Think of Dorothea Lange's famous Depression-era "Migrant Mother." A woman in sore distress, dirty, bedraggled, her children in a circle all about her, is condensed into an icon of compelling dignity. Or Danny Lyon's Texas prison camps, places of horrifying oppression, converted via photography into lyrical passages of dark and light. Or W. Eugene Smith's Minimata series, which transformed the twisted bodies of Japanese poisoning victims into luminous and holy things.
She may not have had the same noble ends in mind, but Myriam Babin, a young photographer living in Tucson, has performed this trick on cheap dive motels. Gathered into a suite called Interior/Motel, her pictures are on view at Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art. Babin has no interest in the anonymous chains, decked out in an infinity of tastefully bourgeois beiges. Instead, she prowls the roadside joints made infamous by a rep for outlaws and illicit lovers. The rooms have lumpy mattresses and worn orange bedspreads, flimsy paneling and painted block walls, illuminated by strangely shaped 1960s lamps with bulbs so dim they'll never light up a page for reading. Judging by her titles -- "Untitled (No-Tel)" and "Untitled (Tiki Motel)" -- a few of these destinations are right here in Tucson, on an old stretch of Oracle near Grant.
These motels have a certain campy charm, made all the more alluring by their slow disappearance from the American roadscape in favor of the aforementioned chains. Yet even the most devoted fans of vernacular eccentricity would never call them lovely. But in Babin's viewfinder these most unaesthetic of American places have attained a serene beauty. Gorgeously printed in c-print color, they are large and sumptuous symphonies of line and light.
Cramped motel rooms are nothing if not geometric, and Babin points her camera to take full advantage of their lines and volumes. "Untitled (closet)," from 1999, pictures a closet hardly worthy of the name. It's a jerry-rigged affair consisting of a metal mole stuck between two cinder-block walls that claustrophobically converge upon one other, but have the salutary effect of contributing sharp verticals to her composition. The tidy bed makes a low contrasting horizon, occupying the entire foreground. Blown up to an impressive 4 feet by 3 feet, this picture is lovely monochrome in white (cinderblock), blue-gray (shadows) and shiny silver (pole).
"Untitled (Ohio geometric)," 1999, is one of the most beautiful in the show. This one's bed has been rumpled already, its pink and blue bedspread disturbed either by a weary driver or an eager lothario. Again, the bed is the horizontal base for the picture, its long line echoed in a low Danish modern desk with battered chair. Then there's a teal-blue curtain, an air conditioning unit, a lamp dangling from a gold chain, a door ajar. One could hardly think of more unlikely materials for art but Babin's sure eye has reconstructed these components into a disciplined -- and pleasing -- composition, a sort of motel-Mondrian bathed in light and color.
"I impose order upon these settings by giving the viewer visual direction," she says in an artist's statement. "...Abstraction allows for compositional purity."
Sometimes Babin focuses in on small still lifes, like the ice bucket and glasses in "Untitled (ice bucket)," 1999. Wrapped in tasteless brown Naugahide, the bucket sits on a faux-wood dresser top, alongside a glistening glass, both of them reflected in an adjoining mirror. But she pushes these homely things into daring diagonals, deeply pigmented in brown, white and shine. Similarly, a stack of fresh white towels, alongside a tattered curtain, in "Untitled (Tiki curtain)," 1998, make for a fine composition in blue and white.
The loosely woven cloth can't keep the light from the Tiki window from coming into the room; as in many of the pictures, the light from the outside is an unexpectedly radiant force. "Sources of light," says Babin, "offer a reminder of the possibility of escape." Babin deftly contrasts the fine cold light of the outdoors with the warm fakey light of the motel interiors, bathing the rooms by turn in blue, then yellow. A pair of pictures from the Cliff Manor Inn, labeled "On" and "Off," shows the difference in a tiled shower corner.
A few of the rooms are already clearly occupied, sullied with the kind of human baggage that messes up motel rooms from the instant of occupancy. ("Untitled (TV and pink undies)," with its undergarments encroaching on a dresser, is a case in point.) But most of Babin's motel rooms are spic-and-span, all tidied up in the wake of the last episodes of sin, or at the very least, of disorder. These freshly laundered spaces offer an infinity of new possibilities; it's always possible to wipe the old slate clean or go on to the next motel. Shot through with Babin's wonderful light, these tacky little rooms become emblems of redemption. Who'd have thunk it?