Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A Ducky and a Horsie

I have always had a strong tendency towards pareidolia, the ability to see meaningful images within random patterns of line, shape and shadow.  In some ways, this is merely the flipside (or perhaps a precondition) of the ability to draw.  What is a drawing, after all, other than patterns of line, shape and shadow contrived and intended to evoke a significant image within the viewer's brain?

Exactly a year ago, I was in front of a TV camera in the Fotoforum gallery in Innsbruck, Austria, trying to explain the nature of my work being exhibited there to a charming young interviewer who, luckily, spoke better English than I speak German (not unusual in the German-speaking world, I am ashamed to say).  Now, I tend to take a certain level of pareidolia for granted, so drew her attention to this image from the Boundary Elements series:

I said something like, "This photograph is of a corroded metal box attached to a door and, although I really like the delicate balance of tone and colour here, what I mainly see is a Japanese-style horned dragon whipping its head round, with its snout now pointing to the left, don't you?"  She looked puzzled, then an expression of childlike delight crossed her face, "Oh, yes!  A dragon!"  Now, being English, and maybe having watched too much Graham Norton, I was on the alert for irony and sarcasm, but detected none.  She simply didn't see what I saw until I pointed it out.  Which made me think.

I've been thinking ever since.  What I have been thinking is this:

My favourite kind of photography involves the creation of a picture by isolating evocative shapes and colours from the real world.  You might say these are the semi-abstract paintings I'd make if I wasn't too lazy to make them, in the well-established vein of Klee, Kandinsky, and Rauschenberg.  I am sometimes mistaken for a practitioner of the Gospel of the God of Small Things -- best summarised as "He draws our attention to the small, everyday things we are too blinkered and busy to notice" -- which I find annoying.  I don't care whether you notice small corroded metal boxes or not.  No; if I draw myself up to my full height of pretension, I prefer to consider myself more of the Blakean tendency:
What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look thro it & not with it.
William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgement
A ducky and a horsie be damned, Sir!

And yet, without cues like a nudging title ("A Ducky and a Horsie Go Boating #5") or my personal presence behind the viewer's shoulder to point them out, it seems that my intended points of reference are never as obvious as I had thought.  Of course, this is a general issue with abstract or semi-abstract art.  Take this print from Matisse's late "cut-out" phase, published in his wonderful book Jazz:

Les Codomas, Henri Matisse, 1947

Lovely, isn't it?  But how obvious to you is it (or was it when you first saw it) that the image shows two trapeze artists above a safety-net, surrounded by spectators?  It probably doesn't matter if you can't see it without prompting, but Matisse had an intention here, which the nudging title makes clear -- he hasn't called it "Untitled Abstraction #47", after all, but the equivalent of "The Flying Burritos".  The fact that our first take might "see", let's say, tadpoles in a pond surrounded by stylised weed, beams of light, reflections, and even a lurking octopus is not to mistake the image, but to engage with its nature.  The realisation of the "correct" interpretation gives a focus to our other responses, but it doesn't invalidate them; they can all fruitfully exist at the same time.  But this is like explaining how to bowl a cricket ball:  if you're going to be able to do it at all, you can probably do it anyway.

But the path this led me down was this:  If my intentions are not clear, why not make them clearer?  Why be inhibited by the photographic "facts on the ground"?  Why not make intentional pictures sourced from multiple photographs, or bits of photographs collaged together with bits of drawing, in the same way Matisse assembled pictures from his cut-up pieces of painted card, rather than relying on pictures presenting themselves whole and ready-made to my camera?  Despite the many precedents -- Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté, for example, or more recently John Goto's under-appreciated work -- this still feels heretical, and calculated to lose what little audience I have gained over the years for my work.

But consider a photo like this, which I took last week, strolling behind the big-barn retail outlets of West Quay in Southampton:

Not brilliant, but a good example of the kind of thing I do when working in an "abstract" vein.  Yes, it does happen to be another corroded metal box attached to a door, but I am not a "photographer of corroded metal boxes" in the way that Bernd and Hilla Becher are photographers of grain elevators and water towers.  It's nice enough in itself, but what makes it compelling to me is that it suggests a large, weighty, telephone-box-shaped object plunging down into deep water trailed by a stream of air-bubbles, or, rotated 90 degrees, a shotgun cartridge discharged into a blue sky.  There is dynamism in those accidental marks.  Your mileage may vary, as they say, but I took the photograph because I saw and liked the pictures that my mind conjured from those superficial elements.

So, it seems to me that one way to use my hyper-pareidoloid tendency to good effect is to exploit it as a means of drawing, using the real world as my palette, and Photoshop as my canvas.  I'm having a lot of fun discovering techniques to do this, and I'm very pleased with some of the early results.  But if you do come here because of the photographs, don't despair -- I have no intention of giving up "straight" photography.

(But, hmm, that bit on the right will make an excellent milky-blue summer sky crossed by vapour trails...  Just add a few crows...)


seany said...

Mike as a means of keeping oneself amused in retirement it must be safer than beating up old ladies,have a ball.

Mike C. said...


Do you know, I hadn't even thought about beating up old ladies... You should never have mentioned it.


Martyn Cornell said...

Great stuff. I like these very much, but that's almost certainly because I'm a big fan of restricted palettes. I've taken very few photographs that are any good myself, but one was in the Australian desert, and consisted of four bands of colour - red sand, green shrubs, white salt lake and blue sky.

Oh, and the "A ducky and a horsie" Peanuts cartoon is up there in the top five ever, I think – the growing horror visible in Charlie Brown's eyes is superb.

Mike C. said...


You'd probably like the Australian "desert paintings" of Sarah Raphael, daughter of Frederic Raphael who died very young a while ago (nearly wrote "sadly died" there...).

On the Peanuts, I'm intrigued by the mix of diminutives (?) -- why not "duckie and a horsie" or "ducky and a horsey"? Is he messing with our minds, or are there rules here I don't know about?


Sean Bentley said...

Brilliantly stated, Mike. All that is going on in my mind as I see (and take) images like this, but I never verbalized it. Of course sometimes I just enjoy shape and color and texture for their own non-representational aesthetic - "a jolly pleasing noise," ass Flanders and Swann might say. But it's those associations that really make a piece, isn't it.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Sean. Good to know I'm not just shouting in a bucket...