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Lyrical Austerity

The Haptic Imagery of Jeffrey Atherton —

Of all our senses, vision is the most potent at convincing us that we live in a stable world composed of solid entities existing separate and apart from each other, permanent, defined and continuous in time. Our capacity to distinguish figure from ground, to map the interplay of shadow and light as they announce the dimensionality of forms, and our sensitivity to the spatial effects of color all contribute strongly to this enchantment. Photographs help us weave the chaos of our sense impressions into an ordered, common sense totality complete with causal laws, social conventions and caring, parental leaders who work hard each day to enhance the common good. Our infantile longing to inhabit a storybook world devoid of shadow or mystery, in other words, explains why photographic images often exert such a powerful hold over our attention. From the beginning (and certainly since Man Ray) photographers have enjoyed problematizing normative effects of the still image like these, none perhaps more than the Los Angeles-based photographer Jeffrey Atherton.

In Atherton’s work, place itself is drawn into a world of pure sensation and process, a world defined by strangely potent intensities that distort everyday objects while also degrading the content-less transparency of space itself. Until recently, Atherton has worked strictly in black and white, his gorgeous, large-format compositions managing despite the absence of color to bring Cornell into conversation with Giacometti, Soutine and Bacon. These photographic series and image assemblages open onto vertiginous worlds defined by arcane but oddly familiar variations of the forms, spaces, textures and figures we encounter in our dream worlds, waking and sleeping. Ominous, oracular, these forms emerge from lush atmospheric textures along hair-fracture lines of deep focus, their sudden clarity managing to be harmonic and feverish at the same time. In their minute focus, the images suggest a vast metabolic world extending out beyond the picture frame — as if they had been shot on some forgotten corner of Solaris, the sentient planet of Stanslav Lem novel, memorably adapted by the cinematic master Andrei Tarkovsky.

Given his long term fidelity to the rigors of black and white, it is remarkable to discover Atherton as an accomplished and sophisticated colorist. In these new photographs, Atherton has embraced the medium he was born to work in, the lyrical effect of his gorgeous hues complicating the austerity of his vision. Even more than his work in black and white, these new images bring photography into the dialogue of modernism and postmodernism, including literature as well as painting, and call the status of the object into question. “There is a deep beauty created when an object drifts away from its assigned meaning” he says,  “leaving the viewer to create new relationships between subject and object.” In a passage worth quoting at length, Atherton continues:

“Ultimately I feel that this is a more lasting kind of beauty. I am most excited when an image weds the simultaneous gestures of light, subject, object, and darkness. The objects are left pinned down within a space that is unfamiliar, and in that context the images create novel juxtapositions. In my photographs I intentionally displace the subjects from their everyday place in the world. A photograph is only interesting if it shows the cracks and seams inherent when communicating with others.”

This gestural musicality is perhaps the source of the strong haptic quality to these photo-objects, which is Atherton’s signature gift as a maker of images. We feel as if our mind arrives at these images through an adaptive re-modeling of our physical neuron system, delivering a different version of visual truth. The effect is bracing – the work “returning us to life more violently” as Bacon himself once put it, but through surprisingly gentle and lyrical means.

Please click to enlarge and for artwork details


  1. Cliff Eisner says:

    A fine piece, Guy.

  2. A good review and a motivating piece of writing but….haptic? Quite a stretch although I must admit I like the “reference”…. which would be even more interesting if the photographer is actually manipulating his images with a vibrotactile effector.

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