Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rosamond Purcell's Bookworm

Some years ago, I recall seeing mention of photographer Rosamund Purcell teaching a Zone VI workshop. Zone VI was the brand name for a view camera equipment marketing outfit--the brainchild of a photographer named Fred Picker--which sold cameras and tripods and other accessories, mostly by mail order, in the 1980's and '90's. Some of the equipment was good, but not everyone was satisfied with the merchandise. Picker was a big promoter of his own photographic work and his product line. With the decline and impending demise of straight silver process photography, Picker's business fell on hard times. He died in 2002 after a long battle with kidney disease.

But Picker isn't the subject of this blog.
Rosamond Purcell [1942- ] has become widely known through her publications, including among others Illuminations [1986, a collaboration with the late Stephen Jay Gould]; and Owl's Head [2004], and most recently, Bookworm.

Purcell's work has focused primarily on the artifacts of natural history, as a starting point, and over the last several years, on the vivid and immediate visual properties of organic decay. Preservation and disintegration, as metaphors for meaning in photographic imagery. Purcell isn't the only one exploring this kind of imagery, but she's done as much of it, and with more penetration, than anyone else I can think of. Her work has obvious affinities with--for instance--the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Her photographic images often seem like dense arrangements of rotting matter, odd paraphernalia, curios, keepsakes, found objects,--the detritus of gratuitous potlatch--in various states of unkempt decay or breakdown into constituent components through oxidation, consumption by pests, degradation by fire, dampness, pressure, the ravages of time and flux.

That ordinary objects may hold the evidence of all this energetic use, on the one hand, or of their abandonment and neglect, on the other, is one of the truisms of her art. Bookworm [2006] is devoted to an exploration of the minutely recorded evidence of the decay of written or recorded matter--or books--or other related surfaces which exhibit the fragmented or riddled traces of their original form. The bookworm becomes a philosophical key to the 125 color images in the book--bookworms literally eat their way through books, putting holes in them, like cheese. But of course, there are many forms of decay. Our culture's latest disregard for the inherent values of the material text, at the dawn of the Age of Information (or Computer Age), is reason enough to be interested in the preservation of books as repositories of knowledge and information. But preservation in this general sense is not Purcell's subject. She's not simply writing an elegy to the book as cultural artifact; she's exploring the visual field of that disintegration for clues and qualities which can transcend the mere concern for its loss--as, literally, unsuspected aesthetic values, finding meaning in the entropic slump of matter, oppressed by the weight of our desire and frustration and neglect, the material consequence of the inertia of intent which our civilization has built up, over centuries.

Caches of such detritus are everywhere, one has only to look beyond the shopping centers and freeway overpasses to discover the neglected, rejected, strewn, cast-off, forgotten, abandoned, lost, hidden, used-up, thrown-away, scattered, buried, stashed, saved, deconstructed and appraised stuff--lying everywhere about us on this grizzled, ancient planet we call home. Purcell is a collector, and the more complex, dense and churned the things she finds are, the more she is fascinated and drawn to them.

The spaces we inhabit in our imaginations--in our dreams, or our speculations about the structure of memory, or of our thought and sensation--may be expressed by the piecemeal disintegration of physical matter, the valence of which follows predictable and inevitable laws of process. Our familiar tendency in the presence of the weight and strata of decay is to experience fear, revulsion, dismissal. But we know that decay, oxidation, compression, dispersal are in fact the harbingers of renewal, of the process of the restoration of stasis, fertile ground for the cycles of re-use, the eternal plant.

Decay, invasive corruption and consumption penetrate and eat away at the edges of intention, desire, feeding a hunger that has no name. There is a beauty in the implosions of matter, the vivid transformation, chemical, fragmented, delicate screens of digest(ion), riddled, organic, bitter and sweet, obdurate and fragile.

The disintegrating vestiges of surface-meaning challenge our notions of use, cause our conceptions of the value of such surfaces to undergo a relentless intellectual composting. Purcell notices that photography, the momentary and impulsive fixing of such surfaces through the poised, controlled exposure, can preserve moments of this process. In the campaign of her documentation, richly grained and evocative, the foamy churning of digested matter becomes lush, hypnotic and weird.

Is sour the desire of sugar? Do we salvage to sing? Sacrifice excess lots to crunch skeletons of structure? The material text burned onto tablets of sand, glass lens interpolating distortions of the known. As we lose these masses, flickers of light illuminate the pyramid of resistance, what endures in the circus of chaotic species. Climax decay.

The deconstruction of disabled formal artifacts suggests abstraction. Meaning gathers around nodes of familiar keys, echoes, clues. But these are all familiar fragments. Within the span of cultural memory, we're on solid ground. But nothing could be less confirming.

The orgasm of progress stockpiles products of excess labor. The mind window-shops for stuffed mannikins of abandoned weaves, plastic body parts. Connoisseurs of industrial detritus. Symbiotic companions contract out parasitic eyeless wormlike hoards jiggling through the logarithm of rising fizz.

In my earlier posts on Irving Penn and Frederick Sommer, I explored the metaphorical implications of the use of light-sensitive surfaces to bear the self-reflexive relationship between viewer and object, eye and subject. Light is a medium, but it is also a component of matter itself--perhaps, as physicists now believe, the very stuff of matter itself. Light is not only the transmitter of data (of meaning), but also--in its other manifestation as "arrested light" the sensitive surface itself--matter talking to itself. And that is a conversation we sometimes may seem to be overhearing. Some such sense of the overheard seems to be taking place in Purcell's elegant color prints. Carpe diem. In seizing the momentary evidence of the degraded artifacts of our ambitious culture of production, Purcell is holding time to account, demanding of our impatient circumambient distraction, that we pay heed.

There's a lush permission about these images in Bookworm, as if we had tunneled into the Pharaoh's tomb, and held the brittle papyrus scroll in our quivering fingers. Our fortunes may be read from just such fleeting formulae. We are shadows and ghosts. The evidence of our having existed, pales in significance to the grander panorama of geologic time.

The overwhelming materiality of the quotidian masquerades as random thought, but animation may simply be a projection of a mindless consumption. Form is used up in a circle drawn by the fixed idea. The orbit of anxiety is constantly decaying. Language might decompose at the same rate as attention. We race entropy to the finish line.

Rosamund Purcell

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