Between a Here, a There and an Elsewhere

 

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The Archivist

On a rainswept day in early Spring 2002 I trudged across the splendour of London's Highbury Fields to meet an artist at the Florence Trust Studios, an ancient former church on a rather exclusive Islington street.  Prior to my arrival at the Studios, I had never seen any of Simon Parish's extraordinary paintings, but their jewel-like qualities picked out against the powerful ecclesiastical architecture soon became the most compelling reason to prolong my visit to the draughty old church.  What was so fascinating about these large format paintings of tropical petrol stations, Vietnamese airport check-in desks or unregarded road junctions was their immediacy and almost 'accidental' quality, and their ability to evoke the feel of the tropics and the displacement of travel.

Beyond the obvious context of travel and the built environment, the 'unforeseen' or the 'surprise' is perhaps the only other unifying theme in a body of work which, unusually for contemporary figurative painting, seems to share a kinship in approach, choice and treatment of motifs much more with photography than with the work of other figurative painters.

Indeed, in thinking about Simon Parish's new exhibition Between a Here, a There and an Elsewhere, and how to locate his quiet and contemplative painting against the cacophony of different approaches to representation in contemporary visual culture, I found far more obvious references in photography than in painting.  In particular I was drawn to a fascinating exhibition entitled Evidence Revisited by American photographers Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, which launched at the Photographers' Gallery in London's West End in October 2005.

In 1977 Sultan and Mandel were awarded the then substantial amount of $7,500 by the United States' National Endowment for the Arts to develop a project originally entitled Evidence, intended, as they put it, to be 'a poetic exploration on the restructuring of imagery'.  At the time, the development of photography as a medium with any place at all, let alone the primacy, which it currently enjoys within contemporary art, was in its infancy.  Susan Sontag's On Photography or Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and their meandering treatises on the place of photography in modern visual culture, the role of authorship and their direct challenges to the importance of authenticity - and its implications for traditional art historical connoisseurship - were yet to become the 'sacred' texts of visual theory which they became in University art history departments in the 1980s and 90s.  It is therefore perhaps difficult to imagine the furore which surrounded the first public exhibitions of Evidence in the late 1970s.

Evidence is a series of documentary photographs Sultan and Mandel were invited to inspect in, and collect from, the archives of over 100 different US government agencies, educational institutions and corporations such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the San Jose Police Department and the United States Department of the Interior.  The resulting exhibition comprises 59 documentary and clearly 'industrial' images carefully distilled from an initial sample of several hundred.  For me, the most enigmatic and infuriating, but equally fascinating aspect of Evidence Revisited is that we, that audience, are never told the criteria for the artists' selections, nor the provenance of individual images.  We will never know whether the images were chosen because they were aesthetically pleasing - one, in particular, recalls the minimal beauty of Walter de Maria's New Mexico 'Lightening Field' - or whether they were chosen for their stylistic affinities with each other; or, whether in some cases, because they were just plain weird - like the apparent attempt to pin a young woman to a piece of standing 8' x 4' ply board.  Neither do we know for what purposes the images were originally intended.

Whatever the reasons for the artists' final selection Evidence Revisited, even in the theoretically savvy contemporary art world, doesn't necessarily sit comfortably in the in the art gallery: the anonymity of the images, although this is one of the stated aims of the project, is almost overpowering.

Whilst the norms of contemporary art production increasingly allow the cutting, cropping and reframing the creativity of others in the creation of 'new' work, Sultan and Mandel have done little in terms of reinterpretation other than select the images, make combinations of images and frame them.  They rightfully claim ownership of the project; the individual images by contrast remain anonymous.

Strangely, it was the way that the work was presented and its presence in the politically charged environment of the art gallery that triggered a controversy that cut to the heart of the debate about what 'museum' photography was, should be or would become when Evidence embarked on a tour to American galleries in 1978.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the backbone of opposition to the project came not from the 1970's equivalent of the tabloid press, but from within the museum system itself.  When the exhibition arrived at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University Davis Pratt, head curator, objected to the manner in which the 59 works in the exhibition were framed.  Far from being anonymous, Pratt felt, this treatment of industrial photography elevated it to the level of art, and this 'clearly artificial' treatment of the subject matter should have no place in the art gallery except specifically as an exhibition of documentary photography.1

How contemporary art has matured in the nearly thirty years since Evidence was first conceived.  Sultan and Mandel's challenge to the cosy and insular photography world of late 1970's, their emphasis on detachment and stripping out all sense of authorship was not far short of revolutionary.  Combine this with the innate power associated with disrupting the original context of the documentary photograph and we are perhaps observing, on one hand the beginnings of the dynamic which has propelled photography to its current unprecedented level of importance within contemporary art, and on the other the development of the 'urban industrial' aesthetic within which Simon Parish's work sits so comfortably.

Today neither the general nor the specialist audience for contemporary art is surprised by the presence of photography in the gallery and seldom do we hear the question 'but is it art?' levelled at photography.  Neither do audiences seem particularly excised by 'industrial' or urban subject matter, the question of authenticity or for that matter the artists' use of the tools of cut and paste, repetition or the manipulation of scale.

Perhaps too, there is a greater acceptance and understanding of the camera's ability to create its own truth but clearly we have reached a point in the development of photography as a 'museum art' where it possibly more than any other form of contemporary practice provides a window on society's preoccupations and obsessions.

Rarely is the photographic image more alluring than Andrea's Gursky's vast 'freeze frame' images of a  Montparnasse apartment block or the Hong Kong stock exchange (both 1994).  Seldom either, do we experience water towers or gasometers as objects of angular sculptural beauty, except as a result of the mechanisms of repetition employed by Bernd and Hilla Becher.  Where, other than in photography, can we experience the alienating ghostliness of contemporary architecture more keenly than in Candida Höfer's luscious museum interiors which are offered up entirely devoid of human presence?

As photography combines with the other plastic arts, there is also a self-reflexive irony in the work of artists such as Thomas Demand, Oliver Boberg, John Timberlake and James Casabere.  These artists and their experiments with self-consciously 'artificial' environments created in paint, sculpture and 3D modeling - the results exhibited as photographs - seem to acknowledge the artificiality of their medium, the fleeting and abstract nature of so much human experience, and to be asking us to engage with their reality in a way which is almost tongue-in-cheek.

Although the work of a painter rather than a photographer, the paintings included in Between a Here, a There and an Elsewhere, owe a great debt to the pioneering work of photographers such as Sultan and Mandel, or Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky and their engagement with contemporary experience.  Scale, a clear artificiality, alienation, awkwardness and surprise (in the case of his portraiture - recalling Phillip Lorca de Corcia's  'surprise' portraits of unwitting passers by on New York City streets), are the definitive thumbprints of Simon Parish's paintings.

Rather than producing just another body of large format photographic work, however, Parish has taken the process of image manipulation one step further by returning the photographic image to paint, to the realm of authenticity and to highly crafted technical expertise.  As a painter, he can acknowledge multiple influences on his work including those of modern abstract painters such as Bridget Riley, Agnes Martin, Sean Scully and Robert Ryman, and whilst Parish is very far from an abstract painter, abstraction is ever present in his paintings, a palimpsest we see repeatedly, providing rhythm and structure in the most overlooked situations.

It is in abstraction also that we can see echoes of the work of another painter, one who until now has been absent from this assessment of Parish's work, and one who is perhaps Parish's most obvious progenitor: Gerhardt Richter.  Like Richter, Parish is concerned with 'an interrogation of reality as imitation, as it is mediated by photography and a particular notion of verisimilitude to appearance'.2  Speaking of his own work, Richter has said 'if we describe an event or give an account or photograph a tree we are creating models without which we would be animals.  Abstract paintings are fictive models because they show a reality we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can surmise.  Accustomed to recognizing something real in pictures, we rightfully refuse to recognise only colour in all its variety as the represented and allow ourselves to see the ungraspable, that which was never seen before and is not visible.  This is not artful play, but a necessity, because everything unknown frightens us and makes us hopeful at the same time.  Of course figurative painting has that transcendental character too.  The less 'function' representation has, the more forcefully it shows the mystery because every object as part of an incomprehensible world embodies this'.3

Echoing this sentiment, Parish's paintings, which some might consider photorealist, are only so from a distance.  Closer inspection reveals a conscious use of the tools of abstraction to drain overburdened meaning from the painted image and to emphasize the fleeting, the artificial and the momentary, creating an image which is an interpretation of lived experience not a photographic representation of an event.  As Susan Sontag has observed, 'A painting, even one that meets photographic standards of representation, is never more than the stating of an interpretation, a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects) - a material vestige of its subject in a way no painting can be'.4  For Simon Parish, as for Gerhardt Richter - although both are painters, photography is the binding creed that unites diverse portfolios and subject matter.

In Parish's case, it is his extensive and growing archive of travel photos to which he is repeatedly drawn in his search for motifs.  As he puts it: 'For me, being untrained as a photographer, my travel photos have a 'raw' quality to them, the camera allows me to capture an element of the unforeseen and the painting process allows me to dig deeper into the possibilities inherent in each image.  I aim to get closer to the feeling that the world can sometimes appear as a readymade image and hence unreal at the same time as being real, abstraction and realism existing at the same time.  This seems to relate to the essentially abstract nature of painting, and to the realism and truth associated with photography'.

There is an enormous element of chance in this working method and Parish is 'camera ready' at almost all times.  Yet, although he photographs obsessively and his photography is always preparatory to painting, very few of the chance encounters he photographs make it into the painting process.  In his opinion painting can 'enliven' only a very few photographs, most are best left as photographs.

All of the photographs that do make it into the painting process are taken when either the artist or his subject, is in a state of flux, resulting in photographs that repeatedly surprise and open up the image to the layering process of painting.  A hairstyle, a jacket, a pair of sunglasses, a building glimpsed from a moving vehicle, all can become the motivating factors in choosing an image and making a painting.

Where Parish's painting and much of the photography I have discussed diverges from Sultan and Mandel's Evidence project and gets closer to Richter's painting, is in the ability to instill a work with mood and feeling.  The powerful sense of loneliness, emptiness and alienation is unmistakable for example in Candida Hofer's museum interiors and is equally present in Simon Parish's paintings of derelict buildings.  In both bodies of work there is a powerful suggestion of faded dynamism and human absence etched in the architecture portrayed.

In the final analysis, Simon Parish may have bridged the gap between the anonymous and the broodingly personal by instilling the photographic image with his own emotions, even though uncertainty as to what these emotions might be is central to his working process.

Like Sultan and Mandel he is an archivist constantly revisiting a vast archive of source material and reinterpreting contemporary reality by cropping, cutting, pasting and blurring, and by  conscious use of the 'accidental'.  The image bank, as it is for Gerhardt Richter, or for photographers Peter Josef Abels and Hans Peter Feldman is the central plank of Parish's modus operandi.  Whereas in Abels' vast and growing archival work Die Mappen (the Files), Hans Peter Feldman's Museum Installations or Richter's Atlas project, the artist's engagement with the gallery involves the exhibition of almost an entire archive of photographs, notes and composite working drawings, Parish's work to date has been restricted to minuscule samples of his personal archive.  A true archivist, he is concerned with revisiting and reinterpreting memory, experience and history.

Without the pioneering work of photographers to draw on it is likely that Simon Parish's paintings might look decidedly out of place in the gallery, but given contemporary art's appetite for industrial, urban and architectural kitsch and contemporary society's culture of immediacy, it sits very comfortably and has a valuable contribution to make to the ongoing debates around contemporary visual culture.

© Matthew Shaul

Footnotes:
1 Pratt, Davis, quoted in Phillips, Sandra. S, 'A History of the Evidence', in Sultan and Mandel, Evidence, DAP, New York, 2003
2 Rose, Bernice, Allegories of Modernism: Contemporary Drawing, MoMA, New York, 1992 p44
3 Richter, Gerhardt quoted in Rose, Bernice, ibid
4 Sontag, Susan, On Photography, New York, 1977 p154