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Book Review: Casa De Campo

Casa de Campo. Photographs by Antonio M. Xoubanova.
Published by MACK, 2013.
Casa de Campo
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Casa De Campo
Photographs by Antonio M. Xoubanova.
MACK, 2013. Hardbound. 144 pp., 72 color illustrations, 6x8-1/4".

I thought the tacit presence of Madrid would matter more in my reading of Antonio M. Xoubanova's photographs of Casa de Campo, that city's massive, wooded park. Instead, as I moved through the pages of his new book, I rather quickly jumped down the rabbit hole, into a sylvan fable with only tenuous ties to its urban setting and temporal roots. For years, Xoubanova photographed Casa de Campo, going into the woods to articulate a moody photographic telling of this amorphous place and its mysterious inhabitants. The story opens with a short sequence of views that conjures neither the fairy tale forests of my recollection nor ordered public grounds. They are dry bramble and smudged paths, and perfectly communicate that this place is not what you expected and not for everyone. Following the title page is the first of several circular, cropped images that introduce each subsequent chapter. They are like looking through the keyhole – at a pile of rocks, a stump. Their banality hums with the foreshadowing of Chekhov's gun and as recurring touchstones, these views set up the series' disparate narratives and divergent fates.

Casa De Campo, by Antonio M. Xoubanova. Published by MACK, 2013.
Casa De Campo, by Antonio M. Xoubanova. Published by MACK, 2013.

In his companion essay, Luis Lopez Navarro observes: "There are things that one has to do alone in the open air." As in many a fairy tale journey through a wonderland such as this, Xoubanova encounters fantastical creatures that, even when startled out of private ritual or reverie, seem prepared to reveal something of this place to one who is sufficiently clever or brave. These park denizens bide their time with slumber and shadow boxing and then lay out the way in patterns of stones (and birds!) and marks scratched in dirt. They look both utterly prosaic and extraordinary and seem not always human. In one image, some flipped hair and its shadow top a woman-bird hybrid of lumbering pathos, whose silhouette is embossed on the book's back cover. Xoubanova even includes the ultimate symbol of being alone in the wilderness – a solitary baby carriage standing in for that proverbial baby left to chance.

Casa De Campo, by Antonio M. Xoubanova. Published by MACK, 2013.
Casa De Campo, by Antonio M. Xoubanova. Published by MACK, 2013.

Sometimes all a photography book need do is collect worthwhile or favorite images; but of course those that resonate and endure have an integral relationship in their physicality and design to the works they convey. With Casa de Campo, Mack Books and Xoubanova have crafted a vehicle charmingly well-suited to the photography within. This small volume models the classic story book form – from its bright yellow cloth and ribbon page marker to the swirl of butterflies and leaves on the cover and endpapers. These expertly sequenced photographs carry a nearly pitch-perfect tone of otherworldly portent that only falls flat for me in those few spots where Xoubanova goes for a more broad humor. In a confident debut, Xoubanova maps out paths we may wish to follow, while simultaneously allowing us to flout such directives and get lost in this engrossing tale of almost-archetypes and ominous rocks.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.