Deborah Stratman interrogates terror of sinkholes in ‘Swallows’ - The Buffalo News
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Deborah Stratman interrogates terror of sinkholes in ‘Swallows’

At the entrance of Deborah Stratman’s contemplative “Swallows: Subsurface Voids” exhibit in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, viewers are confronted with one of the best effects in the show: a construction barrier blocking off direct access, and a woman’s scream projecting from the back of the gallery over a loud rumble.

Stratman has worked in a number of other mediums including audio. Her facility in juxtaposing images and sound contributed to conveying a sense of danger at the door. Upon entering however, it becomes apparent that this is one of many ideas working through this small space, and the show looses some punch and focus.

Carolyn Tennant, media arts director at Hallwalls, handpicked Stratman for the Hallwalls Artists-in-Residence Project that made this exhibit possible. Stratman uses a particular observational format in her films that lets the viewer arrive at their own conclusions.

“It never feels preachy or overly critical,” Tennant said. “I think in some ways this exhibition does the same thing.”

Some of the pieces in the exhibit thrive under this approach, but there are more than a few that only resonate as a part of the larger statement.

“For me, this show is really a sum of its parts,” explained Stratman in an email. “Similar to the way scenes of a film function, each creating tension or meaning primarily when considered together with all the other scenes.”

At the center of the gallery, behind the construction barrier and inside caution tape, is a sinkhole model. It has a cutaway view and stairs that allow the viewer to see a hole from above. The model, easily the most interesting piece in the exhibit, anchors the surrounding installation through sheer curiosity. Focusing the viewer’s gaze on this object allows an opportunity to see the unseen, to gaze into a well-lit black abyss of underground caverns, and to recognize the scale of the house and people in and around the model.

The pieces immediately around the model include straightforward news report texts about recent incidents painted on the walls and vellum prints of types of sinkholes. Both feel like they haunt the area, acting as a sort of landscape spirit photography.

In one side room, after a short series of axioms about holes, followed up with maps marked with black circles (reminiscent of the kind of hole found in classic Warner Bros. cartoons), are line diagrams of different subterranean caverns. Hanging across from the diagrams are a series of appropriated landscapes, on which Stratman has blacked out all but a squiggling shape in the center of the paintings. Each shape echoes a diagram, creating a cutting room wall of the landscape pieces removed when a sinkhole occurs. This illustrates Stratman’s take that sinkholes, cinematically, are edits in the landscape.

Personal experiences permeate the third room, which more directly grapples with the psychology of holes beginning with an animation of a perpetual fall through holes in black and white. Using a slideshow of various sinkholes, as well as pictures with vacationers and black dot holes, and a looping video (which is the source of the scream heard through the installation,) Stratman attempts to illustrate the terror of a void opening up anywhere.

Unfortunately that terror does not present itself in this exhibit, but what Stratman does evoke is contemplation. In an email, she indicated that she is not done interrogating sinkholes, and more pieces about the events are on the horizon.


What: “Swallows: Subsurface Voids”

When: Through June 27

Where: Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave.

Admission: Free

Info: 854-1694 or

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