Through a lens starkly: Sofia Silva's suburbia

For some, the sight of a faceless garage or a squat chain store or a long stretch of tract housing barely registers; there's just nothing unusual about such things. For artist Sofia Silva, they mean a lot. And, once framed by her camera lens, they are imbued with provocative power.

Nearly a dozen of Silva's photographs form an exhibit, "Meditations on the Landscape of Desire," one of two solo shows on display at C. Grimaldis Gallery (the other show features intriguing sculptural pieces by Lu Zhang).

"I want to put things in front of people that are mundane and ordinary," Silva said. "It can open up a dialogue. Seeing the architecture of suburbia, all the box [stores] with parking lots, can start people thinking about broader issues — political, cultural, economical, environmental."

The Argentine-born, Baltimore-based artist has been focusing her camera on the American suburban landscape, in this region and elsewhere, for several years.

"My work is not site-specific." Silva, 35, said. "It doesn't matter where it's shot."

What does matter to her is summed up in a quote by Winston Churchill that she came across: "'We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."

That quote effectively sums up Silva's photographic mission.

"What kind of people are these spaces making?" she said. "Are people really seeing, paying attention to this world? These spaces shape who we are, how we work, how we react to each other. They reflect the isolation of people. People drive through at the bank. When they go to a grocery store, they're just buying groceries; there is no cultural interaction. When they go to walk, they go to the mall."

The exhibit displays some of the photographer's large panoramic shots in color (a few were in a previous Grimaldis show); they shine a light on commonplace aspects of modern living.

In "siding," for example, Silva captures the cold symmetry of the exterior of a wall of a typical suburban home in a way that invites a deeper look. The initial view of "parking spaces" is the dull routine of any surface lot. But words have been blacked out on these spaces, perhaps names of individuals once assigned to them. The shot suddenly becomes a metaphor for the economic downturn.

Four black-and-white, nighttime images from 2008 confront the viewer with particularly bleak views.

The most eye-catching is titled "store losing." In the foreground, two shopping carts sit on an empty parking lot. In the background is the entrance to a Linens 'n Things store. Beneath that brand name is the announcement "store closing." But in Silva's shot, a centrally placed sign post blocks out the "c."

The photo would have been communicative enough had the word "closing" been clearly visible. That it now reads "losing" adds a whole new layer.

"I can't remember all the details of that shoot," Silva said, "but I do remember that the signpost was bothering me at first. It was interfering, but I couldn't move it. I wasn't paying attention to the words. Sometimes you discover the details after the fact."

Other pieces in the nocturnal black-and-white series capture an antiseptic scene of a bank's drive-through area; a few pathetic plants trying to grow against a concrete building, bathed in security lights; a lifeless cul-de-sac likewise illuminated by an unnatural glow.

Getting such shots can be "challenging," Silva said.

"Sometimes you have to wait to get the shot. Maybe a car will go by. Or you see a spot you like, but when you come back to photograph it, a car is parked on the spot. I've gotten kicked out of a few places," the artist said. "All of this is done with a tripod, so I'm going to be noticed. The first years after 9/11, people were suspicious of everything."

If you go

Sofia Silva's "Meditations on the Landscape of Desire" and Lu Zhang's "Practice" are on display through June 11 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080 or go to

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