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The Tumult of Vision
By David Abram
Photography has always seemed to me a singularly mendacious craft. Under the guise of a purified realism – of “just giving us the facts” – the photograph commits the most egregious violations of the real. Its most obvious distortion is to freeze the flux of time in midstream, bringing to a halt the manifold dynamism of the world. The openness of the actual moment -- that horizon of uncertainty and possibility that steadily invites us to engage in the ongoing unfolding of events -- is commonly foreclosed by photographs, which present things as though they were fixed and finished, and so situate the viewer as a passive spectator looking at a finished spectacle.
Another obvious distortion arises from the way a photograph collapses the enigmatic depth of experienced space onto a single flat plane. In our encounters with the palpable world, the landscape we inhabit stretches out before us, a multidimensional field pulsing with vaguely-sensed elements that steadily vie with one another for our attentions. As we move through the terrain, our senses are drawn to first one, then another thing, and yet another. We steadily shift our focus among various aspects of the visual field – a broken fence, a distant cliff, a crow swerving onto a near branch – and in this manner the scape lures us out of ourselves, each of us weaving our attention into the terrain in a unique way. But when the camera does all the focusing for us, flattening the ambiguous allurement of the distances and the immediacy of nearby objects onto a single plane, then our sensing and sentient bodies no longer have much choice in how to insinuate themselves within the scene. In a world inundated by photographs, nature readily becomes scenery – a pretty something we look at, rather than an enveloping and dangerous mystery we peer into, trying to fathom what waits just beyond the near hill.
We might think that the art of painting would inevitably contort reality far more than photography, but because its effects are not hidden behind the presumption of a perfect reproduction, painting commonly reveals more directly our active involvement in the world. Of course, a painter’s physical engagement with the image is often evident in the placid or vehement brushstrokes on the completed canvas. Yet painters have also explored diverse ways to provoke the viewer’s own engagement, opening a dynamism and depth that invite our active participation with the thing painted. Impressionism’s dissolution of the solid object into a manifold of color and light, forcing the viewer’s eyes to reassemble that object from the scattered brushstrokes; cubism’s juxtaposition of divergent perspectives in a single portrait, compelling the viewer to connect these disparate glimpses in a dynamic arc: these are just two of the recent ways whereby observers have been coaxed into a corporeal engagement with the world imaged on the canvas.
Such an open-ended invitation to participate in the life of thing pictured was, I thought, simply impossible for photography, precluded by the precision of the camera’s shutter-blink, and the mechanical nature of the medium. It’s a prejudice that has been with me for much of my adult life – a bias abruptly wrecked by my encounter with the photographs of Matthew Chase-Daniel.
Each of Chase-Daniel’s landscapes opens a world -- but it is not a world one can simply look at. His creations contain multiple foci that beckon our gaze, and we viscerally feel the manifold tension of this divergent summons whenever we meet one of these large works face to face (2 ½ feet by 3 ½ feet is a typical size). Inevitably our eyes are drawn down into some particular center, or frame, within the overall image: a lichen encrusted stone, a sea cucumber, or a standing wave. But whichever center draws our focus refuses to settle into a stable or static quiescence, for it’s held open (and hence alive) by the vague allurement of the other centers arrayed on its horizon. It is not only that these other frames threaten to steal our focus away from the one that currently grips us, but also that this very center we’re now pondering impels us, by various lines of association, toward other frames throughout the image. For although these are photo-montages (or as Chase-Daniel calls them, photo-assemblages) they are montages of precisely glimpsed images from the same earthly locale, gathered on the same day and often within moments of one another, usually from a similar vantage. For this reason alone, each intimately-focused element alludes to every other element within the assemblage (each inhabitant of the ecosystem tacitly entangled with all the other constituents of the place).
It is we, the viewers, who enact this dynamic interweavement of elements into a living whole. The imaged landscape comes alive only as our focus slides from one center to another, and then leaps to yet another – swooping up from the foreground seaweed to a far-off wave or a tumult of cloud, then diving back, drawn by the way the water gushing out of a sea anemone invokes the swirl of those clouds, or the way the reticulated crust of white on a pink starfish echoes the pale lattice of foam on the ocean’s surface. As we weave our own attention, spider-like, into the complex of images, the whole assemblage quietly begins to breathe. We find ourselves no longer outside the frame, but carnally enfolded within a seascape that heaves and hisses all around us, or standing knee-deep in a river surging toward us out of the thickets – cottonwood and willow leaves bumping into our legs and floating past. Each leaf, each urchin or clumped stone tugs upon the periphery of our awareness and, each rewards our answered scrutiny by climbing into crisp focus, compelling our absorption even as the other creaturely centers slip back into the surge or quietude of the big assemblage we call nature.
The active seeing vigorously provoked by these works sometimes drags other senses into the encounter; one may feel one’s ears assailed by the rush and gurgle of water, one’s nostrils tweaked by the dusky scent of forest mushrooms. Sometimes, Chase-Daniel offers us a kind of anchor, a still point in the churning world whereon to rest our gaze: a naked child sits, wave-washed, in the central frame, around which the sea crashes and whirls through nineteen studies of turbulence in water and rock. In another work, the intricately cracked clay of a parched desert valley has been transformed into a sky-mirror by fresh rain; as the clouds part to reveal the clarified blue a solitary stone, volcanic, rests among leopard-spot patterns in the mud.
Other works, however, enact a simple equivalence among the frames, evoking a collector’s cabinet of curiosities, or a naturalist’s specimen-box filled here with an array of wild mushrooms, or there with a beach’s calm offerings. Even in such works, where the isolating frame around each element seems to provide a kind of repose, we’re still compelled to participate, to make our own way through the whimsy and weirdness of a world that includes us, yet always exceeds us. The multiple and heterogenous foci of Chase-Daniel’s montages force our gaze to dance and delve among them, shaking our eyes free from the static slumber imposed by too many screens, tempting our senses back into the proliferating thickets of the real.