Other Rooms

THE PHOTOGRAPHS of Jo Ann Callis describe (mostly) misnomered food, bodies, and household objects in stiffly fetishistic tableaux. Collected, they remind me of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Stein: “Dirty is yellow. A sign of more in not mentioned.” Callis: A (woman’s) hand, dredged in flour, nails blackened, rests flat in a yolk of honey on a smooth, eggshell-colored bedsheet. You also glimpse a thigh, and the glint of hairs. Nothing in the image tells you why. It appears halfway through this new volume, which is the first to survey skin in Callis’s work—and, with its funny, silky slippages, exemplifies her dollhouse surrealism.

The publication of Other Rooms is excellently timed. There is an international vogue for old-school printed nudity, as well as a furor over nipples on Instagram; the Museum of Modern Art (New York) recently staged a retrospective for Robert Heinecken, whom Callis studied photography with at UCLA. Of the eighty-three images in this book, eighty-two were made in the mid-’70s, when color film was still gaining traction as fine art; seventy-two are in color. All but two contain at least one body part. The bodies are white, slim but not muscular, untouched by scalpel or ink; the decor is self-consciously modest.

Jo Ann Callis, Hand in Honey, 1976–77, archival pigment print, 9 1/2 × 12".

Callis divorced her first husband during the years she made these photos and married her second soon after. She is familiar with torture. Duct tape functions as sexy code or censor bar: sensibly, over small breasts; nonsensically, over the small of a naked back. Dental floss is used as a harness, white bandages for bondage in a bathtub. In one unnaturally lit scene, a woman reddens her nipples with lipstick. Later in the book, two crude holes in a white sheet reveal nipples that at first blush appear to be bloodstains.

Many of her images are absurd like that, like words repeated out loud until they lose their sense. Beetroot tangles with black hair in bed. Toes hold a cigarette. Like that. Stein: “The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing.” Callis: a dim, sage-colored room; two legs in ladies’ shoes on a wooden chair; a pair of hands (the cuff of a man’s shirt visible) gripping, from behind, the fragile ankles. Marriage: a violent game. Or maybe she’s changing a lightbulb.