresting along washed out vertical blinds. The book’s first image stars an oozy, granita-like cherry-red beverage, but even a white telephone on a white table set against a white wall—what ought to be just a plain yogurt of an image—somehow feels charged with ambiguity. The surfaces and textures—carefully framed to direct the viewer’s eye—focus on details but open up expansive possibilities.
The venues she selects emit a kind of weary energy, yet are completely unpopulated (except one pair of legs dangling from a barstool). Otherwise, only murals and dregs and stains allude to human presence. Better days were some time ago, if they were ever better at all; in this way, Lohr conveys something eerie, almost post-apocalyptic. In that sense, Lohr’s gaze acts as a post-mortem, reviewing what lags behind: “the half-finished drink…the back door left ajar,” as Benson puts it. She turns minute details into clues, but also crops out other—perhaps telling—visual information that could provide context. The tightness of the shots leaves the viewer with a sense of incompletion and enigma. There’s only the slightest hint of Americana romance in the banality, but much more of a sense of precipice, of the Lynchian: everyday iconography can be imbued with something sinister and uncertain, can double a tacit signifier of something more twisted. Even the signage of assorted stores and motels seems to communicate little: Furniture, True Value, Western, OK. Words feel as evasive as visuals; nothing feels quite as accessible and intelligible as it should.
Tonight Lounge also includes a short story by writer Kirk Lake, “The Lost Ship of the Desert,” in which a drifter couple travels by bus. The troubled communication between them seems to echo the spirit of Lohr’s work. “The more questions she asked the vaguer he became,” Lake wrote, “as if the closer they’d got to it the further away they really were.” Unknowability persists, even with more scrutiny. We assume normal is readily legible, but it is in fact full of vagaries that lie dormant and unexplained.