Sylvielin's Blog

Two Photographers : Ed Ruscha & Craigie Horsfield

Posted in about Photography by sylvielin on May 3, 2010

During the first trimester of 2005, the major exhibitions in Jeu de Paume in Paris present two photographers with very different backgrounds and styles. One is American Ed Ruscha whose work is centred on the city of Los Angeles and focuses on the intrinsic banality of contemporary metropolis, persisting in challenging the then prevailing artistic trends and in transgressing categorization. The other is British Cragie Horsfield who ever lived in Poland. His work is deeply rooted in his experience of and contemplation over Europe’s modern history and contains spiritual and philosophical depth.
Absurd City in America

The poster of Ruscha's exhibition outside of Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2005. Photo: Sylvie Lin.

Ed Ruscha1937~was born and grows up in Oklahoma city in the central-southern part of the U.S. In 1956, he entered the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and studied under minimalist artist Robert Irwin. Taking painting as his major occupation, he also learned illustration, graphic design, photography and art history. The exhibition of Marcel Duchamp held in Los Angeles in 1963 has great influence on him, making him take a critical distance with objects in making works.
Since the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, Ruscha began to make photographs which are mostly snapshots made with amateur even mechanic approaches(’Stop the car; get off the car ; press the shutter’, as he described it. He thinks that photography allows him to see the ‘two-dimensionality of things’, which afterwards will become the inspirations and materials for his painting. His earliest series of photographs were taken during a road trip around Europe which traversed Paris, Austria, Venice, etc. These images are tinted with the qualities of Eugène Atget and Robert Frankespecially ‘The Americans’ made in 1958. ‘Products series’1961simply presents objects against neutral backgrounds : plastic bottles, dental floss, detergent box, Campbell soup cansmade earlier than Andy Warhol, etc.; all of the objects were taken from the environment of his studio. Ruscha thinks detaching objects from their original contexts restores the power in them ; they appear more important under long-time gaze.
Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the first book of photography by Ruscha was published in 1962. He described : ‘Itbookis not regarded as art. The idea attracts me.’1; ‘my intention in making them is to eliminate sentiments…’2. In fact, he regards his books of photography as sculptures with thickness and to be the most radical part of all his art until today. 3As Doug Aitken pointed out in an interview with Ruscha, in the beginning of the 1960s when all kinds of means of mass media emerged, it was Ruscha who first brought them into the realm of art.4

Ruscha's 'Every Building on the Sunset Strip' shown in Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2005. Photo:Sylvie Lin.

Afterwards, Ruscha published other books of photography, including Some Los Angeles Apartments1965, Thirtyfour Parking Lots1967, A Few Palm Trees1971, etc. To a great extent, they correspond to his paintings, all of which direct viewer’s focus to the formal elements of the scenes, like their flatness and inclinations. The scenes and things are deprived of their materiality. The daily scenes are captured with certain photographic approaches so as to avoid any intervention. However, they reveal a kind of absurdity and surrealistic humor. Another important aspect of Ruscha’s works comes from the influence of road trips and Hollywood films; the former inspires the fluidity of browsing and the horizontal visual direction in his works, whereas the latter involves the framing and conventions of montage in road movies. Ruscha’s works of this kind are also influenced by the cinematic technique developed by Panavision in 1953.5An obvious example is Every Building on the Sunset Strip1966. The entire book is made with folded pages. When the entire book is spread out, we see the pictures taken alongside streets closely attached to one another, forming a whole similar to the sequences taken from road movies.6

These ten or so books of photography made in the 1960s and the 1970s have become legendary in the history of artnot of photographyand influence many artists such as Andreas Gursky, Doug Aitken, Martin Parr, etc. Overall, Ruscha’s avant-gardness lies in that his art practice denies categorizationhis painting wavers between art and applied arts; his photography wavers between documentation and non-documentation. Whereas he strictly carries out the premise of ‘non-style’ in making art, he nevertheless represents a distinct idiom, as he described:’Absurd and paradoxical, just as how I feel about my paintings.’7

Europe : A Shattered Cultural Map

Horsfield's show in Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2005. Photo : Sylvie Lin







Birn in Cambridge in England, Horsfield1949~entered the St. Martin’s School of Art in London in 1969 and made paintings. Then he shifted to photography for its relation to time and its problematic mimetic role.8In late 1960s, Horsfield saw in Germany the turbulent situation of Europe. His view of the world originated from such experience would form the base for his art. Aiming to explore social situations other than those under capitalism and liberalism, he settled in Kraków in Poland in 1972 and lived there for seven years.
Horsfield began making photographs since 1969. Yet it was until 1988 that he first exhibited his photographs. Special angles, explicit painterly quality and the virtuosity of printing of the works immediately attracted much attention. Different from the mainstream of the photography of the time, his photographs are in large square formats which remain until now. The artist explained that it was influenced by the abstract-geometric paintings of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich.9The pictures represent people, scenes, streets or spots in diverse places. The documentation in his works is infused with deep concern with the people being photographed and subtle treatments of the context, light and atmosphere. A certain kind of intimacy is attained in the works which interweave networks of politic, society, culture and community.
The exhibition entitled ‘Relation’ in Jeu de Paume presents about eighty photographs of the artist, mainly from the projects he made in London, Rotterdam, Barcelona and Kraków since 1969 to today. Centred on concepts such as ‘relation and existence, conversation and dialogue, slow time and now’, through the projects which last for years, the artist went deep into the places of residency, talked to certain partners and made interviews with the local people. The conversations document thoughts of the participants and the slow process of evolution or diverging in the relation of the artist to the local. The content of the projects contains images, performances, installations, live music and urban proposals.

Horsfield's photography exhibition in Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2005. Photo:Sylvie Lin.

The exhibition ‘Relation’ also includes twenty-seven photographs, a series entitled ‘Irresponsible Paintings’ that perfectly shows Horsfield’s brilliance in visual representation. The pictures follow the tradition of still life, presenting deadwood, rotten vegetables and fruits, dead fishes and objects, all of which are tinged with gloominess and surreal huesclose to those of paintingand form a contemplation over the ephemeral existence. In fact, the artist’s photographical works in general are influenced by the realistic paintings of Van Eyck and of Velasquez.
Horsfield’s art aims at reconstituting empathy. In this way he responds to a shattered world in his eyessince the gradual fall of liberalism in Europe in early last century, until today’s conflicts at the border between Europe and Asia and the fragmentation of the Eastern Europe. For the artist, art is action and resistance. Such idea explains well the capturing appeal of his pictures. Just as Jean-François Chevrier points out, Horsfield ’take photo when it is no longer necessary to record, when the picture is just the end of a process of recording, not recording itself.’10Indeed, these pictures depict the unique ‘present’ that the artist pursuits, as he put it :’The present for so long an uncharted land, a barren peninsula between a sea of dreams and the tangled jungle of memory.’11

1. Le Monde, le 2 février, 2006.
2. ibid. He continues:’But with time, my work becomes harder because the things I show disappear. I knew that one day my photographs would be nostalgic. The day already arrived.’
3. Ruscha:’I liked and always like the idea that theythe booksdisorient… […]. I really think that my books have been very radical, maybe the most radical in all that I’ve done…’ (catalogue published by Centre Georges Pompidou, 1989).
5. Libération, le 6 février, 2006.
6. Doug Aitken:’The books are interesting in how they suggest a narrative out of the most banal scenes. The images act like mirrors by extremely simple acts of isolating spaces and holding them up, which makes you reflect all this information about your associations or relationships with those passing moments or your experience with similar places.’; the images in the books are ‘like an empty film screen’.
7. see note 4.
8. Horsfield : ‘no matter how far we explode the representational integrity of the figure, there is a residual trace of the phenomenal world. There is no escape from finally having to confront the fact of the real.’ , ’10 May, 15 June, 16 June, 30 June, 1 July, 1991, London’, from Craigie Horsfield :ConversationDuMont Buchverlag, 1999, p162.
9. Horsfield : ‘The square is a singular and very concentrated form, it asks of the artist discipline and patience.’, ibid, p. 163.
10. Ibid, p. 169.
11. Horsfield, ’7 December 1989, Sttugart’, ibid, p. 146.

Original Chinese version was published in ARTCO monthly ( Taiwan ), May 2005, pp. 204~206.

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