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Review: What’s true, what’s not, what’s a dream in Beth Lilly’s mysterious narratives?

Beth Lilly: "Schizophrenia"
On guard against hippies: Beth Lilly's "Schizophrenia."

Beth Lilly’s “Every Single One of These Stories Is True (The Dream of the Red Elephant),” at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery through May 15, is a collection of photographic stories that ends with a photo of a handwritten note about the impossibility of telling stories. 

This arrangement of the independent narratives begins with a survey of family cases of mental illness that seems designed to instill doubt about the reliability of the narrator. This may be why the gallery has felt obliged to assure us in its title that these are true stories. Lilly’s title, in parentheses, for the overall series of visual anecdotes is oblique and mysterious, though it also warns us that some of these stories are true reports of the contents of dreams, which are labeled as such in the handwritten text on the photographs’ mats. 

It matters very much that Lilly is trying to tell true stories or, in one or two cases, retell family stories truthfully, because almost all the photographs are open fictions: re-enactments of real events or scenes from dreams, staged for maximum dramatic effect and representing the aspects of the story with the greatest visual impact.

Lilly's "The Dream of the Red Elephant #1"

For example, “Schizophrenia,” a picture of a determined woman brandishing a rifle in her bedroom, makes us want to read the accompanying story of Aunt Inez’s delusional conviction that a hippie was hiding in her basement and needed to be guarded against. (This motif recurs in a terrifying account of a real-life home invasion of which Lilly herself was the victim — an event foreshadowed in something like a precognitive dream.)

Some of the stories have conventional beginnings, middles and ends. Some are evocative fragments of childhood fantasies and experiences. All of them together form a sequence meant to address how we form our sense of self from telling ourselves stories — and how impossible it may be to get the entire story right no matter how many times we try to fill in the appropriate details.

The earliest sequence in the exhibition, in black and white and nearly 20 years older than the rest of the series, is a set of semi-documentary images with accompanying printed explanations that form a satisfying whole. This despite omitting the vast majority of the story of Lilly’s visits to the town where her grandfather grew up.

The economy involved in telling a long story in just five panels reminds us of how easy and how difficult it is to construct a narrative arc. The art of constructing a good story is knowing what to leave out. What is left untold might provide subject matter for any number of other stories, but this visual and textual anecdote feels complete.

The Dream of the Red Elephant,” the titular sequence, is also a nearly perfect narrative, succinctly recounted in just three photographic panels. In some ways it forms the apex of Lilly’s explorations of tale, dream, truth and mystery, and it would be a shame to spoil the story by paraphrasing it here.

Somehow our minds make sense of the world through dreams and storytelling, and the sense they make of it bears varying amounts of resemblance to what other people would consider “objective reality.”

Lilly's "Second Sight"

Realizing that we inhabit very different daily worlds — an individuality of perception that is due to the particular ways our brains are constructed as much as to the kind of society we grew up in — is a difficult process. Lilly helps us by telling her own story in a way that questions how stories, and the mental images that go with them, are formed in the first place. She does this brilliantly. The photographs are as exquisitely composed as the accompanying written words that shape our comprehension of what these striking pictures mean.

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