Mary McIntyre: A Contemporary Sublime
MAC, Belfast, 16 Nov 2012 – 20 Jan 2013
Seriousness, intense work, and firm belief in quality had characterised McIntyre’s art practice right from her first degree, a Fine Art graduate in lens based medium. Her images, sometimes arranged, more often just found in a deliberately chosen fragment of the world, celebrated ordinary things: a content of a handbag, abandoned greenhouse, and derelict urban corner. The last decade mapped her commitment to landscapes photographed at night, or on a sunny day, seen from inside behind a window or from an outdoor vantage point. The current exhibition raises not a question of what photography is, or how the medium may change. After all, photography has been a confident member of the mainstream visual culture. Instead, it illustrates visual links to J.van Ruisdael, JBC Corot and LS Lowry, whose landscapes have been included. The MAC’s press release states that McIntyre “produces documents of that which is intangible”. Too an oceanic thought to grasp clear meaning of, and too narrow to warrant the allegiance of the photographs to it. Abandoning that paradox, I felt liberated by another parallel from history: ut pictura poesis, revived by Poussin and Lorrain, and touched upon by Corot, has its ground in Ars Poetica by Horace, who insisted that poetry deserves the status painting had. McIntyre seems to draw a similar claim for photography to have the status paintings have. She examines how the economy of means offered by a lens that simultaneously channels truth and a lie, may guarantee art in relation to an aesthetic category of the sublime.
Charles Baudelaire thought of photography as art servant or a mortal enemy of art. Walter Benjamin charged the Pictorialists with “ nothing less than to legitimize the photographer before the very tribunal he was in the process of overturning” and more recently Julian Stallabrass proposed “it is now standard practice for museum photographers to make frequent and insistent reference to paintings as a way to place their mechanical product firmly within the ambit of art.”
There is a precedent, I know of, for McIntyre’s concept of photographic image. For sixty years, one of the revered European photographers, Josef Sudek (1896-1976) made images, rarely containing people, “known for imbuing ordinary objects and building with a unique lifelike sensibility based on external observations.”
I have selected the above cover of the catalogue not only to avoid the problems of rights to copy, but also, because the image resonates with McIntyre’s vision of landscapes in her current exhibition.
Distanced from a charismatic visual expression through dramatizing manipulated everyday (A. Gursky, T. Struth) McIntyre has developed further the quality I recognise in Sudek’s sensibility to observed nature.
Curated by Hugh Mulholland, the Mac’s installation shows photography alongside older paintings. That defining concept is found also in a con-current exhibition in London. Seduced by Art explores reference as relationship between a painting and a photograph, for example Martin Parr (1991) is paired with T Gainsborough (1750), and Tom Hunter (2009) with Delacroix (1827).
It is not a payback, it is a part of the ever evolving art forms, lens based or not. There are some 100 annual photography festivals ranging over as many themes, subjects and concepts as the rest of the visual culture. Hair rising high prices for a Gursky (1.7 m) or a Steichen (1.6m) whip up the status of a remarkable yet common medium.
No wonder when the last year Deutsche Boerse prize was awarded to John Stezaker for not taking any photographs. He used found ones. On one hand it is a comment on the importance or not of reproducibility, on the other, it diminishes a taken photograph to be mere material to construct art.
McIntyre skips this dilemma by placing the process into four stages, the first decision before a photograph is taken:
whereas people might consider the act of taking a photograph as something quick, immediate etc. or even easy, momentary etc. which is suggested even by the use of the word, ‘taking’, as in something that already exists and is merely taken, to me the act of taking a photograph constitutes a different approach. To me it is not taking, but ‘making’ something. It is the construction of an image. (e-mail to me 14/01/2013)
Taking a photograph is making of an image, it is a testament of being there, seeing it, and still rising above a documentary photograph, if that is the intention. However, her process forecloses the meaning by searching for a view, light, an angle that fits her sensibility at that time and place. A fit between her response and one significant fragment of the World One (in K. Popper terms). Her response, the state of mind/intention in that encounter, depends on her sensitivity, sensibility and skills.
Her photographs and the decision to juxtapose them with paintings by J van Ruisdael, J B Corot and L S Lowry raise questions that reach for answers both in the visual domain and the domain European philosophy. It is not necessary to place photographs and paintings in a direct confrontation, comparison or competition. A thoroughgoing knowledge of a specific discipline applied to artistic creativity appears to be the only concrete paradigm of the Art of the Third Millennium.
To represent the visual domain, Serra recently insisted on the importance of the process. McIntyre described part of her process thus:
…photographs also reveal many things after the act. They often offer up details that I had not entirely observed at the time, because of various factors when photographing, especially in certain conditions or when the scene one is photographing is complex, layered, full of detail that cannot be completely observed or noticed when in situ. So, because I use transparency film, instead of digital photography, I cannot see the image on the spot and have to wait for the film to be processed. Then, when scrutinising the image closely one can find surprising details. (ibidem)
She cherishes the photographic negative as an active contributor, foregrounding its ability to reveal, i.e. place into consciousness ‘many things’ (not noticed before), layering surprises over the recognized and selected.
Recognisably her image is constructed in four stages: a conscious decision selects a cluster of subject matter, place and time, before the lens reads any of it. Then frames it. Waiting for the negative to be processed inserts a fallow period, doing nothing. This nothing is not a complete nothingness, the afterthoughts, associations, questions come and go, as in any other episode of work in progress. I guess that the high intensity returns with the negative in hand. An active, as if anew, search for significance of the image, “scrutinising closely” and being surprised, i.e. looking and seeing, forms the third stage. The final decision making involves matching that in a positive print, thinking about size included. Her four stages of constructing an image differ from the hegemonic “decisive moment” coined by Henri Cartier –Bresson in 1952. In the catalogue essay, taking an in-between stand, Peter Galassi related photography to the Western painting. He argued that the photograph was a perfected depiction of the world, because it possesses ‘pictorial syntax of immediate, synoptic perceptions and discontinuous unexpected forms.” My description of four steps of construction, places McIntyre instead near to a traditional painter working from a sketch to drawing, to ebauche, and to final surface. A classical formula for well tested layers. Impressionists avoided the “final surface” by leaving the ebauche uncovered, foregrounding surface as style forming. A range of surfaces in photographs is smaller, less co-operative and not at all forgiving in comparison with painting.
McIntyre uses artificial light to make an illusion of textures as if projecting from the depth onto the picture plane. The plane oscillates, vibrates between tones, shapes, simulating the divided brushstroke.
The current exhibition displays medium and large-size colour lightjet photographic prints that call for the viewer’s distance. Habitually, a photograph is held in hands. Here, they define their own status by reference to a cultural habit expected when looking at paintings. Consequently they loose on intimacy of picking up a drawing or a photograph. Intimacy matters. Picking up McIntyre’s early smaller photographs enables me to catch something from the moment of her connecting with the image, the enchanting sincerity of that. The encounter celebrates the fugitive moment of response, hers to the view she chose, mine to her image. It is a beautifully coded conversation of a special kind.
McIntyre does not shy away from an analytical experiment, presented in two images of the same subject, Fallen Leaves and Shadows, 2011.
The MAC’s Tall Gallery displayed landscapes she produced between 1999 and 2011,with older paintings, wisely avoiding any pairing. Lowry’s Seascape, 1952, shares the tonality with McIntyre’s Veil III, 2006 and Flooded Tree, 2006.That sharing does not validate the photographs as art. A similarity may point to an influence. It is, properly, of interest for art history. I doubt that it is necessary for a personal direct encounter with those photographs. The educational juxtaposition favoured by some museum/academic research policies may work in some instances, often it does not. If it is directed to an audience, it is patronizing, if it is directed to photography it is patronizing too. Often, people pay more attention to instructions what to look at, instead of seeing for themselves. Over a century ago, Otakar Hostinsky (1847-1910) argued that aesthetic sense is given to us as a birth right, not governed by any theory of art, and not dependent on instrumental function of art, any art, nor on visits to galleries and museums. He argued against the petit bourgeois claim for superiority of urban over country culture. Helpfully, the MAC’s exhibition space is amenable to “ the lineaments of gratified desire” to glow (William Blake) in McIntyre’s landscapes. They are skilful, sensitive, well balanced compositions, often confidently beautiful. They forge original points in time and space that already run out of the presence, which the images take over. Within this takeover of the presence they face their own limits as well as the wonder of the specific aesthetic experience, the visual, tacit poetry. Reminder of Otto Paecht’s dictum “ where art history is concerned, in the beginning was the eye, not the word”. If words are slippery when we reach for a meaning, the visual image is more so. The only truth is the individual truth in these experiences that familiarise us with the humanity’s adventure.
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel? Polonius:By the mass and ‘tis – like a camel indeed. Hamlet:Methink it is like a weasel. Polonius:It is backed like a weasel. Hamlet:Or like a whale. Polonius:Very like a whale.
The exhibition title may raise some eyebrows, however, it expresses the artist’s long term conviction that words are keys to the meaning of the visual. Maybe Victor Hugo who proposed that sublime combines the grotesque and the beautiful, and Mario Costa who coined the term technological sublime would welcome McIntyre’s ‘contemporary sublime’. If it can work as a means to subvert political correctness, that alien jurisdiction that demands art’s submission to an a priori agenda, we should accept it. If it is supposed to support the bid for photography to be accepted as art, it is not only missing the point, it also evokes a process of spurious aggrandizement, and we should dismiss it.
Moreover – a sublime is a sublime is a sublime…(with apology to G Stein). Would a brief excursion into philosophy provide some lead?
Nature’s high and rare inspirations expressed in the best chosen words, so commentators praised so called Longinus The Treaty on the Sublime. The authorship is still debated, its content cherished. Sublime equals truly great and most passionate thoughts, nobility of style, loftiness and excellence of means, poetical rendering of nature, generous exultation. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) claims for the sublime qualities like high poetic imagination, moral greatness, power to create great concepts, invincible strength. Great thoughts, strong emotions, tropes, nobleness and dignity are the five sources of sublimity. The three kinds of the sublime, noble, splendid and terrifying, do not lead to a persuasion, but to some degree of ecstasy. Kant’s contemporary Edmund Burke (1729 -1797) defines the sources of sublime as whatever excites ideas of pain, danger or is conversant about terrible subjects. He singled out astonishment as a ruling principle of the sublime. Importantly in relation to McIntyre’s take on the sublime Burke saw the sublime and the beautiful mutually exclusive. His predecessor Joseph Addison (1672 -1712) argued that there is an agreeable kind of horror, offering three kinds of pleasure: greatness, uncommonness and beauty. Addison’s idea that the site for those pleasures is in the external nature, and is unbounded, unlimited. The later appear in Kant’s definition of the sublime as limitless, boundless.
On comparing the above with perceivable equivalents in McIntyre’s photographs the list includes: nobleness, dignity, beauty and splendid command of the tools bound with the conviction that the feelings and pleasures that were thought as a layers of the sublime are given by and in nature and best rendered in poetry. In this case visual poetry.
Slavka Sverakova, January, 2013
Mary McIntyre photographs, via her website www.marymcintyre.org