27 November 2008

On the Edge of Clear Meaning

Doublet [Self-Portrait], 1974. Photo-collage © John Wood.

David Levi-Strauss has an essay in the Winter '08 Aperture which takes its title ~ "On the Edge of Clear Meaning" ~ from a large-scale retrospective on John Wood (1922-). The exhibition is local, although I've not yet seen it. The Aperture essay is a version of the introductory text that Levi Strauss contributes to the exhibition catalogue. The retrospective is hosted by the Visual Studies Workshop, the Memorial Art Gallery and George Eastman House with each venue housing works in distinct media.* It is scheduled to travel extensively after it closes here in January.

Levi Strauss insists that in formal, artistic terms the innovative aspect of Wood's use of photography actually consisted in a too often unrecognized or suppressed continuity.
"In Wood's work, the photograph often represents the given thing, what is received from the world. The work then is to put that given and received thing into play, to activate it conceptually, aesthetically, and kinesthetically. For Wood that means transforming it haptically, through the hand. is drawing and collaging and intricate manipulations of images are a way of understanding and informing photographs. In the conflicted history of 'art photography,' this has been considered in some quarters at some times, a heresy. But it is a heresy that preceded the orthodoxy, and will certainly outlive it. The 'pure' photograph was a temporary, though powerful, fiction. Photography was born out of a desire to write and draw differently, to write or draw with light, and was always integrate with other arts."
I have to say that I find this observation extremely congenial because I find the aversion to text and altering images among lots and lots of photographers wholly mystifying. I think those aversions are debilitating in terms of the uses to which we might put photography. And now, assuming the account Levi Strauss sketches is plausible, they hardly can be justified in terms of adherence to some supposed tradition.

Martin Luther King, Wellesville, New York, 1969.
Photograph © John Wood.

Levi Strauss insists on the politics that informs Wood's work throughout. He notes too that the politics is radically democratic both in the sense of eschewing didacticism and in posing questions of accountability and complicity.
"Wood has always been careful to leave some leeway for viewers to find meaning in his work, thus implicating us in its making. He also implicates us, as citizens, in the problems he addresses. It is not enough to point a finger at politicians or corporations, or the army, he insists: in a putative democracy, we are all responsible for what happens."

Eagle Pelt, 1985. Photograph © John Wood.

This is so even when, as in this image, what has happened seems especially dire.


Nathan Lyons Left to Right and Right to left, 1974.
Photograph © John Wood.

Wood has geographical links to the Rochester area, having spent a portion of his youth here and having taught for three-plus decades at Alfred University, which is south of town. However, intellectual and creative genealogy is important in all this as well ~ the retrospective is curated by Nathan Lyons who was both a student of Wood and a teacher of Levi Strauss.
* "Eastman House’s portion, “Quiet Protest,” contains work dealing with social and ecological issues. VSW will exhibit Wood’s serial investigations including selected book works, collages, and montages as well as his sand and rock drawings. MAG will present selected works on paper, including watercolors, blue prints, cyanotypes, wax drawings, mixed media, and some 'whirligigs.'"

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