Careless Shaving Costs Lives
Which came first, the Barbie or the egg? And can they be put back together again, like Humpty Dumpty? How fragile it all is, and how delicious.
Here is a very present absence; absence as presence. The curtain is pulled back to reveal nothing, but a nothing that is something: an empty fullness, a sculptural void; a positive negative. Has the action taken place, or is it yet to? Do we look at, or are we seen? The curtain that divides these pictorial worlds joins them. There is no before or after in this image, no in-front or behind. Our eyes are empirical, our minds otherwise.
Metal strip on sky
A tape-bird flies: below it
Drily, a tree waits.
To photograph a thing is to encompass its death, Barthes said. I've never quite understood why. I suppose somewhere in this happy image is the knowledge that it will have been different an instant before it was made and would be different again an instant after. This calls up other chronologies: the days will cool and shorten, the leaves fall, the skipping, running children grow old and die. The picture, though, will survive; a bittersweet, immortal moment.
Such an interesting dialogue in this picture, between painting and photography. Rousseau saw painting as immoral, because it re-created the three-dimensional world in two dimensions. All paintings were thus illusions or, as Rousseau would have said, lies. Prints were ok, because they were patently flat. But what would he have made of photography, and its claim to capture truth?
Here, it's the painting that provides perspective. The photograph is insistently flat: a square-on picture plane, the woman's face, en plein profil and parallel to it; the wall behind parallel to both. Flatness, in this image, becomes truth, even though we know that the old woman, the bed, the wall, must have existed in three dimensions. It is the painting of gum trees – the one thing that actually is flat – that seems to have depth. And yet this picture has none of Rousseau's dogmatism about illusion. Facts – old age, death – are one part of it; imagination – memory, fantasy – another. Neither is the better system, neither the more or less moral.
Do you remember Hilda Ogden's mural of the Rockies? In her mind, it made her Coronation Street front room a place of beauty. Were you to draw a line up the middle of this picture, from the apex of the tarmac to the image's top edge, it would look like a mural as well. But would Hilda want it in her front room? Maybe she should. This picture's small phenomenological drama – is it real or an illusion? – expresses another small drama: unexceptional people acting out unexceptional lives. The picture looks like a prop in a play, and yet, in reality, it is the play. That's got to be grander than the Rockies.
Funny: this could easily be the photograph of a work of art – by Eva Hesse, maybe? – although I'm guessing it isn't. It's not the image of an artwork, but an artwork. Literally, the subject is perhaps a piece of board, papered or wrapped, the wrapping or paper having buckled from the surface to look like brush marks. Just to add to the deception, the non-artwork is in two halves; a diptych. It's the camera's flattening – its imposition of new plane, a new order – that transforms it; and art is all about transformation. It's a sly image, formally, but a painful one associatively. The object's surface looks like medicalised flesh, burned or wounded, stitched together. It's a hard thing to look at; although its story is, I suppose, one of rescue; of pain redeemed.
Oof. Too much information. If the last image left everything to the imagination, this one tells you all you need to know and more. Within the image are other images, other pictures to decode; the man, too, has made himself legible, wearing a costume that is meant to be read. What it says is “devout”, or “devotion”; his gesture, also. And yet, somehow, it all tells us nothing. Like the man, the image can't quite catch our eye. It bombards us with facts, decoration, pattern; but it's like aluminium chaff, intended to dazzle. At the heart of it is emptiness.
Damn those serifs. But for the one on the 1, this picture would be pretty well symmetrical. Fold it on a vertical axis and you’d end up with the same image, twice. The colours are orderly, too — serene, tasteful, Japanesey. It’s perfect! No untidy narrative, no messy humanity; an inch away from abstraction. So why is it so sad? Answers on a postcard.
What is it with cows? They unthinkingly strike classical poses, full face or profile; make silhouettes people don’t. This cow-family has the stateliness of sculpture, or of a landscape by Cuyp. Their heavy stillness makes the world stand still. The grove of gums becomes Arcadia, thanks to them. And people think cows are stupid.
A surprising thing happens when you turn this image upside-down: it loses all its energy. Why is that? The point of the architecture – I'd guess why it caught your eye – is its symmetry: a two-part harmony of vertical concrete and horizontal brick rectangles, repeated. Residents have tried to defy this perfection with their annoying curtains and posters, but the pattern holds up pretty well even so. The geometry is exactly the same when inverted, and yet it's dead. Odd. Logically, the image should feel the same either way up; but there's something other than logic going on. What? Behold, I show you a mystery.
The world according to Mondrian; which just goes to show that ‘abstraction’ and ‘representation’ are relative terms. It's the reverse of the last image – a symmetry that just happened to happen, an accidental order. What unites the two images is the human capacity to see pattern; in this case, yours. But is it a capacity or a need we have?
And is this why we need pattern, to re-make the world in our image? Insecure little gods that we are. Here, our eyes see mutually untenable things: that these are pay 'phones, and that they're in love. Even as we know that they can't be, we have absolutely no doubt that they are. John and Don. I wish them well, 'though I do find these public displays of affection difficult.
He's a cheery little chap, isn't he? Full of dash and vim; possibly a bit of a rogue. Or possibly a piece of paper with a note on the obverse. The backs of things. Unseen, unconsidered, and possibly not the backs at all.
Well: hard to avoid the words “Josef Albers” with this one. It's a study in squares, for sure, but also in colour, and the interrelation of the two. Like the central squares in Albers' Homages, the brick wall in this image seems to stand proud of the picture plane; also to levitate. Our heads tell us that this can't be so, but our eyes that it is. All the things that should stabilise the image – classical geometry, blocks of unvaried colour – conspire to make it unstable; to fall apart, really. It's like German: so logical it's illogical.
It's our friend Josef again, isn't it? The backs of things. Albers had an urge to rescue, maybe, as a Catholic, to redeem: ugly colours, cheap materials; the obverse of paintings. The flip-side of the Homages is just as important as the front, and just as meticulous. Who knows what goes on the other side of this lovely image, and, in a sense, who cares. No backs without fronts, for sure; but then also no fronts without backs.
A landscape, in landscape format. Why? Is the size of the world defined by its width? The whole wide world. Worldwide. WWW. “Then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think”. “Be patient, for the world is broad and wide.” What is it about horizontality, that it trumps verticality every time?
Seats for the performance or the performance itself ? You can see them linking arms and high-kicking legs, those little chairs; a fold-down can-can. But only when no-one is looking. Are they doing it now? And now? And is the performance over, or yet to begin? Comedy, or tragedy?
It's that photographic push-pull between flatness and depth, seeing and knowing. We see this as a flat image, even while knowing that it shows three-dimensional space: a crucifix, tablet and flowers standing proud of a wall, chamfered bricks above, a street light behind. Figure-ground organisation, those Gestalt people say. But here, it's got something to do with emotional tidiness as well. The tablet looks like a memorial. It's invested with emotion: who brings the flower, lights the candle; prays? And yet it's part of a pattern, an organisation. In its end is its beginning, and vice-versa.
Tim Wainwright: 18.9.1954 – 21.11.2018