It is tempting to discuss Matt Saunders’ work strictly in terms of the methodology that produces it. This is because the steps he takes to make a picture are so involved and complicated. And as they cross media, each step adds a layer and embeds content.
Another condition that locates the discourse in this zone is the insistence of artist and his apologists alike that the sources of the images that he works with are, while important to Saunders, not essential to appreciating the work. In the exhibition essay, curator Hamza Walker states, “Anything beyond knowing that his sources are derived from films is extraneous to understanding and enjoying the work.” In the panel discussion at the exhibition’s opening, Scott Rothkopf said, “It occurred to me that I’ve known Matt for 12 years, and we talk about it all the time, but I’ve never seen these movies. I don’t know the characters.” Rothkopf didn’t seem to think it was a problem. This may signal a new turn in art with deep referential roots. Understanding most contemporary art that draws on obscure histories is contingent upon accessing that obscure content. Here there seems to be a deliberate refusal of such a process.
Matt Saunders. Patrick McGoohan (Brand), 2010. Black and white photograph (enlargement from drawn negative). 47 x 94 inches. Image courtesy of the Renaissance Society.
Saunders makes ink paintings on Mylar, which he uses to make photographic prints. One way he does this is to take a 4x5 inch sheet of Mylar and put it in an enlarger in the dark room. For example, Patrick McGoohan (Brand) (2010, seen above) is an enormous photo made from a tiny ink painting. When seen in person, a series of smudges in the lower left center become apparent as the whorls of a fingerprint, revealing a massive leap in scale between the origin of the image and what is presented. But that isn’t really the origin either. The origin is the film still from which the ink painting was drawn, and that is tied to the motion picture from which the still was taken. It is this endless mediation that is such an irresistible impetus for interpretation. We can wax philosophic–and nostalgic–about how technologies come and go. After all black and white analogue photography is almost automatically read as an anachronistic gesture, a stylistic choice based on nostalgia.
Matt Saunders. Passageworks, 2010. Still from animation. Image courtesy of the Renaissance Society.
“Parallel Plot”o consists of photographic prints made through variations on the method listed above along with three animations and a painting on Mylar. The animations, all titled Passageworks (2010) are based on short sequences from films. For example, a twenty-second segment is made up of 600 drawings. One might expect them to be films, but they are digital videos projections made from scanning the drawings into a computer. This produces an interesting twist because the logical progression would suggest that following photographic prints made from painted negatives on Mylar, would be black and white films made from paintings, made from stills.
The animations, presented on modern video projectors, disrupt what would otherwise be considered a pretentious trip through noir aesthetics. Instead of glorious black and white, they come off as grey and lavender-violet, the pixels visible as well. Their feel is incredibly filmic nonetheless. They strobe between positive and negative, highlighting that, rather than motion, we are seeing a rapid series of still images every time we watch a movie. In their loose brushiness, each frame is a little abstract painting forcing an engaged viewing to decode them into comprehensible things like bicycles on a street or a hand holding a cigarette. While silent, they are visually noisy and have a rhythm to them that echoes the mechanics of a film projector. The print advances one frame, the bulb flashes, and a picture shows up on the screen. The print advances one frame; the bulb flashes and another picture shows up.
At the end of the panel discussion an audience member posed a pertinent question: “Are we getting sidetracked? I was thinking of what the images did, not the process. I was curious, but I felt like I shouldn’t be too concerned. Ultimately that should go away in the end. It’s like the difference between having a sexual relationship and talking about it.”
Saunders responded, “It’s easier to talk about the process and how they’re made. Ultimately I love pictures. I hope it’s not a sidetrack. I know how to tell if something is working. If you are responding viscerally to it.”
I’m left troubled, are we as viewers left off the hook? We don’t have to worry about whether or not we know who Hertha Theile is so we are free to look at these mediated images as we please? Or are we being irresponsible, artist, viewer and critic alike?