Sondra Meszaros

Redrawing Power and Pleasure

Essay by Sara Knelman

Sondra Meszaros, who lives in Calgary, Alberta, was in New York in the midst of a residency program at the International Studio & Curatorial Program in 2018, when her studio was flooded by a Spring storm. Her work and all the archival material she’d brought with her was decimated. Ever resilient and resourceful, Meszaros set out to track down new sources of inspiration, and to begin again.

Recently, Meszaros had been amassing an archive of photographic imagery of the female body, as a way of thinking through the aesthetics and power dynamics of sexuality, ideas that are also central to her teaching practice at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Her parameters are loose: the images she is drawn to are often from books and magazines made in the first half of the twentieth century, but their makers and contexts, their moods and styles are not uniform. Indeed, she confesses she is intrigued by images that initially confuse her, a response she hopes her work can start to unravel. Her hunger for new imagery is seemingly insatiable, and her constant searching is evident from her overactive Instagram feed, a platform she uses as a kind of frenetic note-taking, and as a way of feeling connected to a community when she’s logging untold hours alone in her studio.

Meszaros first began appropriating photographic material in a series of collages, where bodies from John Everard’s Second Sitting: Another Artist’s Model (The Bodley Head, London, 1954) first appear, backdrops to natural elements ripped from the pages of National Geographic. New York, the mecca of printed matter, was among other things, a chance for Meszaros to expand her visual archive. After that fateful storm in NY, Meszaros found, in the bargain bin at the Strand, a copy of Velvet Eden (Metheun, New York, 1979). These two books, one an instructional manual for photographic lighting, the other a retrospective glance at a collection of photographic erotica became the foundation for two intertwined bodies of work.

Intrigued by the bodies in Second Sitting, Meszaros began cutting up the contact sheet-like grids of images that punctuate various chapters. The images she appropriates all show women in kneeling positions – a posture at once awkward and submissive – their heads mostly angled to obscure their faces, their hands usually set demurely and strategically in their laps. For her series You’re damned if you don’t and you’re damned if you do, Meszaros made new pairs and grids, combining different models and exaggerating the strangeness of their repeated postures, then swept each one over, quickly, with a heavy black ink, a redaction of beauty and desire, and an invitation to look beneath the surface, where ghosted forms and faces reemerge, alchemically finding their way back to the light.

Once untethered from the page and released as pocket-sized cards, their currency changes: sequential instruction gives way to free-floating erotica. “For me,” Meszaros has said, “appropriating the images is a way to start to question their original intentions, and to slow down the reading of the images.” Meszaros eventually revisited the book a third time, and selected ten images to scan and enlarge. Scaled up to roughly life-sized, the singular images in Damned, each similarly redacted, offer a more forensic view of the originals – dirty feet and wrinkled sheets – as well a bodily relation to the viewer, whose own face might be reflected back in the blackness.

Meszaros used to make oversized charcoal drawings of animals, their heavy bodies unfurling down the lengths of long paper. Though never explicit, this imagery betrays latent power and basic instincts – primal, mythic, sexual. The muscled, bodily action of mark-making and the quickness of feeling out a shape or a line carry through to her newest work, though the scale and medium have drastically changed.

Her approach to the works in the series Strange Spot, drawn from the pages of Velvet Eden, is similar, though Meszaros has added a shock of colour. The softly textured fire-engine red pastel she pushes over each image evokes the luxuriousness of velvet and the red-light red-lipstick feel of forbidden desire. Though they span from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s, Meszaros’ choices and reworkings obscure their respective ages and marks them out as distinctly contemporary. If the kneeling women carry a certain burden in their stasis, the sitters here are active and often funny – involved in a different kind of performative collaboration. Most of the images would have been made originally as fodder for male desire. Yet the models appear in control of their gestures, perhaps enjoying their own moments of pleasure. Many of the scenes appear, from this distance, imbued with levity and humour: hands curled in comic claws, women nude but for wrist watches, as though keeping an eye on the clock of a work day before setting out to the rest of their lives.

Meszaros doesn’t speculate about what those lives might be or how we might value them – but her gestures recentre our attention to them, and to the idea that the women pictured in them were agents in their own worlds, just as we are agents in ours. The complexity of their positions – as objects of desire, as instructional tools, as icons, performers and storytellers – is difficult and, at times, uncomfortable. Meszaros’ works are as much reflections of our own anger and frustration with the power dynamics of gender and sexuality in the twenty-first century, as they are of our freedom to find ways of seeing that unsettle expectations and question desire.

All images courtesy Corkin Gallery, Toronto. © Sondra Meszaros

Sara Knelman is an educator, curator and writer, and Director of Corkin Gallery, Toronto.


1-Sondra Meszaros, Damned #1, 2019. Mixed media, digital pigment print on rag paper

2-Sondra Meszaros, Damned #7, 2019. Mixed media, digital pigment print on rag paper

3-Sondra Meszaros, Damned #10, 2019. Mixed media, digital pigment print on rag paper

4-Sondra Meszaros, You’re damned if you don’t and it’s damned if you do #17, 2019. Mixed media collage on found images

5-Sondra Meszaros, You’re damned if you don’t and it’s damned if you do, 2019. Mixed media collage on found images. Mixed media collage on found images

6-Sondra Meszaros, Bound #17, 2016. Mixed media on Stonehenge paper

7-Installation view of Sondra Meszaros: Two Blazing Glares, For Her Pierce 27 April – 1 September, 2019 at Corkin Gallery, Toronto. Image: Jimmy Limit

8-Installation view of Sondra Meszaros: Two Blazing Glares, For Her Pierce 27 April – 1 September, 2019 at Corkin Gallery, Toronto. Image: Jimmy Limit

9-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #63, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on found book page

10-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #71, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on found book page

11-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #81, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on found book page

12-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #133, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on found book page

13-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #1, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on digital pigment print on rag paper

TJ Proechel


Essay by Sara Knelman

In his 1985 book Suspects, David Thomson describes Smith Ohlrig, the deluded multimillionaire of Max Ophüls’s noir classic Caught (1949): “Unseen, he was imagined. Nonexistent, he was omniscient. Dead, or inert, he could be everywhere. He made a rare journey: uncomfortable as an author, he became a character for everyone, like the bogeyman or Santa Claus.” This is, as anyone familiar with the movie will know,  an account of an ending we never see, a demise never scripted nor filmed. Rather than rehash what we already know of Ohlrig, and many other such ‘suspects’ whose lives we’ve watched flicker and fade, Thomson contrives their perpetual pasts and unseen futures. As he surveys some of American cinema’s most memorable characters (from Victor Laszlo to Kay Corleone), shadowy psyches and deep-seeded motivations rise to the surface. Hustlers and con artists, dreamers and drifters, corruptionists and redeemers, we might be just as compelled by raking light as by stark moral ambiguity. Their illusions – about themselves, about their desires, and most urgently about the visible world before them – seem to echo the larger illusions of cinema itself.

Thomson’s quest to find these fictitious figures in the midst of living darkly is a kind of journey in itself, an imagined road trip of encounters. Inspired, in part, by the same cinematic memory and noir aesthetic, photographer TJ Proechel sets out to find Adam, a real and prototypical modern-day con-man making his luck on foreclosed homes in the aftermath of America’s devastating housing crisis.

The backstory is prosaic enough. A young student just out of college, Proechel worked construction in Minnesota to make ends meet. In the wake of the housing crisis in the late 2000s, the work he was offered was increasingly on homes recently lost or repossessed. An earlier series, 2008-2009, documents some of these experiences. These are affecting, upsetting pictures of the homes themselves – unsuspectingly innocent from the pavement – of abandoned or hurriedly forgotten possessions – a stray photograph, a stripped mattress, a hand-written prayer taped to the wall – and occasionally, of those recently forced out.

In 2010, Proechel became the victim of a con, losing two months’ worth of wages after an owner of a house he was contracted to work on – a man who went by the name of Adam Burroughs – abruptly disappeared, taking investor money with him. The experience stayed with him, and as others wronged sought legal recourse, Proechel’s curiosity about the figure at the centre of the storm grew. What really happened here? Who is the elusive Adam Burroughs? Is there a truth to be uncovered amidst all these sleights of hand? Made over five years, Proechel’s photo-saga ADAM unfolds with all the trademarks of a noir classic: a shadowy drifter, a man wronged, obsession and pursuit, a search for the facts lurking behind so many projections and illusions.

Proechel in fact ‘found’ Adam with relative ease, hiding in plain sight on the Internet, operating a real-estate blog and claiming to live in Southern California. Taking on the role of private detective, he set off on a series of road trips – a romantic vigilante with a car and a camera – to track Adam. Following clues and tips, Proechel finds stray traces across the country and ends, as American road trips tend to, at the edge, in this case the Pacific Ocean and LA. Proechel’s vistas of the journey feel cinematic rather than documentary, in part because of their careful cropping and saturated colours – a glistening quality of light that glamorises and seduces. Scattered portraits read like film-stills of unknown characters, and make use of jobbing actors standing-in for the real but absent stars. The mythic possibility and cinematic lore of Los Angeles, vivid here in explosions of palm trees lit like fireworks, provides a convenient destination, if not a tidy resolution.

But the narrative is confounding; tentative, incomplete, hanging somewhere in the darkness that pervades so many images. Gaps are filled in by miscellaneous documents – evidence of the original property’s chain of ownership; Proechel’s half-completed work list from the job (‘fix busted tile’, ‘adjust door lock’), and, crucially, a stream of emails, a real-virtual exchange between Proechel and Adam. The suspect surfaces, if only online, to confess his innocence: “It is not a set of bad circumstances. It is a set of others all trying to fuck over the other which in this circumstance was ‘me’. And I was the glue holding the project together so when it was obvious to me that all others involved were pulling shady shit, I told them all to go fuck themselves.”

Adam’s notes also express an acute anxiety about Proechel’s project – of this public interpretation of himself, a character, perhaps the villain, in this unfolding story. The exchange reads like a parallel fiction and a counter-plot, in which Adam seems completely unbelievable and deeply real.

Like Thomson’s musings, Proechel’s ADAM is neither fantastic speculation nor documentary truth. As evocations, both images and text draw on our collective memories of specific and archetypal places and lives, on our insistence on narrative convention, and on our inclination to believe and imagine. Suspects, intriguingly, includes no film stills – no recalling of iconic shots or lauded celebrity turns. The only two images in it are, in fact, reproductions of still photographs: on the cover, Walker Evans’s Torn Movie Poster, 1930; and tucked in opposite the inside title page, Wright Morris’s Reflection in Oval Mirror, Home Place, Nebraska, 1947. Truth, they both seem to suggest, may be less important than its telling. “Is there construction,” Thomson asks, by way of introducing Vertigo’s Scottie, “or do we live in unshaped turmoil? Is the mass of human creatures just random contiguousness, an impossible tottering pile or is there an elegant cellular pattern in human association…inspired by eternal forms of feeling and relationship – love, jealousy, curiosity, vengeance, desire, incest, ambition and fear of falling – flexing and pulsing through time and space, like the brain waves of sleep?”

Proechel’s ADAM is an answer, and a quest for an answer.

All images courtesy of the artist. © TJ Proechel

Sara Knelman is a writer, curator and Assistant Professor at the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University. She has worked as Talks Programmer at The Photographers’ Gallery in London and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. She writes about photography for Aperture, Frieze, Photoworks and Source: The Photographic Review. She collects pictures of women reading and lives in Toronto.