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Curiously Grim in Marin

Eric Kelly transforms Victorian-era photography into surreal and unsettling works of art

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Steampunk enthusiasts in the SF Bay Area can step into an alternate universe of eerie Victorian characters as Art Works Downtown in San Rafael, California, hosts “Curiously Grim,” an exhibit featuring the work of Eric Kelly. It runs through October 6.

Kelly is an artist and collector of 19th century photography, including tintypes, albumen prints, and antique postcards. He combines these with digital photos from public domain sources to create what he describes as “a reimagined history,” repurposing “classic themes from mythology and biblical story, seen through a distorted Victorian lens.”

His goal: “I want the parts to look as if they have always been together, no matter how strange or even absurd their combined meaning might be. Supernatural and dream elements abound, so entering this universe can be an unsettling experience.”


You can get a sense of that experience by viewing the images on his website and Instagram page. They’re also shown in the gallery below. But to truly appreciate his work, you should see it in person.

The exhibit is a collaboration of sorts with Rodney Griffin of Le Mysterium Collective, an arts organization in Alameda, California. Griffin played the role of interior designer, setting up the art center’s Underground Gallery to resemble a small Victorian stage set. It’s adorned with antiques and Griffin’s fabricated lamps, which he makes from old cameras, musical instruments, and other objects. Griffin has also worked with the Edwardian World’s Faire and Edwardian Ball in San Francisco, a multimedia celebration inspired by author and cartoonist Edward Gorey. Kelly’s pieces were on display at the last Edwardian Ball in January.

The Techniques

Kelly obtains his prints from a variety of sources, including eBay and antique dealers. His public domain sources include the Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons, and The Commons from Flickr.

He scans the photos at high resolution and modifies them in Adobe Photoshop, often combining them with other images. He prints his work on photo paper, matte paper, or decal paper, using the latter to mount the images on metal leaf. His preferred photo paper is Moab Slickrock Metallic Pearl, which approximates the look of daguerreotype, he says. Depending on the medium, these are coated with lacquer, varnish, and/or epoxy resin and mounted on wood, or in antique printer trays. (His website includes detailed information about his techniques and materials.)

His “Liquid Series” uses layers of clear resin to make it appear that objects or images are floating in liquid. Two works in the show, “Milagros (Night)” and “Milagros (Day)” are inspired by Mexican folk art. The “Milagros” (Spanish for “miracles”) are small charms attached to the frames or suspended in the resin.

“A Serious Matter”

On his website, he notes that antique photographs have a “directness” lacking in contemporary images. “Today all humans are bred from an early age to grin widely and falsely when a camera is pointed at them, but in the 19th century having your picture taken was a serious matter, sometimes even (to judge from their expressions) an unsettling or distressing one,” he writes. And “it seems to me that 19th century people were more emotionally unguarded when being photographed.”

Art Works Downtown is located at 1337 Fourth Street (near the corner of D Street) in San Rafael. It’s open to the public Tuesday through Saturday. San Rafael is in Marin County, about 20 miles north of San Francisco.

Shown above is “Santos (The Chamber of Darkness),” used by permission of Eric Kelly


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