Sunday, April 20, 2008

L'Imagerie, and what I saw there.

When I first walked into this gallery, with its cool, white intersecting rooms flowing into one another, all devoted to photography, I felt almost beside myself, a kid in a sweetshop. I had to make myself calm down and take the time to look properly. Inhabitants of bigger towns and cities where art and culture is on tap may not easily understand this. I know photography and visuals are everywhere, and the internet is a rich and wonderful resource, but a large part of going to museums and galleries is the experience of being in that space, surrounded by the objects shown; I'm sure I could enjoy being in a museum dedicated to a subject I had no interest in whatever if it was a well-designed, beguiling environment.

The second exhibition here, for example, on the work of Thierry Le Saëc, which consisted of blocks of deep, subtle colour juxtaposed with very simple, minimal pictures of sky, or other abstract images and text etched onto reflective surfaces. It was luminous and serene, I found myself breathing deeply and calmly as I moved around it. Yet the accompanying book looked flat, pointless, rather pretentious.

The main exhibition was to mark the twentieth anniversary of Editions Filigranes , who I'd never heard of before, but who are, it appears, a local and well-renowned photographic publisher. The entire catalogue of books were displayed round the walls, along with a selection of the photographers' work, and you could browse many of the books in a small library corner, which I enjoyed. Something that struck me, completely not au courant as I am with any matters of contemporary art, was that while the photographers whose work I've become familiar with on the internet, mostly amateur but not exclusively, seem to seek to obtain higher and higher levels of finish, sharper definition, more contrasting contrast, bolder shapes and forms, while the trend in much of this art photography seemed to be the other way: indistinctness, seemingly haphazard focus, low contrast, a sense of obscurity and occlusion. Sometimes it worked (for me, subjectivity is obvious), the effect was subtle, nuanced, compelling in its uncertainty. Sometimes it just looked like not very good photography.

What did work for me though, was a new work being showcased, the first from Joséphine Michel, entitled, perhaps a little unfortunately for English speakers, Lude. In fact the title is a pun on postlude, which is also the title of a poem by E.E. Cummings, which is quoted in full at the end of the book. Joséphine seems amazingly and enviably young, born in 1981, the year I went to university. She graduated in philosophy from the Sorbonne, then went on to study photography at Arles. I should imagine she might be one to watch. The work consists of a book with a DVD, the exhibition contained a number of blow-ups from it and a projection of the DVD onto one of the gallery's walls. The film is a series of stills, abstracts and everyday objects, with strong emphasis on texture, which overlay and supercede one another gradually; some start as and some become double exposures, others disappear into darkness and obscurity or dissolve into light. A thicket of pampas grass is illuminated by a set of rectilinear ceiling lights; a lorry crossing a concrete bridge appears to go up in smoke, which is then shown to be a stain on a whitewashed brick wall; a gorgeous flash of translucent carmine pink lingers tantalisingly after the neutral tones of the forms around it have faded.

I often find it difficult to look with interest at too many photographs of people, find them tiring, troubling, repulsive even. Doubtless my problem. Here, though, the human forms were at once remote and very moving, numinous, blurred or partial, filled with mystery and beauty, often seen in reflection or through slatted blinds or frosted glass, like the one in the clear, lovely orange of a Buddhist monk's robe (though probably it was just a woman's orange t-shirt...), standing beneath a nimbus of blue, the image then slowly dispersing into pure white. A sleeping woman's profile is illuminated, transfigured, by a ray of sun through the window of the plane she is travelling in, she is sleeping in light.

The whole is accompanied by a soundtrack by Julien Civange which is just music, beginning with faint rustlings, clicks and crackles, moving into plangent drawn out notes before fading away again.

I promised myself a book from the visit, and was torn between this one and one of black and white coastal landscapes. I'm glad I chose this one. I find I'm wanting to watch the DVD again and again, sitting back on the sofa, with a dog and a cup of something; watching on the TV screen is a different way to take in sound and vision again from the more intense head to head with the computer screen. We are really so lucky, to have so many interesting possibilities open to us.

The photos in the book are a good selection,( you can look inside the book here and see some of the pictures). The text, by the photographer Julien Claass, in parallel French with an English translation, is quite difficult in either language, seeming to be rather turgid and precious as that kind of writing in French often does to Anglo-Saxon perceptions. But as well as the E.E.Cummings there is this pleasing quote from Emerson: ' We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.'

The visit has left me both inspired and enriched but slightly confused, as any opening up of possibilities does. It reminded me once more how photography is all about light, and the dizzying and sometimes frightening omnipresence of beauty, if we only know how to see it. I long for the kind of vision that blurs and transfigures thigs so that office workers behind a frosted glass screen appear as translated, near-angelic beings, and the talent to be able to communicate that vision to others. The paradox is as conveyed in the Cummings poem:

'Here less than nothing's more than everything.'

L'Imagerie is free entry, open most afternoons and all day in summer. Well worth a visit if you're in that neck of the woods.

Postscript: By an interesting coincidence, the link to the EE Cummings poem 'Life is more true than reason can deceive' is to a recent post at Loren's blog, In a Dark Time'. I'd been unable to find a good link directly to the poem before, then while passing the time this morning at via negativa, I noticed the first line in his favourite blogs feed reader, which led me to Loren's! Loren has been reading and commenting on Cummings in several recent posts, but while I knew of his blog, I had never visited before. I'm very glad I did, as it is clearly a very good one, so I'll be going back.


Mike said...

Sometimes I find exhibits of almost any kind overwhelming. Even concerts that go on forever leave me feeling drained. I always love exhibits that showcase only certain aspects of someone's work.

Zhoen said...

I never liked Diego Rivera until I saw a retrospective of his work at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Seeing the whole journey, in person, was overwhelming, immersive. But now, his work makes emotional sense to me.

On the other hand, a retrospective of El Greco had the opposite effect, I can't stand him, nor Colorists of any type ever since.

Granny J said...

I fear that I am a total cabbage when confronted by the world of art photography. I revert to my journalistic antecedents and always want to know "what is the story" hidden in that confusion.

robinstarfish said...

"I long for the kind of vision that blurs and transfigures things so that office workers behind a frosted glass screen appear as translated, near-angelic beings, and the talent to be able to communicate that vision to others."

That's as fine a description of the art of photography as I've read, Lucy. And it's what I see in your work, as well.

Lucy said...

Thank you for thoughtful comments.

Exhibitions are very tiring, even this relatively small one with fairly limited scope left me feeling quite sated and tired, so i was glad I'd been able to bring something away I could go back over in a different way. I remember as a child first going to the National Gallery in London with my sister and feeling quite sick and horrified and oppressed, by a lot of the subjects, crucifixions and martyrdoms, grisly myths, but also by the richness of the colours and the welter of images, all too much.

I guess you have to be ready for or disposed to get something out of what you see, which often means preparation using books and reproductions. Even concluding you can't stand something is an outcome!

But perhaps sometimes less is more, which is where small or local galleries and museums,or those devoted to a restricted subject, can score. My favourite in Athens was the Cycladic museum, which is beautifully presented and just Cycladic art, whereas the big National museum was just overload.

One of the most memorable exhibitions I remember seeing as a young person was a single horse from the front of St Mark's in Venice which was brought to London and displayed alone in a large room of the British Museum, with viewing scaffolds so you could get closer to it.

GJ - I don't know, you've done some thoughtful abstracts, without obvious stories... I'm not sure I've really got what it takes to contemplate producing photography as straight art, without justifying it as illustration. I know now I'm much more able to see photography everywhere, in adverts, cinematography in films, tv, documentaries etc, much more for itself, separate from it's immediate purpose and the story it's telling. Probably if I'd seen this expo a couple of years ago I wouldn't have been ready for it, wouldn't have seen the point.

Robin - Thanks, yours too! It's important to work with what's to hand, and not just to seek out what's obviously beautiful. That's a truism I know. Also I guess one mustn't always reject the obviously beautiful either!

I've written nearly as much here as in the main post!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post again, Lucy. Large art museums overwhelm me with too much to see and assimilate. I particularly remember the Uffici in Florence, and how grateful we were to the friend of a friend who took us under his wings as a very knowledgeable guide. He knew the place intimately and took us past long lineups directly to the best works in each room. No sifting through hundreds, eyes glazed, to find the masterpieces, and no extreme exhaustion, only exhilaration and a sense of awe.

I know Loren's blog, HE takes great bird photos too!

Jean said...

I enjoyed this so much, Lucy. A real sharing both of what you saw and of your response. What you say about the fashion in art photography for the - both deliberately and accidentally - out of focus is something I had also noticed; my reaction to this, like yours, is sometimes positive and sometimes not at all. I also feel similarly about large and small exhibitions and galleries (and the Cycladic Museum is my favourite thing in Athens too). So glad you found Loren's blog. I'm thinking a lot lately, and trying to write, about being slow and mindful and 'really here'. For all my years of meditation practice, if I ever get anywhere close to your gentle, deep, patient looking I'll have got a long way and be very happy.

Lucy said...

ML and Jean - aw shucks! Thank you very much!

MB said...

Interesting! Thank you.