From a young age, commercial imagery instructs us to suppress our desires, values, personality, and flaws. It’s a universal experience; we’ve been shaped by ideologies of domination and control within contemporary commerce, projecting fantasies onto our lives that are not our own.
The photographs in Happy Valley are derived from vernacular imagery: Facebook albums, makeup tutorials, or Instagram hashtags. Though none of these images depict commerce explicitly, its fingerprints are everywhere. A half-painted face performs the before-and-after of an infomercial. The futuristic colors of electric currents evoke cutting-edge technology or extreme sports. The combination of the commercial and vernacular makes Eva O’Leary’s images read as advertisements without referents, exposing the extent to which we’re conditioned by the visual language of money. A conspiracy of hyperreal light, exalted colors, and manipulation of focus is all it takes to transform everyday landscapes, objects, and people into images to be feared, idolized, and consumed.
Everywhere around us we see surfaces—skin, billboards, cake icing, photographic prints—that project fantasies, tacitly teaching us how to relate to ourselves and one another. Happy Valley, then, is an alternate propaganda, one that takes on the language of commercial photography in order to arrive at something more sinister. O’Leary’s work makes visible a potent facet of the contemporary American psyche: we cannot help but read the world through the visual cues of commerce—a language that is deliciously manipulative, and subtly (though insistently) unreal.
Eva O’Leary (b. 1989) was named a Foam Talent in 2014, and has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions within the United States and abroad, including at the Serpentine Gallery (London), l'Atelier Néerlandais (Paris), and Danziger Gallery (New York). Her work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times ‘T’, WIRED Magazine, and The Huffington Post. She received a BFA from California College of the Arts in 2012, and an MFA from Yale in 2016. In 2017 she was the recipient of the Vontobel Contemporary Photography Prize. She currently lives and works between New York and Pennsylvania.