The people are frozen in eerie, perfect tableaux, soft light illuminating their faces. Sometimes they are scarred and scowling. Their photos seemingly capture moments in theatrical productions with the most profound of plots.
Marcus Williams and Susan Jowsey cast themselves and their children as living canvases, using costumes and props to personify the concrete manifestations of abstract concepts including innocence, morality and power struggles, both interpersonal and global.
Starting April 29, The Forgiving, the family's latest photography and video exhibit, will inhabit GOCA 121, the downtown satellite of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' Galleries of Contemporary Art.
Williams and Jowsey, both 48, and their children Jesse, 13, and Mercy, 11, comprise F4, a New Zealand-based artistic collective formed in 2006.
"We really tried to include the children in the development of ideas, not just as actors in our 'play,'" Williams e-mails from New Zealand. "We wanted them to help drive the concepts, to take some responsibly for the project and share the authorship."
Some viewers may worry the children are being exploited, and Williams says he and Jowsey have been asked about that. He says outside of art, Jesse and Mercy keep busy just being kids: going to school, swimming, studying violin and guitar, respectively, and learning Maori, the indigenous language.
"They're the most important things to us in the world," Williams writes. "And so if we felt there was some chance of exploitation, we would stop doing the project."
As to whether the children are mature enough to understand the hard-edged themes and sharp emotions, Williams says they do just fine. Though they complain about long photo shoots, he says they often suggest ideas. One of the exhibit's two videos, showing "wounds" being built up on bodies, evolved from Jesse and Mercy's "elaborate fantasy games involving battles, slain warriors and the wounded," Williams writes.
For the photos, which are close to life-sized, Williams sketches the compositions first, then photographs mock setups and draws on the printouts until everything looks right. During the photo shoots, three or four studio lights and a diffuser help achieve the otherworldly appearance.
"It's such a different aesthetic for us," says Caitlin Green, co-director of GOCA. "It's really new work, really new ideas, from anything we've seen."
One image, from a series called "The Contingency," shows an angelic Mercy, her eyes aimed at heaven. A torn chunk of an old photo, showing part of a suited man, is sewn directly onto the image, extending from Mercy's lips to her chest.
GOCA's other co-director, Daisy McConnell, knows viewers will find the artwork difficult, since children and family trigger deep memories and responses. Professionally, however, the work elevates above simple shock value.
"As curators, we try to step outside of our own response, but we all have our experiences that we reference, especially if it references family and that personal internal landscape," McConnell says.
As for F4's landscape, Williams sees much creative potential.
"We want to see how far we can push the idea of collaborating with our children as the years roll by," he writes, adding, "Shared authorship is not such a common thing in Western art. The idea is fascinating as it becomes a model for something else, outside of art, something more about just living."