The title of Megan Magill and Sal Taylor Kydd’s two-person exhibition at Pho Pa is puzzling: “Momentary Certainties.” I didn’t see anything in their show that was solid or certain. It’s a handsome show of works by two disparate photographers whose images and presentations dovetail just enough for their shared space to feel genuinely shared. And they diverge just enough to throw a bit of light on each other.

Magill’s images are consistent objects. Their scale, clean-edged framing, repeated subjects and materials make her work easy to recognize. On large sheets of white paper, Magill (I believe) prints parts of figurative images by sifting fine graphite through silkscreens. The works are mostly white paper with a few figurative elements. The vast spaces of pristine white make these not only aesthetically consistent but elegant objects, as if a newspaper image was hand-printed in silver dust on a broad swath of fine paper. The newspaper quality is apparent because of the grain of the screen and the silver dark of the fine graphite.

The sense of narrative documentation gives Magill’s images a journalistic flavor – as does the newspaper-sized paper. There’s a family encountering an ostrich on the other side of a fence. A girl in an inner tube floated in an endless pond of white. A photographer, head bent down toward her viewfinder, her hair hanging forward with the devil-may-care bravado of a young JFK.

This last image is hung as part of a dense but breathable salon-style corner. Magill’s two images sit on one side, and to their left are Kydd’s works. The key tying the shows together is the photographer self-portrait image (which brings to mind JFK because of the expertly tousled tuft falling over the forehead, until you consider the feminine silhouette of the young woman’s face), the kitty-corner neighbor of which is a close-up in soft focus of a young girl whose face is similarly looking down, only the view is straight on and the subject unselfconsciously parts her golden locks with hands to either side of her face. Her gaze downward is more carefree. The girl is personified absorption to the photographer’s posed theatricality.

“Lola in the Ferns,” by Sal Taylor Kydd, 2017, platinum print on hahnemuhle platinum rag. Photos courtesy of Maine Media Workshops + College

To the left of the girl is a related image, removing any doubt of incidental placement. Considering the images carefully, it seems the same girl in the same action, standing in a pond up to her knees, studying the life in the water under her self-cast shadow.

The parallel structures of Magill’s and Kydd’s images come easily into focus: a photograph of someone looking down in observation. There are several layers here, but after a moment the contrasts take over. One takes the heroic view looking up at the photographer in action. The other is a parental perspective, looking lovingly down. One is geared toward the very idea of audience and the other is a private moment. One is beautifully executed in a refined and repeated approach, while the other diverges into a pair and geometrically outward from there. The internal logic of Kydd’s figure up close and the figure in the wading pond are extremely different to the point that they don’t look like they are by the same photographer.

And this is the crux of the contrast between Kydd and Magill. All of Magill’s images are identifiably similar, while Kydd’s are not. Kydd’s frames are all different in a sense that you might expect of photos in a very nice old family home; they hold together stylistically, but barely. Nonetheless, the works of the two artists look good together.

A photographer like Kydd needs to hope the audience will notice she is working negative by negative and responding intelligently to what she finds before her, choosing strategic possibility over identifiable style. A chef, for example, could take shrimp, chicken or tofu and stir fry all into the same pad thai, or that chef could diverge with each and get bouillabaisse, chicken noodle and miso soups.

On one hand, we expect this kind of case by case intelligence from artists – it is the basis, after all of conceptual art. But then we ceaselessly reinforce consistency as refinement, or more crassly, as better branding. (We like patting ourselves on the back for recognizing artists a little too much.) There are arguments for both, but it is a far easier thing to understand the standards and contrasts among the consistent. And sometimes laziness and refinement sleep in the same bed.

Still, I prefer seeing the thought process of artists like Kydd, particularly when the choices allow for oddities. We see what looks like flawed effects of the negative (though beautifully used) in the lower part of the very dark background of Kydd’s “Maeve Swimming,” and next to that, a soft-focus girl from behind splaying her dress so she looks like a butterfly in a texture-swept scene in a field of lavender. Beyond that is a delicate frog in a soft child’s hand in visually soft water (it’s a murky pond, but that’s pretty in black and white).

“Pulling Mom,” by Megan Magill, monoprint, powdered graphite and watercolor tinted medium on paper. Photo courtesy of Maine Media Workshops + College

Kydd gets better as her subjects become more subjective, while Magill’s work thrives on narrative (or even philosophical) structures. Her back to us, a woman’s gaze hits a target because Magill has isolated a separate bit of image from the form that includes the woman. Magill’s best image features a young boy on the left with stormy body language and an enviously troubled look back to the right, where his mom is part of a single, unified and joyously self-contained form with his younger sister. It is not any tenderness on her part, but the coolness of Magill’s observation that leads “Pulling Mom” to succeed. And it is not the literal action, but the implied psychological narrative that brings us to our emotional feet. It’s like looking at someone else’s family. It’s not our place to be involved, but we understand and the feelings are real.

Kydd and Magill are both good, but I suspect they are better together. They give each other an edge that dissolves an otherwise slightly awkward fresh-out-of-the-box feel we see in images like Magill’s “Monkey Bars.” It is a tall, vertical image of a child hanging upside down from a swing with the dots of the chains diverging upward like perpetual ellipses into expanding space. It would be her best work, except Magill cuts the image of the child’s head too abruptly when a much softer transition would have served her better (or even cutting the paper straight across at the shoulder line or higher). And while I admire Kydd’s technical flexibility, it would be nice to get a stronger sense of her personal tonal taste. Maybe I am being lazy in hoping for a bit more recognizable style, but I would prefer a clearer feel for where she’s going.

My fascination with the title “Momentary Certainties” stems from the fact that there are no certainties whatsoever between Magill and Kydd. There is no hard fact to be found in the lot, just soft (and at their best, even luscious) subjectivities. But that is more than good enough for now.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]