2011 Aperture Portfolio Prize Winner Sarah Palmer’s series As a Real House is rife with partially submerged tripwires that unsettle the usual process of reading a photograph. Each image contains something—an element or the juxtaposition of elements—that works to trigger an internal pattern-recognition scan of mental databases, in hopes of locking their meaning into recognizable form. Her photos are populated by seemingly inconsequential discards: haphazard collections of wine corks, incomplete puzzles, oyster shells resting on newsprint, bone shards, wishbones, nicked-up “self-healing” cutting mats, scuffed and empty buckets, over- and under-exposed Polaroids.

This roster of sad and desolate objects could easily be read as a fairly bathetic set of still lifes. However, the work is also spiked with details that send an energizing quiver through the individual images and the series as a whole. Offsetting the abjectness of the other materials, flashes of wild neon, cool 1980s-era geometric patterns, and even the luscious pink of a sliced-open watermelon give the work an unexpectedly taut, if uneasy, equilibrium.

In today’s ecology of signs, a passing jet plane functions on par with the proverbial lonely seagull. Palmer’s work accomplishes a careful balancing act, giving the viewer enough to feel the currents of meaning underneath the surface of each image, yet leaving enough up in the air so as to withhold a quick and easy read. One is left with the sense that the key to whatever it is that the artist has intended to conjure is left intentionally, tantalizingly just out of reach.

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