Precarious Aesthetics: on the recent work of Holly Rowan Hesson
Contemporary visual culture offers an unprecedented amount of visual information through the ubiquity of cameras, particularly in mobile phones, and the capacity for the immediate publishing and rapid circulation of photographic images through social media. As technology improves and access to it widens, more and more aspects of the world are recorded and seen. Technological advances strive for greater clarity and resolution, but imagery that counteracts such perfection with blur, visual noise, shaky cameras and non-transparent filters is ever more popular. Whilst transparently high fidelity pictures dominate our experience there is, paradoxically, a growing interest in more enigmatic images that render our relation to what is represented precarious. The accidents of recording take on a life of their own as they become just another part of our saturated visual surroundings, developing as a genre with its own niche place within our visual culture.
Creating a strong affective impact through making art involves finding ways to avoid simply copying physical reality and, where photography is concerned, leaving behind unquestionable accuracy in favour of distortion by means of processes such as pixelation, superimposition and filtering. As the uses of photography increasingly infiltrate contemporary art, blurriness, opacity, and indeterminacy have emerged amongst a multiplicity of low definition strategies across a diverse body of artistic practices, both analogue and digital, that invite us to see the world, but through a lens that obstructs and complicates our vision.
“Is it always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §71, 1953.
Increasingly, it could be argued, an aesthetics of precariousness is being played out in current art production. A dialectic between transparency and opacity—literally and metaphorically—lies at the heart of this precarious aesthetic, articulated formally through images that are not themselves fully based on directly recorded material, but manipulate such material, operating at the mercy of bodies and technologies that are unstable and liable to fail. This is the territory in which Holly Rowan Hesson’s art practice is situated. Hesson makes abstract works that derive primarily from the photographic capture of colour, surface, shadow and light within the built environment. They emphasise the fragility, transience and ambiguities of what may initially appear solid, weighty and permanent. Blurred uncertainty disrupts the reading of the colour and complex surface of her work, whether in projections, prints, sculptural objects or ephemeral installations.
Hesson’s use of photography and its central though not always obvious role in her practice often relate to a specific and somewhat esoteric term in photography, ‘bokeh’. The term comes from the Japanese word boke, which means “blur” or “haze”, or boke-aji, the “quality of blurring”. (The Japanese term boke is also used in the sense of a mental haze or senility, and the related term bokashi refers to intentional blurring or gradation.) Bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur in the out-of-focus parts of an image that lie outside the depth of field of the lens, referring to the way photographers sometimes deliberately use a shallow focus to create images with prominent out-of-focus areas.
Although always seen as fundamentally a recording medium and dominant in our means of documenting the world around us, since its very beginning photography has also revealed the spectral, recording the stream of light passing through the lens but depicting ethereal images that could never have existed without the intervention of the camera. The early development of photography was grounded in the 19th century’s desire to record, quantify and analyse, but the limitations and flaws or mistakes of photographic technique were quickly absorbed and adopted by photographers with an eye for the creative potential of their medium. Double exposure, accidental fogging of the film or paper, using the wrong chemicals, getting things too hot or too cold, lengthy exposure, blurred focus—all of these have been exploited to produce visual effects that take photography away from the everyday and place it somewhere else, creating an alternate reality to the purely optical, emphasising an awareness of the transience of sensory perceptions.
Hesson, although mostly using a digital camera, works in the tradition of these creative manipulations of ‘proper’ photographic technique. The images Hesson makes, often blurred or bathed in a bleaching light or rich with intensely saturated colour, are produced by her manipulation of the camera when shooting them rather than through any digital post-production. The post-production that takes place lies in the manual activity of overlaying, assembling and layering; in the material processes of printing on various materials; and in re-photographing and multiple projections that add further layers of imagery.
Hesson’s residency at &Model Gallery, Leeds, in January 2016 provided the opportunity for an intensive exploration of its surfaces and spaces during which she took hundreds of photographs. These photographs formed the basis of a new body of work installed in &Model’s various rooms in ways that merged with or accentuated elements of the architecture of the building rather than being imposed upon it. These works resist the realm of visual ‘truthfulness’ that has come to be associated with photography and aspire to a quality of otherworldliness that gives shape to the ephemeral. Architecture melts into light and air, or takes on the blurred split-second of vision when you wake in the morning unaccustomed to the brightness and straining to focus. The shifting images revealed in this work are tangible yet uncanny, familiar enough to be recognisable but somehow as a dream image that doesn’t ‘look’ like a room, but rather ‘feels’ like a room, or perhaps even a memory of a room. Using photography to summon an ethereal presence, Hesson’s works no longer seem to represent something as if seen through a lens, but rather as if remembered, or only half-remembered—they have a viscous quality as if the viewer must struggle to grasp the image from a blurred confusion that seems to drift between the abstract and representational in a fluid way. This dialectic of representation and abstraction, mapping onto the dialectic of transparency and opacity referred to earlier, is central to the way in which, unlike the purely formalist works they might be thought to resemble, these works are replete with content.
Hesson’s practice extends considerably beyond the photographic. Even when she is working with photographs they are printed on a diversity of supports and surfaces, various papers, fabrics, glass and acetate or other plastics, or projected onto objects and materials in the architectural settings of her site-specific installations. The work resonates with the tension of material and image and collapses material hierarchies, using highly finished industrial materials alongside abject detritus, in a process that fuses carefully thought-out planning with intuitively improvised action. Combining a highly formal approach to abstraction with more craft-based methods of image-making to explore colour, shape, and texture, the work acknowledges and draws on histories of photography and textile arts, and finds connections with the Colour Field painters of the 1960s and 1970s. Hesson is interested in investigating the effects of colour and light on interior space and visual perception. Light sources, light-reflecting objects and the shadows they create constantly shift and change in her installations which, ephemeral, seductive, and chameleon-like, fluctuate between a luminous stillness and a serene temporality, never quite the same at any one time, or from any one perspective.
Extending the idea she had earlier explored at &Model—photographing and re-photographing a space to literally re-present it within itself—in March 2016 Hesson constructed another installation at Bankley Gallery in Levenshulme, Manchester that took this strategy to another level of sophistication. With the title, Assembly, utilising only a large quantity of identical folding chairs and three projectors in the empty gallery space, it was deceptively simple and yet provided a complex sensory experience replete with a visual and metaphorical layering of images, ideas and references. Mundane industrial architecture was transformed by being bathed in colour and made complex by the repetition of its features and surfaces as projected images alongside, opposite or superimposed over their material originals. Mass-produced chairs in massed ranks functioned both as readymade and multiple sculpture—with all the sly art historical innuendo that implies—and as screens, further fracturing and disrupting the architecture of the space and its light-intensified multiplication through photographic projection. There is a kind of alchemy in the conjuring of such an intense experience out of such unpromising materials, the everyday contingencies of very ordinary surroundings rendered extraordinary by a precarious balance of aesthetic sensibility, meticulous thought and improvisational experiment.
© DH April 2016
Derek Horton is an artist-writer and curator. He writes about art and as art. After working on adventure playgrounds and community arts projects in the 1970’s, he spent many years teaching undergraduate and postgraduate art students. He co-founded the online magazines ‘/seconds’ with Peter Lewis in 2005 and ‘Soanyway’ with Lisa Stansbie in 2009. He is now co-director of &Model, an international contemporary art gallery in Leeds, and Visiting Professor of Contemporary Art at the School of Art, Birmingham City University.