The Madison-based photographer has two shows currently up at Arts + Literature Lab.
Madison-based photographer and performance artist Victoria Charleson created her two current shows before a pandemic starved everyone of human contact. Still, our isolated reality just sharpens the unmistakable ache for connection and understanding that runs through this work. Don’t Fall In Love and Chronicles Of The Ordinary, both on display through February 27 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, confront viewers alternately with the lonely self and the comforts of strangers.
Charleson, 36, earned her BFA and MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she learned how photography could be used as a tool to create and portray a human connection. Through photography, she found an artistic discipline that works for her as a therapy to get out the strong feelings she is experiencing.
“I make work about loneliness, heartbreak, sorrow, and grief. I need a place to put it,” Charleson says. “It’s so overwhelming, too heavy and that’s what I make my work about.”
That overwhelming feeling she speaks about is quite present in her pieces because of the mental health issues she has experienced throughout her life.
“Since I was very young I went untreated [with] bipolar disorder. That’s the root of where my work comes from,” Charleson says. “I went so many years not knowing what was wrong with me.”
“I felt very lonely. I would isolate. I felt misunderstood and then I started making work about it,” Charleson says. “Up to this day I’m a stable, thriving person, [but] those experiences don’t leave you.”
In both of these series, developed over the course of several years, Charleson has found a way of portraying a strong human connection in her photographs. Even the way Charleson presents the show is disarming: Don’t Fall In Love consists of Polaroids with handwritten captions right on them, and the prints in Chronicles Of The Ordinary hang next to handwritten descriptions of their subjects. All the work is mounted with thumbtacks and binder clips, no frames.
Don’t Fall in Love was born out of the most intense breakup Charleson has ever gone through, which coincided with a mental health crisis.
As you walk through the exhibit (open for viewing from noon to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, or by appointment), you’ll feel as if Charleson’s Polaroid self-portraits are staring back at you, even trying to speak with you, intently and intimately, as if no one else was in the room. It’s as if she’s telling you not to fall in love and you have no clue why. Then you understand that it’s because “she’s mad, but she’s magic,” as one of her Polaroids states, in a quote from Charles Bukowski.
But this all comes from the fact that Charleson is expressing the emotions she was feeling at the time of her dual crisis.
“I have gone through some serious traumatic events and things that have happened over the past five years, which is where Don’t Fall In Love came from,” Charleson says.
Chronicles Of The Ordinary was born out of her need to create a strong emotional connection with the people she photographed. These works reflect on loneliness through a lens, and the accompanying written descriptions foster a matter-of-fact understanding of each subject. The photos show their subjects in unguarded moments in their bedrooms—or, in the case of a man Charleson met “during my ‘dive bar’ phase,” in the back of his van where he lives—immersed in vivid but unmistakable solitary worlds.
“[Chronicles Of The Ordinary] really came out of my upbringing, childhood and being alone. I would seek people that I felt I could connect with,” Charleson says. “I didn’t make friends in art school. I didn’t hang out with my peers. I hung out with the people I photographed because I related more to a 60 year-old woman that was a prostitute who had mental health issues. I connected more with the people that I photographed.”
This human connection, both with herself and others, comes from a deep understanding that art is a way of living for her. It’s about understanding her immediate reality and the realities of those whom she photographs.
“[Art] is how you go through life. It’s not living by conformity. Being authentic to yourself. Being who you are,” Charleson says. “Art gives my life purpose. It helps me make sense of experiences that I’m going through. It allows me to take difficult topics, situations or feelings from experience and turn them into something.”
And that feeling of purpose is also a result of the medium she chooses to photograph her experience at the time. In the case of Don’t Fall In Love, Charleson ventured into doing a Polaroid series of self portraits where she could capture her feelings of heartache, grief, sorrow and losing her mind over what she was experiencing.
“My life was completely chaotic and Polaroids are completely chaotic. You have no control over them,” Charleson says. “They are messy. They are scrappy. They are unpredictable.”
Due to this unpredictability, Charleson considers that, “Polaroids are one of the highest forms of art because they’re done. Once you make one, you’re finished. There’s only one. You can’t replicate it. You can’t reproduce it.”
Along with that instantaneous feeling, Charleson writes quotes or her own feelings on the Polaroids that she takes.
“I do it very impulsively. I don’t spend any time sitting around thinking about what I should write on this Polaroid. It just pops into my head and I write it down,” Charleson says.
Now, with the portraits from Chronicles Of The Ordinary, the photographic process was different, but the human connection concept is similar. Charleson produced this digital photographic series over a span of ten years by immersing herself in the lives of strangers with unorthodox lifestyles. She did this as a means of connection and a curiosity of getting to know these people.
“I usually would never photograph people right away until they were really comfortable with me and they knew all of my secrets and I knew their secrets,” Charleson says.
“People are fascinating to me. I find people’s flaws and quirks interesting. I want to know everything about the person. It’s a curiosity,” Charleson says.
Through her photography, she was seeking companionship and trying to escape her own isolation and loneliness. As you start seeing this series, you’ll start off with a portrait of a woman named Vicki’s portraits in her room. It’s as if you’re right there with Vicki in her room and having a very frank conversation with her.
Her room is cluttered and she’s holding some one dollar bills. A pack of Marlboro cigarettes is on the bed next to her hand. Charleson gives us an unvarnished view into the mundanities of Vicki’s life, while also trying to create a conversation with the viewer as Vicki stares directly at you.
The title Chronicles Of The Ordinary is a bit of a play on words for Charleson, because she felt she was photographing extraordinary people.
“A lot of these people that I photographed had lived difficult lives. Challenging lives. Had suffered mental health issues,” Charleson says. “They had really lived their lives. They had gone through so many things.”
Charleson has also gone through so many things, including in the past year.
“My 35th birthday was on January 14, 2020. I spent it in a psych ward eating cake with nurses and people yelling at the devil that wasn’t there,” Charleson says. ”And one year [later], exactly one year on the day of my birthday, January 14, 2021 this show opened. It’s very surreal.”
“I remember sitting there in the psych ward asking myself: what am I doing with this Victoria? I better get into Guggenheim for this crap. What am I going to make out of this?” Charleson says. “I was asking myself that and it is really just surreal to see it up and to have it one year exactly to be in a beautiful art gallery.”
For her, it all comes down to the human connection she wants to create both with herself and those whom she photographs.
“The work gives my suffering a purpose. I didn’t suffer for nothing. Something good came out of it. I did something with it and I overcame the situation or the suffering,” Charleson says. “I’m able to leave the experiences behind and I have a record of it.”