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Balance Through Contrast

For Catherine Angel, opposing modes create an unmistakable intimacy.

Arts & Culture  |  Feb 22, 2017  |  By Raegen Pietrucha
Catherine Angel in her home photography studio

Art professor Catherine Angel in her home photography studio. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services)

If you were to visit an art gallery and see sharp, black-and-white portraits alongside mixed-media collages of objects duplicated and blurred, you’d likely assume you were looking at photos of two different artists.

Welcome to the work of Catherine Angel.

Angel’s photography disrupts the notion that artists should have only one style or aesthetic, that they must work toward cultivating a single, distinct “voice.” Her work is instead unified by an unmistakable, palpable intimacy — a sense that, whether in portrait or collage, we are nearing a personal space into which we’ll be trespassing, yet we simply can’t resist exploring it.

Angel, a professor of art at UNLV, deliberately divides her artistic modes. She uses, for example, her black-and-white, highly detailed large-format portraiture to probe the sometimes fraught relationships between herself and her subjects.

“I adore deeply personal exchanges, but I don’t find them easy in everyday life,” Angel says. “That is why a lot of my work is portrait-based. There is an intimate exchange, and it gives me permission to have that exchange. My deepest wish is that a stranger looks at a photograph I took of you during that exchange and is moved. Then there’s this intimate exchange of us all being human through this art, and that makes us not alone in the world.”

For her collages, she often employs toy cameras — their plastic lenses creating softer, blurry renderings — to create images evocative of memories, recollections involving herself as a human, a woman, an artist, and a cancer survivor.

“My nature is extremely private, so art gives me a place to practice not being that,” Angel says. “If I self-censor as a person in the world, I’m making work that’s about not self-censoring.”

All of Angel’s work arises from a form of personal engagement that is emotional, physical, or both. Her first serious photograph was taken at age 21. Angel says she made it while working toward a degree in dance, shortly after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Unsure that dance would allow her to fully express such a deeply personal experience, Angel recalls how, while working on a class assignment, she looked up to see an impromptu tableau comprised of a half-empty (half-full) water bottle, flowers and a photo of herself as a young girl. She grabbed her then-husband’s camera and began shooting.

“I got lost within the creative process of photographing the objects in front of me, so I decided to be a photographer,” Angel says. “Photography gave me an avenue to immediate expression of what I was going through, if you think of art as an expression of self. Photography has an element of truth: This happened that day, that time, that month I made the photograph.”

For Angel, art requires problem solving — everything from learning the technical aspects of composing, shooting, and image processing to researching a subject and building a larger concept from it. These skills, she says, translate into the ability to solve problems in other areas of one’s life.

Angel’s images from The Embrace of Tango portfolio demonstrate this. The work emerged from her divorce, she says, an event that spurred a return to the dance floor with her camera in tow. She describes the finished work as a confirmation of art’s role in helping one move on to the next stage of life.

A more recent project was also deeply personal but packaged in a decidedly different form: small, handmade, one-of-a-kind books containing her photographs. The books were displayed in Brazil’s Arte Contemporanea Gallery and the Miami Museum of Art in 2015.

“I love how personal books are, how secretive in some ways,” Angel says. “Books are a nice way to fill up artistic making time for me if there’s a small experience I want to create images about or I’m not sure what to make next.”

For the moment, Angel is torn between two projects she’s in the midst of shooting, only one of which she can conclude by the summer of 2017. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two projects fall into the two seemingly opposing modes she works in.

The first, born out of her horseback-riding pursuits, is a black-and-white portrait series on traditional vaquero riders.  

“These men and women are just amazing salt-of-the-earth people,” Angel says. “I’m really interested in who they are as people and the beauty that can be found in such solidness as human beings.”

The second, a multimedia collage piece, was born out of her recent battle with breast cancer. She’s begun photographing herself and other female survivors in a color digital format and is considering the incorporation of interactive elements. Angel says her goal is to support other survivors and their family members.

“How do I create a kind of exhibition that people might walk into feeling stuck, but when they leave, they have a sense of a tiny opening, of ‘Maybe I could move on’?” Angel says. “Cancer can be secretive and isolating, so I’d like to create some kind of togetherness in the physical space. I don’t know if it’s the photographs that end up as documents of that or if it’s an actual place where you come into the gallery and watch a video, write your story and place it in a box, or name the people you know who’ve died of cancer. But to me, there must be some sort of an act — a participatory element, a symbolic ritual, a letting go.”