Prospect and refuge ARTIST STATEMENT

november 2016

 

According to Jay Appleton's theory of prospect and refuge, two of our most basic and deep-rooted needs are for opportunity and shelter. We are attracted to those landscapes or environments that would seem to afford both, and we are wary of those that would seem to withhold either. This plays a role, if an unconscious one, in our experience of the environment and in our aesthetics.

In the piece titled Prospect, the combination of the ocean with the studio is a marriage of prospect and refuge and the metaphoric associations of the two. In the case of prospect these associations are adventure, excitement, and a feeling of freedom. For refuge they are safety, comfort, and a looking inwards. Prospect and refuge are not mutually exclusive in a binary sense but they are at times in conflict with each other, and this conflict, to my thinking, is central to much of what we want and work for.

There is a correspondence, for me, between the prospect and refuge conflict and the tension between illusion and materiality that I see as intrinsic to the medium of photography. The later has long been a subject of my work. By illusion I am referring broadly to the power we invest in photographs to tell us the truth about the world, to be a record of it, to “capture moments,” as it is said. By materiality I am referring to the stuff of photographic objects, their actual truths: ink, paper, frame, and physical context.

The tension between illusion and material is exhibited in these works most notably by the different ways in which paper in used to construct images. In the piece titled Refuge, for example, the image of the wooded scene was printed onto over 150 pieces of paper and then physically cut and affixed to walls and objects within an architectural space. The room itself was then photographed and the resulting image printed onto a single sheet of photo paper. In the case of the former, the physical properties of paper are acknowledged. In the case of the latter (and this applies to the majority of photographs), everything about the presentation is designed to deny that the paper exists at all. What matters and is emphasized is the illusion, or, if you like, the lie. 

To my thinking, these tensions relate not only to how we read images but also to how we experience the world. Materiality, like refuge, refers to what is here and now, what is in front of us, what we can see and touch. Illusion, like Prospect, refers to what we would prefer to believe, or, to put it more positively, what we can imagine. Neither, without the other, is quite satisfactory. 

 

Ink on Paper Artist Statement

March 2013

 

Photographs are inherently a false, mediating and distancing way to experience the world. What is preserved is very limited: only one view from one point, the third dimension of space absent, sounds, smells and other contexts removed, all but a fraction of a second gone. This might sound like an indictment but it isnt. It is precisely these qualities of photography that are compelling to me. The paradox of seeming to capture without capturing anything.

Many of my images seem improbable but are encoded with evidence of their veracity. They are, in most cases, truthful in the sense that what is pictured in a final print is what the camera saw on its final shoot; they are straight. They are deceitful, because all photographs are deceitful, but they are truthful in that they tell the truth about their deceit. One of the aims of my work is to reveal and then revel in the deceit of images.

To make Paper, I started with an image of a landscape, turned it around, and pinned it to the wall. I hung a frame around it and then photographed the paper and the frame together. In the resulting piece the image of the frame interacts seamlessly with the frame itself to create an illusion of depth. The image of the wall appears as though on a plane with the wall on which the piece is hung. Thereby, the print is integrated with the frame, the frame is integrated with the surrounding space, and the print, frame, and surrounding space are all integrated together by the consistent light and shadows throughout.

We are used to looking through the surface of photographic prints at the illusion of space they create. In this case, the viewer is doing exactly that, and to a heightened degree, while simultaneously looking at an image of a thing that is doing something very different: the paper within the paper is asserting itself as an object on its own. This is an image that does something images do not usually do. It acknowledges, explicitly, that it is an image.

For me, these works depend upon a kind of logic that tries to add up to a sense of wholeness. They are visualized expressions of ways of ordering the world. They are internally consistent, but in the end they are (and feel) empty. It is the emptiness I am attracted to. Logic, it seems to me, can be beautiful even when built upon nothing at all. This is, perhaps, the central ethos of my project as an artist.

 

 

Dust to Dust Artist Statement

March 2010

 

Someday you and I will no longer exist, all records of our work will be lost, and it will be as if we had never existed at all. In The Disappearance a free falling man is in limbo, coming from nowhere and about to disappear into nothing. He is here for an instant and this, for him, is all there is. And it is all there is for us.

My work takes the human condition as its central theme and examines the most fundamental of issues: the inexplicable fact of our existence, the ungraspable experience of time, and the illusive and unknowable nature of reality. It calls attention to our misperceptions: the gulf that exists between how we see and how we think we see; how we think and how we think we think; and the inconstant and constructed nature of memory.

We often say, photographs capture time. But to capture something is not to understand it because in the act of capture the thing is changed. My recent work aims at a photography that can speak to the passage of time closer to how it is actually experienced. For example, within the image Three Moments are three highly labored records of moments, each a month apart, each isolated and made into physical objects. The second moment attempts to recapture the first, while the third attempts to recapture them both. The result is meant to feel like a return to a place that may not seem to have changed, yet- since every instance of time and place is singular- it is perpetually and irrevocably being lost.

The making of Dust to Dust began with an observation about the way the sun traverses across the sky: that other than solar noon when the sun is the highest it will get, every other moment during the day has a twin moment when the height of the sun relative to the horizon is identical. From this observation I realized I could recreate a scene, including the light and shadows falling on it, by rotating an object and carefully timing my shots. In the resulting diptych a gravel mound appears to have remained stationary while the landscape itself appears to have moved. The same material that was used to create first one mound, then the second, is now part of the foundation of somebodys house. The piece is a meditation on impermanence and the fact that not only existence but even the features of the physical world are temporal and will come to an end.

 

 

The Artist as and Explorer Artist Statement

September 2006

 

My photographs are documentations of sculptures and installations but they are also records of actions and elaborate processes. Days are spent, sometimes with a crew but more often in solitude, silently driving, carrying supplies, erecting structures and sets, and studying the slow progress of the sun overhead and its all-powerful, comfort-giving and taking effects. Created in close collaboration with the movements of the sun, precisely observed, I see my photographs as acts of reverence and participation in a deep, reassuring natural order outside of and much larger than myself.

 

 

GREETINGS FROM A PILGRIMAGE

foam magazine blog, october,2012

 

It is not quite as hard to find as I thought it would be, but other than that, Robert Smithsons seminal 1970 artwork, Spiral Jetty, more or less conformed to my expectations. Which is to say that it did not disappoint.

The direct route from Los Angeles to Rozel Point, the site of the Jetty, is a 13-hour drive. But I almost never take the direct route, and this trip is no exception. My first stop is Vegas where I am distracted by a billboard outside a casino that reads: "Breakfast, $3.99!" After parking, paying for parking, enduring the 110 degree parking garage long enough to find the elevator, and sitting down at a booth, I am informed that, "Sorry, the special is only for the hours between midnight and 3 AM." Fifteen dollars, one pretty bad breakfast, and two hours later I am back on the road, heading north.

Driving through Nevada is close to a singular experience, with so little to focus on or to punctuate the time. One can drive for hours and hours and see maybe one, maybe two cars. And the towns, the ones that are inhabited, are so few and far between, and fly past the landscape so quickly that one might wonder, "Did that really happen?" A day is compressed into a singular, powerful impression: a vast place, a small self. Three days later, following visits to the Center for Land Use Interpretation and Nancy Holts Sun Tunnels, I finally arrive at the dirt road that turns off toward Spiral Jetty.

The road opens into a valley that, as Smithson recalls, spread into an uncanny immensity... hills took on the appearance of melting solids, and glowed under amber light... the lake resembled an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stony matrix, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light. Possibly because I am familiar with this passage the place seems exactly so, and I know I am headed in the right direction. Pulling up to the hill that overlooks the Jetty, I am somewhat surprised to see that I am not alone. Two families are already there; each with coolers and chairs set out and kids in swimming suits. They do not appear to be tourists, like myself, but locals at their regular swimming spot on a sunny evening.

The Jetty itself is mostly submerged, but its shape is more or less discernable by two trails of exposed rocks that comprise its edges. I am lucky to see anything at all. The Jetty has been only intermittently visible for the last ten years, and was entirely submerged for the three decades following its initial construction. It is like witnessing a comet that appears once or twice in a lifetime. When the present drought has passed, the Jetty will almost certainly be covered in water again, perhaps for a very long time.

I take off my shoes and make my way with difficulty over the sharp rocks, wading in some places to up past my knees. A helicopter appears and cements the impression that I am following a script. Belatedly I realize that I have been hearing the steady drone of the helicopter for some time and as it becomes louder, the auditory sensation combines with the rest of my senses to reenact, in real time and space, the film that has until now stood in for any real experience of the site. In this reenactment I am playing the role of Robert Smithson himself, a lone figure on the Jetty, being observed by a Nancy Holt from the vantage point of a helicopter. Is this a hired helicopter, here expressly to view the Jetty? If so then this is a script that must be enacted often, whenever the Jetty is visible, with different participants in the roles of Smithson and Holt. I like this idea. It is this sense of the reenactment of a script that seems to breath life into this old pile of earth and rocks. It ties the place to the text, and the film, and to my experience of the piece prior to my experience of the place.

And yet, because I am not Smithson, it is a privilege I can claim to rewrite the script. He came to this site from the East, in a plane, to make an artwork; I came from the West, in a truck, to make a pilgrimage. What was a script I had only seen as film and read as text has become, for me, a memory of an experience and a lived event. It was well worth the trip.

 

 

ON PLACES, PHOTOGRAPHS and Memory

FOAM MAGAZINE BLOG, july, 2012

 

Recently I visited a place that I knew intimately in childhood, a waterfall with cliffs on both sides and a pool of cold water below. We used to jump from those cliffs despite our parents concerns and a posted sign that read, warning: accidents may result in serious injury or death. I loved this place, and revisiting it I am amazed by all that I can remember. Bends in trails, sap stains on bark, crooks in branches, the intricate web of root structures, the shape of trees- all are startlingly unchanged and I remember them precisely. A small tree is in the middle of the trail. I put my hand on it for support and drops of moisture fall on my back from above, and I realize: I have done this before. I remember the sensation precisely, the sound of rustling leaves above, the freshness of the smell, the temperature of the droplets, the mixture of apprehension and pleasure. Standing on a rock ledge getting ready to jump, I reach for a handhold so I can lean over the edge and prepare myself for what I am about to do. The shape of the rock where my hand touches it is known to me: I have performed this ritual.

Places hold memories better than people and better than photographs. Family, or people from our past who may remind us of events in our lives and with whom we may reminisce, are themselves constantly changing, as is their version of events. Conversations with others about shared experiences of the past can seem to augment memory but quite often, more often then we probably realize, they operate in the opposite way: they alter or even replace our own memories with those of another. Whatever the event, ones memory of it is inevitably altered through conversation; recalling the same event at a later date, it becomes difficult or impossible to distinguish an original memory from the altered version that emerged.

Photographs act on us in a similar fashion. Whatever their apparent precision or correctness, photographs inaccurately reflect experience from the start. They convert the three dimensions of space into two and eliminate, or at best encode- as Flusser suggests- the third spatial dimension and time. Also sacrificed are smell, touch, sound, and context. In a word, a photograph is an abstraction of experience. Yet we take them compulsively. We fill scrapbooks and hard drives with family outings, vacations, ballgames- Scotty in front of Niagara Falls, dad and grandma smiling in front of the famous restaurant- in the hope of friezing time, making experience tangible for future reference, preserving memory. I do it, too. But it is well to realize that photographs do not preserve memory, they replace memory. Just as photographs are an abstraction of experience, they are even more so an abstraction of memory- a dangerously compelling abstraction. Memories are fragile and impressionable. They cannot hold up against the seemingly irrefutable factuality of a photograph. It isnt that what is in a photograph is false: a photographs version of events did happen, what is in a picture did indeed pass before the lens. The problem is that photographs only tell such a small part of any story. And while they may be technically correct, nonetheless they deceive. Does a smile in a photograph mean that a person is happy? Or does it mean that a photographer prodded, look up and smile? Was the fish I caught really bigger than my uncles, or did I cleverly, intentionally hold mine closer to the lens? Photographs deceive in another respect. Whatever the event one wishes to preserve, snapshots are most commonly a break from that event. The moment that a photograph is taken is experienced as a moment taking a photograph, not as a moment engaged in the activity implied by the resulting image. Time taken to make photographs is time subtracted from the experience of the thing being photographed. What photographs most accurately record, ultimately, is nothing more than the act of photography, itself.

To be sure, photographs can form a record of our lives that has value, and I cherish my old snapshots as much as the next person. But as image-makers and consumers, which all of us are these days, there is also value to be had in a recognition of the limits of photography to the facility of memory- in an understanding of what images can and cannot offer us in this regard. Moreover it is precisely the deceitfulness of photography as it pertains to memory that gives the medium its unique platform to address the nature of memory itself: its malleability, its unreliability, its elusiveness. It seems to me that no conversation or photograph can make memory so vivid or recognizable, so physically palpable, as the return to a place. Such a visit cannot draw conclusions about ones past- perhaps it is the lack of drawing conclusions that makes accuracy possible. But it can with accuracy remind us how we felt. In my case, I was reminded how it felt to be in the body of a twelve year- old boy. And that is perhaps the best that reminiscence has to offer.

 

 

carleton watkins and the 19th century west

FOAM Magazine BLOG, May, 2012

 

Carleton Watkins' career was punctuated by great success and terrible tragedy. Having crossed the continent and arrived in San Francisco in 1851, by 1862 the Yosemite photographs we admire today were being exhibited in San Francisco, New York and London, and collected by luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Frederick Law Olmstead. He ran a successful studio for two decades but went bankrupt following the Panic of 1873 and was forced to sell the rights to his own images. Much of Watkins' life work and material legacy was wiped out in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Following his death at an insane asylum ten years later his work fell into near obscurity for a period of some sixty years.

The effect of Watkins' Yosemite photographs, as many have noted, is sublime. Consider the image, Yosemite from Mariposa Trail (Yosemite Valley No. 1), ca. 1865. In the middle ground, distance, and far distance are massive granite slabs of unparalleled splendor. Only two trees, the bases of which are unseen, occupy the foreground. Where is the photographer positioned, and where, by implication, the viewer? Seemingly, in the air above an abyss. Seemingly, there is no camera at all. And seemingly, as viewers we are witness to a scene so untouched, so pure, that we may just be the first to apprehend it.

That is not the case, of course. Native American groups had lived in the valley for an estimated 8,000 years. The Mariposa War of 1850-1851 resulted in the killing and removal to reservations of many Native American groups in the area, including the Ahwahnechee Indians who had lived, hunted and harvested for food in the Valley up until ten years before Watkins' first 1861 visit. In light of this, Watkins' depiction of the Yosemite as pristine, untouched wilderness is not historically accurate; nevertheless it was and in some ways still is the way Americans want to imagine the place. The notion of pure wilderness as linked with, and expressive of, the American character and destiny was very important to the American psyche at that time. Yosemite Valley captured the popular imagination because its wildness seemed to confirm the youth and vigor of the American project; its beauty and grandeur confirmed America's strength and purity.

In Watkins' images, nature is never really spoiled by human industry, and hardly ever does human industry seem to be impeded by nature. Look, for example, at The Town of the Hill, New Almaden, ca. 1863. The settlement, through Watkins' lens, is surrounded by grandiose, apparently untouched hills that recede gently from visibility in a pleasant haze. The habitation fits nicely within the landscape, seeming to occupy just one out of a multitude of hills, and seeming to impact the surrounding environment not at all. This image contrasts dramatically with the reality that most of today's residents of Southern California experience every day: concrete everywhere, an entirely unnatural and transformed landscape where hill after hill after hill, all of which at one time resembled New Almaden, are now filled with residences, shopping centers, chain stores, freeways and gas stations. The apparently light footprint of human activity portrayed in this and most of Watkins' images was to be short lived.

In our own time it has become increasingly difficult to defend totalizing belief systems. We no longer adhere to the idea that the formal qualities of representation can convey any kind of truth, and it is in ideas rather than formalism that we look for beauty. Most Americans no longer believe in Manifest Destiny or the limitlessness of American power and potential. Instead of a continent stretched out before us, opportunity and possibility everywhere, and no end in sight, what many of us fear is the case today about our country, our place in the world as individuals, and the future is precisely the opposite. The frontier is long gone, our resources are dwindling, and our sense of opportunity seems to shrink with every generation. Perhaps it is no accident, then, that the resurgence in popularity of Watkins' work began in the years following the Vietnam War. As a culture, I believe we are drawn to these images today, in part, out of nostalgia. They remind us of what we had, and what we have lost. And I think that, in spite of everything, the best of them give us hope.