24 April 2015 – 24 May 2015
La proximité des corps
Des postures corporelles identiques, un regard de biais, l’inconfort d’un contact physique : les photographies collectionnées par Steven Beckly sont toutes animées par un détail qui intrigue. La proximité des corps, toujours ambiguë, suscite un questionnement sur la nature de la relation entre les personnes photographiées. En manipulant ces objets et en intervenant sur leur matérialité, Beckly installe dans ses œuvres une tension entre dissociation et association.
Juxtaposées dans un même cadre sur la base de ressemblances formelles, des photographies anonymes prennent une signification qu’elles n’ont pas individuellement. Avec ces assemblages, alors même que les images proviennent d’époques et de contextes différents, Beckly fait apparaître la complexité de la notion d’intimité qui traverse sa collection. Cette exploration de la représentation de l’intimité s’incarne dans un motif en particulier lorsque l’artiste découpe les contours de bras enlacés et les replie sur le verso du papier photographique. Isolées sur un fond blanc, ces étreintes créent des trous, des motifs qui se dédoublent dans l’espace.
Le travail plastique devient plus conceptuel avec la série de bordures de papier blanc découpées, évidées de leurs images et fixées sur un fond noir. En exacerbant la décontextualisation des photographies, ces cadres laissés béants encouragent la projection par le spectateur de ses propres images mentales. Un processus semblable est à l’œuvre dans les retranscriptions des textes se trouvant à l’endos des photographies. Ces inscriptions, ainsi dissociées de toute image, mettent en évidence la perte de signification que subissent les photographies séparées de leur contexte. C’est au spectateur qu’il revient désormais d’élucider ces énigmes, de reconstruire les récits dont les images et les textes gardent la trace.
Julie-Ann Latulippe est historienne de l’art et candidate au doctorat à l’Université du Québec à Montréal. Ses recherches portent sur l’entrée de snapshots anonymes dans des collections privées et muséales, ainsi que dans les pratiques artistiques contemporaines. Elle a contribué à plusieurs catalogues d’exposition, notamment pour le Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, le Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal et Le Mois de la photo à Montréal.
“I, however, had something else in mind: not to retain the new but to renew the old. And to renew the old—in such a way that I myself, the newcomer, would make what was old my own—was the task of the collection that filled my drawer.”1
Before its precise contents have even had a chance to make themselves known, we settle into Steven Beckly’s Reunions with the ease and comfort of greeting an old friend. The room is awash with the colours of fading newsprint and the delicacy of tracing paper. Like a passing sigh upon one’s ear, a stolen glance, a trace of saliva left behind on one’s lips—the space oozes with intimate knowledge.There is no doubt we are in a gallery space—all of the components are there: white walls, display tables, framed artworks and installation pieces. Through the crispness and cleanliness, though, there is a palpable warmth. We are being drawn near.
In the entryway to the exhibition, two opened books sit on a shelf. The first, entitled Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together 1840-1918 by David Deitcher, contains reproductions of over 100 photographs dating from the introduction of photography to the end of World War I. In its pages, Deitcher carefully seeks to make visible the bonds of physical intimacy between men, prompting the reader to question his/her assumptions about social morays and attitudes towards same-sex relations, specifically during the Victorian era. The photographic legacy left behind is often ambiguous—were these relations of a sexual nature, of an amorous air, of a deep-rooted friendship? Deitcher asserts that, in their collecting and discovering, members of the gay community can cherish these photographs as historical evidence of love between men.
The academic language of Dear Friends is contrasted by the introspective prose of Beckly’s artist book publication for Reunions. Passages on relationships, personal contemplations on Beckly’s own experience, and other musings are laid bear for the viewer to read. When our eye has drawn what it will from the text, we stumble forward into images of the past.
In his essay entitled The Translator’s Task, Walter Benjamin asserts that, “No poem is meant for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience.”2 In finding ourselves as beholders now, how shall we now come to understand? Should we wish to establish any connection with the original, we must do so, states Benjamin, by means of a translation. Should we wish to become acquainted with images conceived for another person, time, memory, space, we must allow the translation to proceed from the original itself. In Reunions, Beckly is summoned to the role of the translator.
Twenty framed pieces—newsprint papers acting as carriers for photo-assemblages and sets, newsprint paper acting as a conduit for the relationships contained therein—line the two longest walls of the gallery space. Varying landscapes and faces attend us. A field of flowers and suited formalities; Matching outfits, anchored, at a vista; Colleagues in arms; Bunkmates; Bosom buddies; Dance partners; Devotedness near the home and captured by a studio lens. There is always a viewer, always a sort of voyeur—the photographer, the original witness to tenderness, whose presence is sometimes confirmed in shadow form. The scenes lay within and outside of the urban, on vacation, within the ritualized space of the military and the safe spaces of domesticity. These are studio portraits, cartes des visites, vernacular snapshots, minute mementos spanning a timeline from 1880-1980.
“It is rare for collectors to present themselves to the public.They hope to be regarded as scholars, connoisseurs, if needs be as owners too, but very rarely as what they above all are: lovers.”3
From towns to cities, from markets to online auctions, Beckly has gathered and amassed hundreds of photographs. Whereas artists often manipulate found images, here they are left uninvaded and untamed. Beckly seeks only to intervene on the image as it stands—weaving a commentary through groupings and pairings bound only by their set, rectangular parameters. Similarities are highlighted, differences are intensified. Race, gender, and class are made perceptible and are, at times, overt. Akin to the original photographers who came before him, Beckly remains respectful to the trust and weight ensconced upon him by the couples.
So as not to take claim of the original image, the formats and starting dimensions have been obscured. At once an aesthetic and purposeful decision, this maneuvering allows for the potency and poetry of the emotion to remain with those pictured. The beloved is never supplanted. In printing the photographs on non-archival material, Beckly draws attention to the tenuousness of the groupings. The lovers will fade and disappear over time, just as the persons from whom they derived once did. These objects again find themselves in the right hands for safekeeping. In framing—encapsulating behind glass—that which is not meant to last forever, Beckly elevates the now colloquial ephemera to exulted mementos. The artist elucidates or translates the photographs into the present, and re-imbues the images with the notion of ‘being loved’.
On the room’s remaining wall, images are absent. We find instead their former carriers, photo borders and commercial deckled edges, neatly aligned in multiple rows. Reminiscent of the photo corners once utilized to hold photographs within an album, the white outlines are pinned at each junction. Beckly has transformed the flat, mass-produced papers into glossy, topographical elements. What was once tucked away and safeguarded like a private treasure on a page now hovers above a wall. What was once weighty with pictures as mnemonic devices is now buoyant. No longer serving as holders, the borders function as placemakers—set spaces in which the viewer can project a likeness, a narration or a time elapsed.
Beckly challenges us to be drawn towards that which is not historically valuable: to the vanished and forgotten, where only parameters remain. Despite the rigidity of their edges, the centre spaces of these vessels are decidedly malleable. There are hints of history, and a lack of precise contents, which grant the curious viewer an opportunity to locate his/her present self within that hallowed space. This is not simply an instance of arising new, but is, rather, a special convergence with that which went before us. We join Beckly in his process: “...(I)nstead of making itself resemble the meaning of the original, (the translation) must lovingly, and in detail, fashion in its own language a counterpart to the original’s mode of intention, in order to make both of them recognizable as fragments of a vessel...”4 Despite being held to the wall in a fashion similar to specimens, these works resist categorization. They open only to the glances of the reverent; ripen only to the touch of translation.
While the space abounds with figurative traces, so too does it contain more literal remnants. The surfaces of two tables are cloaked in a soft ply of tracing paper. Upon each sheet, Beckly has traced the multiple instances of text culled from the reverse sides of the photographs. Unlike with the photographic works, where first dimensions are obscured, the text remains as it originally appeared. In simply detaching the written words from the verso, we are barred from an understanding of the script. The viewer, as outsider, can certainly identify nuances in penmanship, language and form. But Beckly goes further and translates the text into a reprise. Through his iteration, he enables us to grasp the intimacy of the gestural scribblings. By resisting a manipulation, insisting instead that they come directly from the author’s hand, Beckly elevates the fragments to artworks in and of themselves. Something precious is still preserved.
World was in the face of the beloved—,
but suddenly it poured out and was gone:
world is outside, world cannot be grasped.
Why didn’t I, from the full, beloved face
as I raised it to my lips, why didn’t I drink
world, so near that I couldn’t almost taste it?
Ah, I drank. Insatiably I drank.
But I was filled up also, with too much
world, and, drinking, I myself ran over.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell
It is possible that we may leave the space uncertain as to what we bore witness to. There are codes left behind, potent residues, that only lovers can decipher. There are inclinations towards history that come from living in the present. There are fixations from which we cannot remove ourselves. We pen the world in a script of our own, and paint in the lines as we see fit. What Beckly urges is that we rethink our relationship to that, and those, which came before us. We must do so not by rephrasing or parsing down, but rather by allowing traces to sing of their own accord. The artist acts as faithful translator of the images, text and paper-cuts that comprise Reunions. He accumulates, assembles motifs, de- and re-codes, weaves and copies out the secret puzzles of lovers past. Like the art of falling in love itself, he must cultivate the right practices, he must dispose himself to uncertainty. “Since every representation fails to grasp the beloved, the art of the lover becomes an art of misrepresentation.”5 Like their originals, these images will fade, the gallery will be disassembled, and that which was once immediate and familiar will come to pass. Through Beckly we are assured that that which seems infinitely distant can be recapitulated through fidelity. That which seems vanished can, in a reunion, be beckoned home.
1 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 3: 1935–1938 (SW3). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, page 43.
2 Walter Benjamin. The Translator’s Task. Trans. Steven Rendall. Eugene: The University of Oregon, page 151.
3 Walter Benjamin. Walter Benjamin's Archive: Images, Texts, Signs. Eds. Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwartz, Michael Schwartz, and Erdmut Wizisla. Trans. Esther Leslie. London: Verso, 2007, figure 1.8, page 25, Tree of Conscientiousness: Gabrielle Eckehard - The German Book in the Baroque Epoch. Ullstein, Berlin. From the Lit. World VI, 23, 06 June 1930.
4 The Translator’s Task, 161.
5 Ryan Johnson, e-mail message to author, March 26, 2014.
*Originally published for Steven Beckly: Reunions, Contact Featured Exhibition, Toronto Image Works, Toronto, ON, 1 May – 31 May 2014.
Erin Rutherford is a Toronto-based independent consultant, specializing in art registration. She holds a BA from the University of Toronto, a Post-Graduate Certificate in Museum Management and Curatorship from Fleming College, and an MA in Art History from Carleton University. In addition to to her private practice, Rutherford has worked in both collections management and curatorial roles at institutions including the Art Gallery of Ontario, The National Gallery of Canada, Vtape, The Art Gallery of Mississauga and the Dufferin County Museum and Archives. She is currently the Fine Art Administrator for the Canadian Art Department at Waddington's.