Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Secret Life of Art: Piotr Nathan's How Far Do You Dare To Go

There is that portion of a life which is presented to the world and seen, and that other portion, the secret life, which is cloaked, known only to whose life it is and perhaps a select group.  What constitutes this secret life can run from the mundane to the extreme, but everybody has one. 

If you haven't been to the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC to see Piotr Nathan's How Far Do You Dare To Go, go while there's still time before the show closes on December 4th.  Not only is the Belkin one of Vancouver's best designed spaces in which to see art, but it now offers the first Canadian exhibition of an artist well known in Europe and the United States.  Covering the past ten years, the work is rich, and varied, and fascinating, with imagery that runs from natural history to homosexual sadomasochism.  The Secret Life and The Crystal Metaphor are the links of this diversity.

The Garment of a Fleeting Notion is a small vitrine inside of which a large glop of brilliant red oil paint rests atop a copy of the illustration of an iceberg which Nathan used for his series of five paintings Notes on the Future Becoming the Past.  The paint is like a little iceberg of its own, amplifying the notion that what is seen on the surface of ocean or painting is only a fraction of what lies below.  Ninety percent of an iceberg is below the water's surface, submerged below sight and consciousness.  This is the hidden mystery of the iceberg, the iceberg's secret life.  The iceberg is a perfect metaphor for art.  The portion of art which is seen is analogous to what's above, its metaphor, the vastness of its meaning  is what is unseen below.  It's this below, in the secret communication that each person shares with a piece of art beyond the intention, desire, and control of the artist that constitutes the secret life of art.        

An iceberg is a crystallized form.  One which turns water from a common element into something imposing and magnificent.  This is one of the main themes of the Crystal Metaphor - the transmutation of base matter - like water, or paint.  Rituals of Disappearance is an allegorical representation of the four elements transformed from the ordinary to the sublime:  earth to dust storm, air to Northern Lights, water to waterspout, fire to volcanic eruption.  Taken from wood engravings from a nineteenth century work on natural history, Nathan has enlarged and traced them directly onto square aluminum panels.  As presented, the picture has been crystalized into regular units and shattered into a grid.  The indication is that the quality of the experience - of the pictures' former meaning and the experiences represented - has been transformed.  

In the lush and colorful painting Margarethe's Treasure Chest two caves lie side by side.  They meet in a common interior filled with crystals and geodes of all type and color.  On the right is the Blue Grotto of Capri, on the left the Scottish Fingal's Cave formed of columns of basalt.  A pair of small figures appear in each.  They're looking at the caves, but outwards towards sky and light, missing the real treasure which lies unseen in the chamber behind them in which we imaginatively stand.  With the high domed ceiling and dual sockets there's an unmistakable impression of being on the inside of a skull, standing amongst the riches of the mind, looking out.  The figures are turned away from this - another example of the secret life - seeing only surfaces.

First published in The Vancouver Courier

The Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1968 - 1993

Even if you don't already know the photography of Stephen Shore, entering Presentation House gives the uncanny feeling of familiarity. It looks like Shore looks like everyone else.  The fact is, he got there first, and The Biographical Landscape:  The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1968 - 1993 shows many of the still dominant trends in contemporary photography that Shore helped to define, including the reflection of some of Vancouver's best known photographers.  Why "biographical"?  

The answer begins in American Surfaces.  In the early 1970s Shore headed West from New York to Amarillo, Texas.  Using a 35 mm camera, color film, and a snapshot aesthetic he produced a photographic diary of the adventure.  The pictures are autobiographic.  Like a photo album they tell a story, the story of his first trip across country.  They also develop a subject matter and pattern of working that he would refine and enlarge upon in Uncommon Places, Shore's essential series on the American vernacular landscape and the focus of the exhibition.

From 1973 to 1982 Shore crisscrossed the United States and Canada taking color photographs of everyday scenes.  For reasons not explained, he switched from the ease and portability of a 35 mm camera to large format cameras - the kind with accordion bodies - that require a tripod. Because of their size and the nature of their operation, use of large format cameras contributes to clarity of image at the same time they preclude the possibility of spontaneous picture taking.  What Shore lost in the snapshot aesthetic, he gained in crisp detail and forthrightness of composition.  Like American Surfaces, Uncommon Places is a record of what Shore encountered - the places he saw, the people he met, the motel beds he slept in, the meals he ate.  But it's more than that.  They're how Americans see themselves as Americans.  More still - they're how they fondly remember themselves because for many it's a vision of America that's never been known firsthand, known in no other way, but photographs or stories.  Looking at the photographs we realize they're iconic images.  This is the moment when the landscape becomes "biographical" in a way more significant than photography's ordinary subjectivity because the feeling isn't "this is my experience of the landscape", but "this is my landscape".  The feeling of ownership is concrete.  What starts as autobiography becomes biography at the moment I recognize the images as mine.  It's no longer Shore's story he's telling, it's my story, and your story, and the story of everyone for whom the photographs become "mine".  When a thing is owned so personally by so many it becomes iconic.      

How does Shore make me claim his landscape for my own?  First, through a combination of subject, classicism of composition, and quality of light the pictures induce an experience of solitude which makes the moment of their taking seem quiet and unshared.  Next, looking at any photograph you imaginatively replace the photographer.  When there's no person in the photograph as in many of Shore's, you become the only one present when the photograph was taken.  With that realization you own that moment held by the photograph and whatever is represented in it in a very particular, and I'd say particularly American way.  Americans own differently than other people.  It has to do with a form of proprietariness based on a distinct feeling of ownership of private property.  Absent of anyone else the landscape and everything in it becomes ours in a way that makes it proper to say that it was Stephen Shore's landscape, just as it becomes ours in our moment of viewing.  We are inclined to say along with Ralph Waldo Emerson that, There is no history, only biography.

First published in The Vancouver Courier