A dead woman lies on the floor of her 1940s kitchen. She took a cake out of the oven before collapsing—perhaps from carbon monoxide poisoning? (Guess again.) On a table nearby, we see her rolling pin. It’s probably no more than an inch long.
The victim is a doll, an inhabitant of Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which artist Corinne May Botz photographed in 2004. Lee, a forensics enthusiast who grew up in Chicago’s Glessner House, created the 19 dollhouse-like Nutshell Studies to train detectives how to decipher visual clues.
Titles like Pink Bathroom (Slippers) (pictured) focus our attention on Lee’s dazzling miniature details, so that Botz’s series emphasizes the contrast between these signs of cozy domesticity and the gory real-life crimes that Lee reenacted. Her charming, creepy photos are the highlights of this thoughtful exhibition.
Curated by Karen Irvine, “Crime Unseen” aims to examine the relationships among photography, crime and evidence. Taryn Simon’s series “The Innocents” demonstrates the danger of relying on photography’s truth: In a heartbreaking video, she interviews men who served several years in prison for capital offenses before DNA evidence exonerated them.
The exhibition fixates tediously on place, however, as four of its eight artists dwell on how quickly meaning vanishes from the scene of a crime. Or so it seems: Blood glows on the walls in Angela Strassheim’s “Evidence” photos, chemically revealed to unwitting homeowners years after the stains were created and cleaned.
Even the early-20th-century Chicago Daily News crime photos filling one gallery emphasize the sites where crimes occurred, rather than the acts themselves. Most of “Crime Unseen” leaves viewers melancholy, unable to recognize its sad or sordid histories in the banal scenes before us.