Written in response to the group exhibition Still Action! on display at 1708 Gallery from April 19 to June 2, 2013.
The difficulty in drawing a boundary that defines the purpose of photography, whether it is a science or art (or both), has been a defining topic of discussion since its invention. What’s more, thanks to globalization and rapidly growing technologies, the lines separating fine art media are becoming less solid and more vaporous. Artists today proudly collaborate with, and boast influences by, a wide range of available approaches and media. So it is no surprise that contemporary photography also indulges in this spectrum of motivations, influences, and expressions. Many contemporary photographers consider their work to be naturally at home in fine art galleries as well as the traditional avenues of journals and magazines, as new images are being captured solely for their photographic and artistic vision. Such a concept is at the heart of Still Action!, a group photography exhibition curated by Travis Fullerton and Paul Thulin.
As an object of technology, the camera often acts as a prosthetic, functioning as a mediator between the photographer and the subject. There is a sense of literal and figurative distance between the two when obtaining an image, something that is separate from one’s immediate knowledge and experience. The camera’s function is inherently bound by time: the time it takes for the shutter to open and close, the time it takes for light to reach the sensor or the negative, the time needed for chemical reactions. In many of the works seen in Still Action!, time is harnessed as a medium in unique ways and its results are just as tangible as a stroke of paint or smudge of charcoal.
This is unmistakable in Sharon Harper’s work Moon Studies and Star Scratches, a project that involves minute, hour, and week or month-long exposures that reveal the movements of the moon and stars, made evident by the scratches and streaks of light that are left behind in the negatives. Harper is essentially “drawing” on the film, but cannot predict how the image will be affected by the celestial movement. For Harper, the medium of light is years old by the time it touches the film, so the entire process and composition is left to chance in an area we cannot immediately fathom. In Kevin Cooley’s video-photograph hybrids, the images literally become performances as footage of apartment residents making dinner and a thunderstorm over the city challenges the boundary between photo still and video. The same could be said for Tokihiro Sato’s work where the process of both taking the photograph and staging and combining the necessary elements becomes a performance and an act, as another use of time through long exposure results in an image that only hints at the process. The performance of the artist as he moves throughout the forest disappears, leaving only the glimmers of reflected lights.
This mystery between resulting image and process is common to most of the work in the exhibition. Seba Kurtis’ work Drowned comes from a series on immigration in the Spanish Canary Islands which blends concept and process, as he literally drowned the negatives stored in a box in the waters that the immigrants crossed and in which many did not survive. The chemical interaction between water and film essentially damages the image, but it is a welcome “mistake.” This erasure of scenes parallels the invisibility of certain social groups like these immigrants, and becomes not merely a photograph (since much of the photograph disappears as it develops) but also a consequence of an action.
It is an expected and historical association that the aim and advantage of photography as a medium is to capture a truthful image, or to provide a replication of an observable reality, even if the reality depicted in the image is a construction staged by the photographer. Kevin van Aelst’s work displays this element of constructed reality in scenes created through the unexpected use of everyday objects and scenes. Objects take on multiple roles, as seen in the two tape measurers extending from the window into the darkness of night, instantly associating the two lines with those that divide road lanes.
Harold Rosenberg wrote in Tradition of the New, “Criticism must begin by recognizing in the painting the assumptions inherent in its mode of creation. Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has to think in a vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction—psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked.”1
Rosenberg was referencing concepts behind action painting and abstract expressionism, crucial movements that occurred in a time when art photography tended towards more documentary ends (although exceptions such as Aaron Siskind come to mind). So how do these ideas apply to the photographs displayed in this exhibition? Action painting turned the focus and the subject of the work from “end result” to the act of painting itself. Much like how a canvas became an arena in which the artist could participate, many of the photographs in this exhibition are the physical evidence of the action which created them. The only difference rests in the tools. In order to appreciate and ultimately experience the work, viewers of any of the photographs in Still Action must, as Rosenberg said, think in a vocabulary of action, keeping in mind the balance between “relaxation of the will” and the process of taking photographs, one that requires a certain amount of planning in terms of choosing shutter speed, aperture, and other settings, for instance.
Rosenberg goes on to say, “The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.”2
The idea of “image as a result” is what ties all of these photographs together. Rosenberg’s description is exactly what makes me excited to paint. It elevates a painting from inanimate object to this living thing with a mind of its own, a creation, not a replication. In this way, paintings often communicate what they need as they are developed. I make a mark with a brush and it informs the next step I take. Sometimes the next step is additive, other times subtractive (much like how Kurtis’ film is “damaged” in water). The work determines when it is complete. There is freshness, a green budding moment when the action, the event of painting has run its course, and the work is where it needs to be. It is not easy to realize this moment. I have only been so lucky a few times, a handful at best, but I’m learning.
When I find myself stuck and unable to make a mark, I look to the painters who painted wholly as an experience, as a moment carried out in a series of moments in life. I read Rosenberg’s description and I am charged to do something to the panel or canvas or paper in front of me, and it mysteriously reveals an image as a result. This is one of the only ways I know how to create. Of course this process is not totally free of influences, and while I work my mind often changes focus, thinking of many things: the music that is playing, and the places, landscapes, scenes in my memory and my imagination. The photography in Still Action is important to me as a painter for this reason, because the encounter between lens and object is also a process that informs itself—the encounter is art just as much as the end results.
A juxtaposition of the goal of photography, to make an image, and the concept of action painting, to emphasize the act of creation over image, creates an interesting tension in this exhibition. As viewers, knowing that there is more to the photograph than what is seen in the image only enhances the experience. While there is an element of planning and foresight involved in many of the processes seen in this show, the resulting images remain unseen by the photographers until they are developed and more attention—and even more importance—is given to the act.
1Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters” from Tradition of the New, originally in Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952, p. 22 .
2Rosenberg, p. 22.
Megan Zalecki is an artist and freelance writer from Radford, Virginia. She is a regular contributor for Richmond Arts Review, an online review publication of local visual and performing arts, and a guest arts writer for Style Weekly. Her paintings and mixed media collages explore the relationship between music, memory, and the natural world. She received her BFA in Painting from Radford University in 2012 and is currently an intern at 1708 Gallery.
ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.
IMAGE CREDITS: Tokihiro Sato, Shirakami #8, 2008; Kevin Cooley, LaGuardia Landing Pattern, Brooklyn, 2008; Seba Curtis, Drowned, 2008; Kevin Van Aelst, And All I Ask is a Tall Ship and a Star to Sail Her By, 2010