The Austin Chronicle

Inner Worlds We Inhabit

Denise Prince Martin's photographs transport us to places within where the unspoken lives

By Clayton Maxwell, May 25, 2007, Arts

Ball gowns, blow-up dolls, and cotton candy – welcome to the sumptuous visuals of Denise Prince Martin, one of Austin's most arresting photographers. Her latest series, "Things I Never Told You," is a seductive tour through the unspoken world of women: a diva in a doughnut shop, a burlesque queen on a picnic table, a housewife in a bubble, and more. With vivid detail and absurd arrangements of setting, prop, and persona, the photos make you want to know what these women are up to. Prince Martin, named by Chronicle Arts writer Rachel Koper as one of the Top 7 Individual Artists of 2004, exhibits nationally and internationally. This summer, she will be in residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. We talk before the opening night of her show, currently at Women & Their Work.

Austin Chronicle: The name of this series is immediately intriguing; one can't help but be curious about the unspoken. Can you tell me more about it? Are you suggesting that these women are keeping secrets?

Denise Prince Martin: This series is less about secrets and more about the things we don't find the time to say or are a little afraid to talk about. For example, there is one beautiful, romantic photograph of a woman in an orchard. She's got this heart, this little furry heart that I actually made when I was a child, and she's holding it and kind of looking at it. The title is Why Haven't I Shown Him How to Touch Me? And that one very specifically is not about a secret she's keeping willingly, but rather it's one of those things that is a huge part of yourself – yet it's small and simple. This unspoken thing is not elemental to your being and doesn't mean that you have an absolute lack of intimacy; it's just one part of yourself that you haven't got to yet.

AC: So those things I haven't told you may be parts of ourselves that we are not even aware of?

DPM: Yes. And it's about the inner worlds we inhabit – but it can be superficial, too. I'm interested in the ways we locate ourselves within society. For example, when I go to Neiman Marcus, I always feel a lot better if I happen to look decent that day, because while I'm there, I'm making these sorts of plays with myself about what someone might think about me or what I think about them, asking myself if I am better dressed, et cetera. It's that weird cultural positioning that goes on. It can be as shallow as that, or it can be very intimate.

AC: You said that this work is more loyal to the id than the superego. How so?

DPM: There is this fantasy part of us, not unlike how we feel after a couple of margaritas, where the structure of life and morality is much less important. It's about the part of us that is free from judgment, that more honest and grounded side of us.

AC: And yet, while the photos are about the unexplained and fantasy, their composition is very structured and deliberate: In each of them there is a woman, a prop that she holds, and an unusual setting.

DPM: Yes, my photos are very structured. That, to me, represents the perfection that we want, the order. I want to see my world this way. So there is this balance within the work: that side that is very ordered and the side that is not. People have a lot of questions when they see the photos; they ask, "What does this mean?" It's not that viewers don't understand, exactly, because then they tell me what they think it means. And even if their view is not what I intended – because I do have deliberate intentions with my symbols – another person's reading is always a beautiful, subtle thing about life, often about being a woman. The photos can help you go to that place.

AC: Your settings are so fantastic and unusual: the parking lot of a motel, an oil refinery, a fallow field. What do you look for in backgrounds? How do you know when you've found one that works?

DPM: I was a filmmaker, so I take my film experience into the photos, as if they were little scenes. I look for places that are strange, think about what needs to go with it and build from there. That motel you mentioned has a particular style that really worked for me. For that one we drove all the way to the coast. It speaks of something else – of summer, of that quintessential place. The title of that one now is Vibrating Bed. To me, it's about the wildness of childhood. When I was young and a motel had a vibrating bed, I thought, "How funny and exciting that you put a coin in there and the bed vibrates!" And yet a part of me knew that it was about something else and that it wasn't really for children. There was something there beyond my experience. So it had that little bit of danger. That photo is alluding to freedom, to that place where you don't judge. And even if you were a grownup who was going to have sex on a vibrating bed, you'd have to have a pretty good sense of humor. end story

"Denise Prince Martin: Things I Never Told You" is on display through June 23 at Women & Their Work, 1710 Lavaca. For more information, call 477-1064 or visit

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