Art

Photograms made in Robert Rauschenberg’s swimming pool

From “Past Paper//Present Marks,” published by Radius Books.  (Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Odette England)
From “Past Paper//Present Marks,” published by Radius Books. (Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Odette England)

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For the last four months or so, I’ve been in a bit of a funk. The brutal news cycle detailing global unrest and domestic discord has eaten away at any sense of tranquility I had. Everything seems jumbled upside down, nonsensical.

I’m just now starting to peek out of the funk. And one of the things I’ve found to be supremely helpful is taking respite in beautiful things — or things that I can get lost in, that carry me away into a sense of reverie. The book “Past Paper // Present Marks” (Radius, 2022) by artists Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Odette England is one of the books I’ve taken some refuge in.

The book itself is gorgeous, which only boosts the pleasure you’ll get while flipping through its pages. But the content (I hate that word!) borders on the sublime. It’s a collection of photograms — or photographic images produced without a camera — made in legendary artist Robert Rauschenberg’s swimming pool at his Florida home.

The images are experimental visions of wonder. Garza-Cuen and England made them in 2018 as part of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency in Captiva, Fla.

When the artists arrived at Rauschenberg’s home, they introduced themselves to the studio manager and told him they were interested in collaborating on some “process experiments.” The studio manager replied that they would be given access to some of Rauschenberg’s old photographic paper in the darkroom.

After finding the paper nestled there amid Rauschenberg’s old chemicals, processing trays and enlarger, the two artists set about their experimentation. They mixed the old chemicals, took the expired paper and began the process that would eventually give birth to the works in “Past Paper // Present Marks.”

The resulting images are soft and dreamy. But of course there’s more to them than that. Their provenance lends added weight, coming from remnants left behind by one of the world’s most admired artists, or as Garza-Cuen and England say: “Overlooked materials with latent potential for experimentation.”

To quote Walt Whitman, that phrase “contains multitudes.” Garza-Cuen and England’s photograms were made after they folded, cut, pierced and slashed Rauschenberg’s photographic paper and then tossed it into his swimming pool, where it marinated in the water and sun.

I’m almost always interested to read what artists themselves say about the process they used to make a work, and this is true here. Here’s how England and Garza-Cuen describe the process that created these images:

“We fold sheets of paper / layer and place them inside the envelopes / will them to transform // We cut / pierce / slash the cardboard envelopes and light-tight bags / set them free in Bob’s pool // Adrift / floating / sinking/ dancing at the edges / exposed for hours to the sun / moon / accumulating itinerant light swimming through salt water ///”

Well, as a onetime English major, I’m reminded of a poem — or, going a step further, even life itself. After all, aren’t we all in some way cut and pierced and exposed to the elements, sun and moon, too? Isn’t this one of the very ways our personalities are formed?

As we all know, life is unpredictable. To borrow another saying, “life is what happens while you’re making plans,” right? I find the work in “Past Paper // Present Marks” to be a lovely meditation on the randomness of creativity and the very essence of life, which is wrapped up in so much personal history, dings, scuffs, collisions. It’s what makes us who we are; it’s how we create the things we leave behind that prove we existed.

That’s one way to interpret the work. Anyway, diving into this book gave me some respite from the scorching flames of a relentless news cycle. And maybe it can do the same for you. Or maybe you will take a completely different message from the images. That’s the beauty of art, isn’t it?

I would call these images “otherworldly,” but that isn’t really true. They are firmly of this world. Indeed, what you see in them are the marks that the world makes. They are not only images but poetry and music, too. Yes, they contain multitudes.

This idea is bolstered by the three essays included in the book, written by Susan Bright, a London-based curator and writer; David Campany, a curator, writer and director of programs at the International Center of Photography in New York; and Nicholas Muellner, associate professor of photography and co-director of the Image Text MFA at Ithaca College and the ITI Press.

All three have their own interpretations and responses to Garza-Cuen and England’s work. Here are some of the nuggets I pulled from their essays:

Bright: “The viewer must allow the works to lead them also, into a world of strangeness and beauty where things appear to be one thing and another at the same time.”

Campany: “So, when Garza-Cuen and England tell us very clearly where and with what materials they have made their photograms, there is nothing clear we can conclude from this. It may be that the relation of their work to Rauschenberg is similar to the relation between photography and the photogram more generally. True but tenuous.”

Muellner doesn’t even explicitly talk about Garza-Cuen and England’s work at all. He mostly ruminates on Rauschenberg and thinks about how he experienced his work as mostly about surface. But that seems to be the connection — the photograms in “Past Paper // Present Marks” are, as photographic works, surface. The relation between the two becomes more apparent, if implicit, in a quote like this from Muellner’s essay:

“One does not need the depths below, if everything about one’s experience radiates across the surface of a floating life. … If you insist on the surface long enough, it still amounts to a life.”

The essays show how the work can be interpreted in different ways, whether academic, contextual or personal. But this is true of most artistic work, and it’s one of the things that makes encountering works of art, like the ones in this book, a very rich experience.

You can read more about the book and purchase it on the publisher’s website, here.

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