This exhibition is about painting and photography, two mediums that have had a problematic coexistence. Painting has always had a fascination with photography, even when it denied its artistic ambitions. Oscar Wilde said that photography could not be art because it couldn’t lie. This dialogue between painting and photography might be some kind of reconciliation for all of those years of tension. The honesty of Cruchet’s photographs and the exuberance of Cullen’s colours might be the core essence of these two forms of art that are now living in peace, face to face as it is here, taking the world for what it might be, for what it might bring them, and for what we, as viewers, may draw from such an adventure.
Looking at Joan Cullen’s work, I recognize colour as the key element to emotion in a world where colour has become suspect for all the energy it brings. Cullen recognizes three major influences in her work: Soutine, Matisse and Klee, three painters for whom colour remained central in the definition of their work. Matisse liberated colour by raising its emotional range, the effects of which can only be experienced by seeing. Black and white photography is void of colour and this might be the salvation of painting for it requires the presence of the viewer, close contact is essential. In this exhibition, colourful paintings and black and white photography are facing one another, each in their limited and intense way.
Water is a very patient element and its presence has always generated a zen attitude in populations who live close to it. For a long time in this country, rivers were our main highways and the ocean a frontier that must have been for the first settlers, close to our notion of outer space. Water is still seen as a somehow initiatic ordeal for anyone concerned with reconnecting to our colonial cultures. The title of the exhibition Crossing the Great Waters, comes from Yi King, a book of military strategies that now enjoys new life as a set of predefined oracles. Dominique Cruchet and Joan Cullen have crossed the great waters many times and that fluid way of circulating is visible not only in their subject matter, but also as an echo of each other’s way of articulating their zen aesthetic strategies.
Joan Cullen talks about doing contemplative work. I am fascinated by the nuance in her work, something that can only be revealed by looking intensely at the variation in colour, the way it flows from one tint to another. Current painting practices still allows this fascination for the viewer and challenge for the artist. Cullen says, “I always hope to make a painting that can be contemplated; that may seem terribly ambitious, but there it is.” We are surrounded by images, but painting goes beyond this commodity. In the best cases it deconstructs the image and leaves us with the essential of what might constitute a vision, a very spiritual notion of contemplation. But to do so, we need to trust our eyes and have blind faith in the artist’s integrity, in his or her quest for truth and revelation.
It has been said that one of the functions of the arts is to save the world. Art will be all that remains once we have left. This is why some artists have made it their mission to record places and moments in time. A whole section of photography has devoted itself to that function, documenting our presence for those who will look at these images as fragments of a past reality, a letter to the future. But for us, these images are a mirror of our times, an attempt to make sense of our surroundings, however widespread they may be. These views of Asia, Europe and America might seem familiar to us, but they will take on a whole new meaning as they move through time and space carrying with them our reality and the faith we had in leaving an exact image of the world around us.
Drawing, whether virtual, implied, or obvious, is an important component of any visual work. In Cullen’s work, it has become a part of the process, of the frame that underlies the colour floating at the surface. The tension between the two seems to create a flow from the abstraction of the line to the indescribable sensuality of colour. Walter Benjamin has an essay in Écrits français where he speaks about the problems of painting today “…because the walls have disappeared…that drawing is more suited to modern life, its overwhelming mobility….” 1
- Walter Benjamin, Écrits français, Paris, Gallimard, 1991
Islands are like little continents, places where you see the world coming to you. Cullen was born on Prince Edward Island and Cruchet has made it one of his homes, but for them it seems more like a refuge than a place they would settle. Water creates that I suppose, the idea that beyond the sea lies another world, another continent. In Cullen’s words “I’ve probably spent most of my life within a short distance of some ocean or body of water…and my paternal ancestors, most that I know of, come from islands.” On a poetic note, you could say that each of us is an island, connected by the ocean of humanity. These works are an homage to the idea that water knows no boundaries and can carry us to exotic and unexpected destinations.
Poetry is an inherent trait that sometimes escapes our distracted minds, but comes to light in the eyes of those who are looking for it. Poetry and photography have always shared a strong link, maybe because of light, this undefinable element which gives it its virtual and enigmatic dimensions. When photography’s artistic potential became apparent, it reclaimed light as its ultimate element, light that creates ambiance which according to critic Roland Barthes, is always the sign of great painting. Poetry is by definition undefinable, but in this exhibition it is inherent or instrumental to the creation of a dual vision rooted in the search and expression of this evanescent dimension.
Every picture tells a story. How many times have we heard that, but in the case of photography this has become an almost automatic response, the one we are most immediately drawn to. We cannot take a picture of nothing. From the many details supplied to our eyes, as in Cruchet’s photographs, we recompose the various worlds offered to us. Those stories then become our stories, playing with our distorted perceptions, projecting an ambiance or reinventing identities. They become our way of generating meaning, reconnecting these images to our views of the world, drifting from detail to detail as is the case here, trying to anchor our eyes to something that would conclude the story.
If there is an obvious link to the various images in this exhibition, it would be their connection to travel as a way of life, as a way to inspire, to surprise, to learn, floating from one place to another with an open mind and trying to bring back fragments, visions, colours or memories. We have all experienced that urge to capture and preserve through drawings or photographs, those wish you were here moments, recognizing the fragility that might break in the transport. For the two artists exhibiting here, these are moments related to their interior space that holds their memories of found objects, architecture, landscapes, and the people one meets when travelling. Their intention has always been to connect those worlds, crafting a vision that makes us aware of this unexpected beauty. Cruchet and Cullen have different notations, but their travel memories are full of that exoticism that so often constitutes the subject of our reverie.
Both Cruchet and Cullen have a fascination for quality art products. Working in oil is from another age since acrylic paint seems to have taken over, as is printing on photographic paper, where now almost every image comes to us through the virtuality of a digital screen. Sennelier is a producer of some of the finest art material in the world, just as Agfa has established an unsurpassed reputation in the field of photography. Working with these products has its drawbacks for they are not always available, but the resulting difference is remarkable. For 500 years, painting relied on pigment in linseed oil, and for more than 150 years, photographs reached us on paper support. “I continue to work with oil in spite of all the problems, irritations,” says Cullen “in part, because it slows down what would otherwise be, as with the work on paper, a faster process.” As for Cruchet, his work is also part of a process that takes time, constrained by a series of darkroom operations dealing with that immaterial notion of light.
Eugène Atget (1857-1927) was a French photographer who was hailed as the father of modern photography according to the plaque on the house where he lived. Atget’s images are those of a poet who looked for beauty in the streets of Paris, visions that he tried to preserve through a patient and archaic process of image making. Dominique Cruchet has a great admiration for that enterprise and for the man who became identified with it. His documentation carries the same directness and the same will to create a record without interfering in the subject matter, the aesthetic indulgence or the darkroom obsession. This is when photography becomes an art of presence, a state of intensity, a very zen openness, an availability to the world so as to produce an exact proof of its existence.
According to American critic Susan Sontag, photography is the most democratic art there is if one considers that almost everybody has held a camera in their hands and has been confronted with the obligation of making even elementary aesthetic choices. In this quest for accessibility, photography has become a banality, an added accessory to an increasing array of digital devices, a photoshopped view of reality. But mysticism lives on, as in the prints in this exhibition, in the secular process of writing with light that gave its name to photography. For anyone who, in a darkroom, has seen the black and whites of an image invading a sheet of paper, there is an unforgettable magic that restores our faith in the idea that photography was once a most reliable way of creating an image.
We are so used to reading text at the bottom of a photograph that we forget to look for whatever else might be found in it. Left on our own, abandoned in front of the image, our eyes start to wander, looking for clues other than the literary reduction, that shrinking that we are used to when reading a newspaper, or any publication using photographs. In this exhibition, the captions have been reduced to identifying the place where the pictures have been taken. This is where the adventure begins. From then on we try to recapture what we know of these places, trying to reconstruct a world of our own, using the image as a generator. Every work of art carries an enigma to which we need to respond, otherwise the whole communication process collapses. Here, we are confronted with an invitation to travel, to craft a vision of those worlds from just a word, a name, a place.
Someone once said to me, “Sometimes I see and then photograph, and sometimes I photograph and then see.” Cruchet told me that he always sees things to be photographed, things that later cease to exist but continue to live in his images where they are forever fixed and preserved. He talks about this little makeshift theatre on Rustico Island that has since disappeared, but lives on in his memory and that we can now see in this exhibition.