The ‘Staking Claim’ exhibition at MOPA showcased 16 Californian photographers varying from artists using more traditional photographic processes, to those utilising the emerging digital medium. It was an extremely varied and dynamic exhibition, displaying an array of talent that shows a promising future in the constant evolution of the art form.
Matthew Brandt’s C-Print photograph ‘American Lake’ was the work that really captured my attention. The chromogenic print measures 46” x46” and at first look it had this vivid, painterly quality in the swirls and streaks that made me swear some sort of painting process had been used. It was the first photograph I saw, and I fell in love with its high intensity colour and unusually abstract, somewhat psychedelic landscape.
The piece was part of Matthew Brandt’s ‘Lakes and Reservoir’s’ photographic series. Brandt photographs American lakes, then soaks the prints within the lake water of that particular place to destroy, interrupt and interact with the photograph to create something entirely new. The longer the photographic C-prints are immersed (a few days to a few months) the more abstract and ephemeral the outcome. Brandt, doesn’t interfere in the process, but desires certain outcomes: ‘there are sediments in some water that can cause a sparkle effect as the c-print starts to break up- it’s magical’ (Dazed Digital, 2011).
There’s a clear repeated parallel horizon line of the trees, and the jetty that divide the piece into sections, separating the foreground, middle-ground and background, and the lake from the sky. This evoked a sense of balance and normality in nature, overran by a chaotic intervention, whether that be perceived as Brandt interfering with the representation of the landscape, the photograph, or even just nature being a wild unpredictable force. On compositing his shots, Brandt speaks about wanting to get the most ‘Calender-esque’ shot possible, enabling him to get the most all-encompassing view in order to best represent the lake or reservoir. The directional forces of the piece are predominantly horizontal, suggesting the endless possibilities of the piece and the inability to encapsulate nature’s vast landscape.
For me, the piece had a real imagined tactile quality to it, evoking a sense of synaesthesia (hearing the swirling water, and the desire to want to touch and further understand the landscape). The ellipse of the untouched, photograph amidst the chaos, acts as a sort of window into that captured pristine moment of clarity. It’s a compositionally familiar piece, in analysis of the formal visual elements- yet, the intervention of the lake water adds an unpredictable, abstract, chaotic element. Much like the force of nature itself.
The photograph for me, brought about a sense of place, and real nostalgia. It played games with my imagination and awoke a curiosity in me to experiment with photography and understand Brandt’s process. Philosopher R.G Collingwood (Barrett, 2013) theorised that art is mental, and that the piece is never really alive, or a work of art until it is recreated in the mind of the viewer. Expressionist theory holds works that evoke emotions in high regard, emphasising a connection between piece and viewer and their own imagination in regards to interpreting a work. Italian philosopher Croce states that the role of the viewer is ‘not merely a receptive one, but collaborative’. Brandt himself becomes a facilitator of nature’s unpredictable powerful expressionism when he allows his work to surrender to the will of the lake waters destructive properties. And in viewing the piece, you yourself become involved in creating the meaning, through all your preconceived notions of nature photography and own life experiences that you can attach to the piece.
Eugenie Tsaid, curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn museum likens Brandt’s work to the Earthworks artists of the 1970s (Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty) ‘who had one foot in the gallery system, the other in nature. That Tinkerer, experimenter, mad scientist impulse’ (Elle Décor, 2013). Brandt’s work is extremely experimental, and portrays in itself, the new wave of photographers using all mediums and outlets to express their photographic vision.
Could Brandt these days be seen as a modern day photographic Jackson Pollock? Could we liken his open invitation of chaos into a somewhat pristine, representational and well revered photography- to the works of the experimental painter and abstract expressionist? Brandt surrenders to nature’s power of emotion in producing these beautifully abstract ‘collaborations’ with a higher force. With this expressionist theory and lens in mind, the piece would probably favour quite highly. The piece, is very emotive, with its gestural, fluid, abstract quality.
‘When things end up being overly controlled you can tell it lacks gesture’.
-Matthew Brandt (American Photo Magazine, 2013)
Visually, Brant’s chaotic, somewhat frenzied representation of a Lake reminded me of Nietzsche’s use of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. In contrast to the past Formalist (Apollonian) tendencies in art that value rationality, reality and order- Brandt’s unconventional photograph brought about ideas of Dionysian excess and collapse of boundaries in its wild representation of the lake. The exhibition itself had such a chaotically beautiful array of styles of work that perfectly captured the essence of the today’s eclectic ‘no boundaries, no limits’ artistic age.
Plato and Aristotle would agree that this doesn’t realistically represent an American lake, it could be seen to misinform and distort by idealising and colourising the view of the lake. However, through viewing the piece, and understanding the process, the viewer comes to better understand this place. Whether that be from a purely visual perspective, or even understanding the process of natural erosion in itself through further inspection of the photographic degradation.
Formalist considerations of form over subject matter beg the question as to whether the true marvel and beauty behind the images would come through without it being described. I loved the photograph initially, but my real, profound interest came when I further understood Brandt’s process. The piece is objective in the sense that it does represent a place, whilst combining the largely non-objective areas of abstraction. In order to enjoy artwork, for the formalists, one needs to have an ‘aesthetic attitude’. The significant form of the piece determines its artistic content and value. In regards to ‘American Lake’, the particular composition of line, mass and colour indeed did make me have an ‘aesthetic emotion’, I was immediately transfixed, regardless of subject matter. The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian said that ‘an artwork is a unique space in which a viewer could contemplate a universal and non-subjective (Platonic) reality in an interesting way’ (Barrett, 2011).
Postmodern Pluralists maintain that whether a piece is technically ‘good’ or not is not important- it’s that a piece is interesting or not. The original photograph, peeking through the chaos in ‘American lake’, would technically and formally be a ‘good’ photograph- held in high regard compositionally and through purity of materials by Modernists. But would I, (someone who’s seen thousands of your average, perfect landscape photographs) have stopped and took notice? Brandt’s new and innovative, unorthodox approach to postmodern art making harnesses the hands on DIY culture of the time to make striking, incredibly interesting work. The element of chance that unpredictable nature provides would probably terrify those Modernists with their high values of their own art and the perfection in the ubiquity of the large scale digital colour prints. Brandt questions the very definition of and preciousness of art in his destruction of work others would deem in itself Gallery-worthy.
‘Although I knew in the back of my mind that these images were to later be degraded, I still sought out the ‘best’ shot I could get by hiking to tops of hills, going into strangers’ balconies, waiting for the sun etc. And to me, I enjoy the perversity in subverting all this photographic labor by later degrading it with the lake water.’ Matthew Brandt. (Dazed Digital, 2011)
Brandt’s interventions with the landscape I perceive as a collaboration with Nature as a creative/destructive force in itself. Working this way is both daring and inventive. Chance is both an appealing and a terrifying concept when you are dealing with work you have put time and effort into creating.
Another artist that works in this way, is Andy Goldsworthy. His earth works/ land art are as ephemeral as the landscape itself, forever changing and in motion. Goldsworthy doesn’t uphold separate values of art that can be seen as apart from ethics, alike Brandt. His ‘Lakes and Reservoirs’ series parallels two ideas of degradation, the ever lowering waterlines of the reservoirs and lakes, and the oncoming obsolescence of the c-print that allows these photographs to be so colorful and vibrant.
Brandt’s work can be appreciated on both a deeper and a purely visual level. While the theory of Instrumentalism emphasizes the importance of art having societal value rather than simply being aesthetically pleasing. Nietzsche adds to the postmodern/ poststructuralist school of thought by valuing aesthetics over politics, stating that the ills of life simply cannot be solved. Having an aesthetic appreciation of life can provide you with meaning and significance.
‘The essence of aesthetic doing and seeing for Nietzsche is willful transfiguration and transformation towards perfection’. -Terry Barrett (2011)
Alike Goldsworthy, Brandt physically involves himself in nature and his own photographic process. This material process of image making reawakens the old Darkroom experimentation of the past and the desire to connect with a physical aspect of your own creation. These days when we constantly disconnect ourselves from the natural world, we find an innate compulsion to engage with it directly and reconnect with basic principles. Brandt aligns himself with a culture obsessed with the past and a return to somehow, more interesting and unpredictable analogue methods.
‘The Very thing that brings my work to life is what will ultimately cause its death’-
-Andy Goldsworthy (Barrett, 2011)
This quote is reminiscent of the idea of the ‘Sublime’, the somewhat small insignificant human in the face of vast and powerful nature. This ties perfectly in with Brandt’s work, as the Lakes he so beautifully photographs are ultimately the ones that erode, distort and destroy his photographs. Alike Goldsworthy, the timescale of his pieces or ‘Earth works’, are completely dependent upon nature’s will. There’s a real beauty in the lack of control Brandt gives himself, aligning his faith in nature as a creative force. In order to faithfully represent the landscape, Brandt needs to fully understand its process, and actually immerse himself in the setting as well the photographs themselves. Interestingly, he was inspired by a popular story that the British Landscape painter J.M.W Turner had himself strapped to the mast of a boat in order to experience the full force of a gale before painting it.
In today’s ‘snap-happy’ generation of obsessive ‘iphoneographers’, life is constantly manipulated and enhanced to the point of losing a grasp on simple appreciation of a moment or mood. Susan Sontag in her book ‘On Photography’ (2001) raises an interesting point:
“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…one can’t possess reality, one can possess an image’.
In the capturing of a moment, likened to trying to pin down a butterfly in ‘Camera Lucida (1982)’, one somehow removes it from the real beauty- which is that moment itself. A photograph is a somewhat detached view on reality-it’s never quite right. Brandt’s way of reconnecting with the land, and re-involving nature is a liberating process- not simply ‘stealing’ a moment, or ‘pinning down a butterfly’, but allowing the room for that particular subject to collaborate and produce a more connected, truthfully beautiful representation.
Paginta, F. (2011, August 12) Matthew Brandt. Dazed Digital. [Retrieved from: http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/11080/1/matthew-brandt%5D
Fredrickson, L (2013, September 27) Matthew Brandt maintains the Physical aspects of photography. American Photo Magazine, 10-13.
Barthes, R (1982) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill & Wang
Sontag, S (2001) On Photography. New York: Picador
Barrett, T. (2011) Why is That Art?: Aesthetics and Criticism of Contemporary Art (2nd ed). New York: Oxford University Press
Lowry, L (2013) Art Show: Matthew Brandt. Elle Décor. [Retrieved from: http://www.elledecor.com/culture/art-show/matthew-brandt-artist#slide-1%5D