Photographer and Filmmaker
“Anna Ehrenstein’s work ironically and humorously explores the possibilities and limitations of virtual reality to bridge the gaps created by eurocentrism, colonialism and racism.“
During Unseen Amsterdam 2018, Eva O’Leary (b. 1989, USA) was awarded the Outset Unseen Exhibition Fund for her work Happy Valley, which granted her a solo show at Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam. In anticipation of the forthcoming exhibition, which runs from the 1st of March to the 28th of April 2019, we look back on the project and its unsettling sentiments.
Eva O’Leary’s work underlines the disparity between America’s polished exterior and the realities it conceals. The Happy Valley series – named after O’Leary’s hometown in Pennsylvania – allowed the artist an opportunity to re-examine the social values to which she was exposed in her youth, as well as their enduring impact.
‘I love and hate Happy Valley, so I guess I have a complicated relationship with the place. I met many of my favourite people in the world in this town, but I’ve also had some terrible experiences. There’s a crushing pressure of a certain kind of American normalcy that thrives here in a really intense and specific way’.
For Eva O’Leary, the candy-coated contradictions of the small college town in which she grew up remain an endless source of frustration, as well as inspiration. Repurposing its sickly-sweet name for a series produced between 2014 and 2017, Happy Valley evokes long-established visions of white-picket fences, neatly-trimmed lawns and an unsettling suburban harmony. With her work, O’Leary unpicks, unpacks and lays bare the artificiality of these American representations of perfection – albeit in a far more contemporary context – pointing to the often insidious realities that lie beneath.
At first glance, the project’s synthetic, brightly-lit photographs create an uncanny atmosphere. There is a Lynchian feeling that, somewhere under the surface, something isn’t quite right. Where one image presents the half made-up face of a young woman, another sets a hulking man – whose startling fake tan begins abruptly from the neck down – against an equally improbable backdrop of highly-saturated green foliage and blue skies. Elsewhere, the cascades of an artificial water feature sit wedged between two escalators; perhaps at a train station, or maybe in a gleaming, indoor shopping mall.
Other images, though harmless at face value, are imbued with a darker sentiment. Monument Climb, depicting a group of cheering, shirtless men, was conceived to represent the pervasive mob mentality and violent energy to which O’Leary became accustomed at the parties and football games of her youth. ‘My friends and I always saw a very different side to the town than the one depicted in its public image; the one it relied on economically to draw people in. Living there as a young woman, you saw inside the fraternities, you watched your friends get assaulted. It all seemed very normal – this mess under the gloss’.
Beyond Happy Valley, O’Leary’s work continues along similar lines. For the 2017 Spitting Image project, the artist captured portraits of young girls from behind a two-way mirror. A parallel video work documents the frightening self-consciousness with which these girls – aged between 11 and 14 – studied their reflections, adjusting their hair and seeking out their best angles in pursuit of a socially-prescribed standard of beauty.
It is at moments like these that O’Leary’s work transcends an investigation of personal identity, addressing instead the wider hegemonic norms that govern American society. Here, beneath the glossy surface, the pressures these norms create – for young women in particular – become strikingly evident.