Much has been written, by others as well as by the artist himself, about the motivations behind the development of Kerry Skarbakka's trademark style, now on display in Anxiety and Redemption at Filmmakers Galleries. But do yourself a favor -- look first and read later. His work deserves to be perceived with thought unencumbered by predisposition, the only influence the viewer's own interpretation of what's being seen.
While eye and mind will definitely influence your reaction to these photographs, the first place they'll hit you is right in the gut. Skarbakka is his own primary subject, and while the concept of suffering for one's art has long since passed "cliché," it's never been explored quite like this before. Skarbakka doesn't represent himself in repose, but imperiled. He falls face first from bridges; plummets past high-rise office windows; and leaps from cliffs in seemingly death-defying stunts that will set your heart racing in sympathy for the daredevil.
But alarming as they may be, it's not the depictions of stuntman-worthy rough-and-tumble that prompts your blood pressure to spike. Crashing headlong into oblivion isn't a comforting proposition, but a slip off a skyscraper roof isn't a danger most of us routinely face.
What strikes terror into the heart of the common man is that which threatens him directly. And that's something Skarbakka more than adequately illustrates in exploration of domestic jeopardy. What percentage of accidents is it that occur in the home? However much, Skabakka's got them. He nose-dives headlong into the ground after a stumble on the stairs, and flies into the air of the living room following a slip on a throw rug.
This, we know. This, we've done. And by freezing himself in the act, Skarbakka taps into our fears -- of fragility, injury and mortality -- and aligns us with him. We can't really identify with crashing through windows, but there is no one for whom clawing blind, naked and wet for the curtain after a skid in the shower is unfamiliar.
These demonstrations are heightened and over-the-top, license taken upon the everyday mundane. This exaggeration is also accurate, however: It's how we tend to view our own mishaps, dramatic and calamitous. And while we see the flights in Skarbakka's images, we never see the landings. So the aftermath, and the extent of the damage, is left to our imaginations. Meanwhile, the photographs themselves are amazing, both in composition and technique, blending the stillness of the artist's environs with the motion of the artist himself.
Skarbakka, who teaches at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, has gotten a lot of attention for his work, including numerous solo exhibitions and dozens of group shows nationally and internationally. (Solo shows in both New York City and Belgium are forthcoming in 2011.) His photos have been written about extensively in art publications. ("Freier Fall Fur Kerry," read a January 2008 headline in German magazine PHOTOGRAPHIE.) And he's been interviewed about his work by everyone from Radio New Zealand to Matt Lauer, on NBC's Today Show.
And though you're saving the "why he does it" for after, the "how he does it" is no secret. Though a trained mixed martial artist who knows how to hit the ground, Skarbakka didn't do so in any of the photography sessions shown here. Rather, systems of rigging, wires and harnesses kept him from smacking into the dirt. While jabbing at our visceral dread of pain and trepidation of losing control, Skarbakka kept himself completely safe.
Anxiety and Redemption continues through Dec. 5. Filmmakers Gallery, 477 Melwood Ave., North Oakland. 412-681-5449 or www.pghfilmmakers.org
- It's fall: Kerry Skarbakka's "Blue Tree"