Documentaries of dreams

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Nicholas Kahn/Richard Selesnick lecture and exhibition at SUNY-Ulster’s Muroff Kotler Gallery

Perhaps you’ve seen them, caught sight of them from the corner of your eye: the costumed bat people, the death dancers, the greenmen, all cavorting or more often hiding in vaguely familiar, long-abandoned carnival sites, empty, limitless greenswards or bloom-filled water meadows.

Perhaps you’ve seen such creatures, visited such venues as you wrestled your way out of a dream. Disoriented, you found yourself wondering, for reasons you didn’t understand: Was it your dream or someone else’s? Why do the names “Herr Orlofsky” and “Dr. Falke” ring some distant, fog-shrouded bell in your mind? Perhaps it’s the very bell that tolled in that far-distant tower that you and your two strange companions were never quite able to reach, in that dream that now, upon reflection, seems more like the guttering memory of a once-famous experimental German film from the last days of the Weimar Republic – a film that survives today only in blown-up single frames rescued, somehow, from a Nazi burn barrel.

Dream or memory? Real or false? Welcome to the mysterious and mysteriously moving artworks of Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, sorcerers of the unconscious, photographers of the imaginary. A portion of their teeming teamwork will be on display at the Muroff Kotler Gallery at SUNY-Ulster beginning October 8.

Gallery coordinator Suzy Jeffers likes to present the works of local artists in this gem of a gallery. Though she is herself a photography teacher and was well aware of Kahn and Selesnick’s work, she was surprised to discover that the two men live nearby: Kahn in Hudson and Selesnick in Rhinebeck. She was equally delighted when they agreed to present their work at SUNY-Ulster; their more typical venues have included the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“Their work is amazingly imaginative,” Jeffers said last week. “It transports you to different references, both past and future. I find their work both curious and psychically far-reaching.”

Kahn and Selesnick were both born in 1964, in New York City and London respectively; they’ve been friends and artistic collaborators since their days together as students at the Art School at Washington University in St. Louis in the early 1980s. They work primarily in the fields of photography and installation art, specializing in fictitious histories set in the past or future.

Kahn said last week that he was comfortable with their work being called “fictional documentaries.” He also gave the impression of not caring a bit what descriptions people hang on their works. That’s a decision best left to viewers, he said. He likened their collaborations to novels or movies that viewers can wander through.

The documentary strain of Kahn’s art can be traced to Kahn’s father Jerry, who served as a photographer in the US Army during World War II. The images and artifacts that he brought home from the war intrigued him, Kahn said. Jerry Kahn was also a key player in what turned out to be the dying days of the old Movietone newsreels. With his deep knowledge of the documentary format and with a newsman’s experience, Jerry Kahn went on to create news programs for fledgling TV stations in the 1960s.

His father’s influence, Kahn said, can be seen in many of the images that he and Selesnick have conjured over the years: old photos of strangers, worthless bank notes, newsreel images. It’s all about, he said, creating worlds – worlds initially populated by people and creatures and places that invite the viewer to conjure their own connections, to become part of a personal story whose truth lies beyond the merely factual, out there where greenmen and death dancers and refugees from the collective unconscious are at least as real as the nightmares of our youth or of the daily newscast.

While Messrs. Orlofsky and Falke have sent their regrets, claiming their required attendance at a performance of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus that evening, Kahn and Selesnick are expected to attend the opening reception and slide lecture at SUNY-Ulster’s College Lounge in Vanderlyn Hall at 7 p.m. on October 8. The exhibit will run through November 6 at the Muroff Kotler.


Kahn & Selesnick slide lecture, exhibition & opening reception, Thursday, October 8, 7 p.m., Vanderlyn Hall, SUNY-Ulster; exhibition runs October 8 through November 6, Muroff Kotler Visual Arts Gallery, SUNY-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge; (845) 687-5113;

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