The Precious Trace – photography floor talk
The Precious Trace Gallery Talk MARCH 1 2014
First of all I’d like to thank Eddie, the soul of generosity and a marvellous member of this community, and I’d like to sing the praises of Julia, the curator here. Artists in this region owe her so much, she is hard working, thoughtful, generous, inventive and a scrupulously ethical gallery director and curator. This is her first show at Matilda St. and I am so glad you are here to see her own creative practice.
She has massive experience as a photographer, having taken the portraits of TV stars for TV Week many moons back. Then she undertook a portfolio of studies of men, mostly posed theatrically. This photograph of TV personality Andre Denton is based on Diane Arbus’s ‘Boy with a toy hand-grenade’, Central Park 1962. It sold for over $400,000 in the nineties and I was going to say pick up a bargain here, but it’s NFS. I disagree with the caption which says the boy pulled a face suitable for her, In the contact sheets, he was a normal kid smiling, but she was ducking and weaving around him taking these photos and he got frustrated. Arbus chose the one shot which makes him look developmentally troubled. Julia would never do that to a subject. This one shows a homeless man in Martin Place playing air guitar with thongs on his feet, he looks out at the camera with a slight shy smile. Julia paid him for this and when a man’s mag rang asking to use it, she asked what for? When they said ‘Loser of the week’ she told them to go and get . . .
Now I want to take you from Sydney to Lake Como in northern Italy, a most beautiful spot, the ice capped Alps shimmer on the water, beautiful gardens grace the banks. In the honeymoon suite of the Grand Hotel, Tremezzo with panoramic views of the water my parents are making love, I am being conceived. Directly opposite, just south of where Pliny the Younger’s villa stood (and slightly earlier) Henry Fox Talbot is sketching. He is using a camera lucida to capture the beauty of the lake; it is the autumn of 1833.
I got the title of this show from this pioneer of photography who wrote in Bellagio that he “found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.” He was determined to invent a permanent trace. Being surrounded by photographs, thousands of them every day, we forget how amazing the photographic image is. While Fox Talbot was experimenting with chemicals, Turner was developing his watercolour paintings culminated in the early 1840s with a series of transcendent (an overused term) views of Mount Rigi near Lucerne painted at different times of day. Fifty years later, Monet began painting Haystacks again and again under different conditions, and a few years later, the façade of Rouen Cathedral. You need patience for series. Frustrated by the weather in Rouen, Monet wrote to his wife: “the essential thing is to avoid the urge to do it all too quickly, try, try again, and get it right.” He sounds like Cezanne except for the very last phrase.
As a photographer I am hostage to the light, but when conditions are good, the work is easy. This series of mine ‘Eos’ is a series of 5 works each with 5 images, with the time and a small poem, were all taken during one Valla dawn. This is not about street photography’s ‘the decisive moment’, there is none in nature. The sequence emphasises art as a process of discovery, of recording yes, but discovering that the recording is impulsive and inadequate. Sequences offer a sense of the dynamics of sun, moon, tides, of the energy of Gaia, of the moods of the weather and the light.
Eos, goddess of dawn, would be my favourite god if I was a believer. Eos paints the sky with delicate tints and hints of light preparing for her brother Helios to ride his flaming chariot across the sky. This period encourages a relaxed state of wakefulness, receptive and open. The world becomes distinct when we slow attention down.
The traces on these walls depict all kinds of events and narratives and exhibits images within and beyond the traditional frame. Such diversity reminds us that how we look at art is a complex process and itself repays attention.
So just why are Eddie and Julia so important to this community? Because art is important. Why is art important? No one really knows, evolutionary psychologists and philosophers hypothesise and every culture has art – even if traditional ones don’t have such a term, but we know art is important because people argue over, pay a fortune for, love and hate it.
Take this photograph of mine, ‘Looking at Art, Cy Twombly, Bacchus series, 2005, Tate Modern’
Most of you will know Tombly from his ‘Three studies of the Temeraire’ in the NSW Art Gallery, one of their most important acquisitions of the past 50 years. They look like huge sketches of Celtic boats to me, ones you see in Dublin Museum – nothing like Turner’s oil painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’, 1838. A rich picture had a rich pathos then for it had fought at Trafalgar and hs pathos now for the early sign of modernity (perhaps one reason it was voted the “greatest painting in Britain” in a 2005 poll by the National Gallery and the BBC).
What interests me in the series, ‘Looking at Art’ of which two are on show, is how viewers view and what art means to them. You hear comments on modern art that go back a century, ‘why a child could do that!’ New Year’s Eve 1978 found Roland Barthes, inspired by some Twombly drawings, taking pen to paper but finding it incredibly difficult to draw ‘a line that isn’t stupid’.
A blogger complains of these Temeraire studies, “They literally consist of nothing more impressive than enormous white canvases covered from head to foot in loops of red paint. Some of the loops have dribbled down the canvas . . . Twombly was probably too lazy to let the work dry properly, and returning to find that the colours had run, sat down in a heap on the floor and tried to dream up some pseudo-philosophical justification for his negligence.” (Harrywaight’s Blog, Oct 2010).
In 2007, the artist Sam Rindy kissed a Twombly painting because she says she was, “overcome with passion. . . I stepped back. I found the painting even more beautiful. . . . This red stain is testimony to this moment, to the power of art.” She was charged with criminal damage for leaving her lipstick trace. a precious trace. I have kept a lookout but haven’t seen anyone kiss any image here yet.
So please take a good luck at the large variety of images on the walls, framed variously. How does their presentation affect their reception? How much attention is each image worth to you? Above all, please enjoy the show and feel, both positive and negative energy.