Ian Talbot: Retrospective – Dancers :: Figuring Jasper

Chapter 32 of the ongoing series Ian Talbot : Retrospective by British fine art photographer Ian Talbot.

Dancers :: Figuring Jasper

© Ian Talbot

“There is as much unpredictable originality in quoting, imitating, transposing and echoing, as there is in inventing. The ways artists relate to antecedents – and their reasons for doing so – are as open to innovation as art itself.” Leo Steinberg

Jasper Johns had been using a “cross hatch” motif since 1972 when, in 1979/80, he executed the two canvases “Dancers On A Plane”. These works directly preceded three related pieces, “Tantric Detail”, drawn from a 17th C Nepalese image of life and death forces. The artist himself said of “Dancers…” that he was already looking at tantric art, “thinking about issues like life and death, whether I could even survive.” He went on to say to say “…The picture is almost uninflected in its symmetry. There is no real freedom. The picture had to be executed in very strict fashion or it would have lost its meaning.” So evidently – and this was for Johns, especially at this time, very unusual – there were deep personal issues involved as well as the “formal” issues he also alluded to.

For me, as part of an exploration of Johns’s work, the surface features of the “Dancers…” canvases (not the deeper personal meaning, obviously) offered an opportunity to look at how I could work through some of the same formal issues and concerns that I shared with the artist, whose work I have already stated elsewhere has been a lifelong source of fascination for me. More specifically, how I, as a photographer, could interpret it while remaining still at root a photographer but at the same time broadening my practice as one and even, if need be, moving on to add related “mark making” elements to the process.

As with much, but not all, of the rest of this series, my first serious venture in an ongoing endeavour to interpret Johns’s work, I pretty much decided on a fairly literal rendering of the Johns pieces in question here. My corresponding image here is not a direct copy but even with a superficial glance at it and the two Johns canvases a more than passing resemblance must be self evident.

I suppose at first viewing some will object that this is not even a photograph as such. They could be right… but it is entirely made up of photographic elements. The surface of the work is made up of many tiny fragments of an image of a wicker chair seat subsequently cut, pasted, repeated, rotated and layered to a degree of not inconsiderable complexity. The result is intended to convey some of the complexity of Johns’s own cross hatching and also, unusually for me, to also convey a notion… one of dance and dancers. For once, if that is what the viewer feels they see (and hopefully they do) then this time it’s entirely intentional and “permissible”!

Of course there will be those who will say “Digital manipulation? Oh no…”. To them I would say only that it exists, I’ve used it, will do so again and get a life. More on this in a future post but if art can be said to be partly about mark making and decisions then one method can be said to be as good (what is “good”, anyway?) as another. There is no such thing as the “purist” way or we would all still be daubing cave walls. A more telling observation might be that this is all hardly in the realms of “photography” anymore, that I’m no longer “being” a photographer. That may well be correct. I can’t say as I much care about that either…

    Ian Talbot

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