Seton Smith

Seton Smith's large, out-of-focus photographs give shape to the space between things, transforming what is often called emptiness and described pictorially as "negative space" into a palpable presence that is elusive, undeniable and anything but negative. Architecturally scaled, the Paris based artist's sensuous images are felt by your body well before your mind has a chance to intervene. Usually, the activity of looking at the world consists of innumerable rapid-fire exchanges between our eyeballs and our brains, in which myriad perceptions are processed, analyzed, and categorized (by our minds) until a clear and distinct picture of our surroundings snaps into focus, and our bodies are given a chance to react to what's out there before it's too late. Although this process sounds awkward and inefficient in print, it has proven to be immensely effective, especially in the face of danger. Whether the threat involves Cro-Magnons who stumble upon mountain lions, or urbanites who step in front of speeding automobiles, both situations are based in similar sets of perceptual mechanisms. Over the centuries, each of these systems has been hardwired to respond immediately, with all-or-nothing decisiveness.

Recall those heart pounding moments when you thought you saw something lurking in the shadows - before realizing it was just a reflection - and you will get a good sense of just how much of our surroundings are made up by our minds. Based on very few clues that may be read any number of ways, the world we think we see is riddled with the products of deductions and hunches, slippery intuitions formed from patterns and expectations that for the present seem more physical than conceptual. Given more time, they may reveal themselves to be imperfect interpretations or downright mistakes - despite seeming so real they are often frightening. What's remarkable about these occurrences is that when we experience them, our bodies act as if they're responding to their external surroundings when in fact they're reacting to internal, mentally generated images, based on very little input from the outside world.

Such instantaneous reactions are precisely what Smith's art aims to derail, and does so with great economy and effectiveness. It is simply impossible to see her mysterious pictures quickly.

Whether alone, in pairs, or in sequences, these intriguing depictions of softly lit interiors and still lifes put our normal mode of vision on hold, and allow another , less aggressively goal-oriented type of viewing to be put into play. Rather than reading the world as some kind of text in need of deciphering or exegesis, Smith's large format Cibachromes invite us to see the world , as if for the first time like an indeterminate , unencoded expanse of sensory possibility. If you look at these images in search of a crisp, clear answers to yes-or-no questions, you'll probably be disappointed. What they deliver ,instead, is the silent sensation of floating - of being suspended (and adrift ) in a fluid , inarticulate world whose scale shifts dramatically , whose meanings constantly slip from your grasp, and whose substances are as intangible as colored light.

Faced with Smith's entrancing photographs of such ordinary objects as lamps, bowls, and vases, or as such recognizable collectibles as cabinets, artifacts, and other photographs, time doesn't stand still as much as it slows down, drifting by at an unhurried pace that many viewers experience as soothing and meditative. The old claim that photographs present specific and concrete slices-of-time thus dissolves as you observe these serene images. Zen-like, they embody time in a way that shares more with cinema than with what has come to be known as "straight" documentary photography.

Smith's pictures never present the fiction that they stand in for a single, factual split-second that has been miraculously extracted from history to exist apart from it forever , with a deadly stillness. On the contrary, her precisely unfocused photographs , often shot at off-balanced angles and cropped in seemingly inopportune places, hum with life - with an animate vitality that draws your eyes toward them, into spaces bathed in warm light or shrouded in sensuous shadows.

This sense of animation is particularly vivid in the diptychs that present two views of the same object. Whether closely juxtaposed, like the pair of images of an ancient vase's upper and lower sections, or spread far apart on a wall, like two views of a slender glass cabinet from a French museum, Smith's diptychs have the presence of cinematic sequences, compressed into two frames of film. These photographs create the feeling of watching part of an unknown yet strangely familiar movie, made when the camera slowly circled the graceful , long necked vase or gradually passed by the transparent cabinet , deftly catching ghostly reflections and capturing the ambiance of each objects pristine surroundings, while simultaneously evoking a quietly indescribable mood.

Even Smith's single images , particularly those made in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, seem to occupy longer passages of time than are inhabited by most photographs. Too loaded with silent promise to represent only solitary moments ripped away form life's unpredictable given and take, the soft saturated surfaces of these haunting prints have the presence of time lapse photographs stacked atop one another: The narrative development they would depict if they were laid out sequentially seems to have been condensed into, or folded back upon a single image that appears to quiver or breathe with invisible energy.

Smith specializes in making single-frame prints resemble long, slow pans that savor every detail of an object's texture, patina and form. This effect is uncanny because very few details are actually presented by her carefully blurred images. An exhaustive inventory of what is depicted in these photographs might read like a list of mundane items, but looking at these images themselves is still endlessly fascinating and deeply pleasurable.

This logical conundrum simply demonstrates that Smith's photographs are not about the objects that appear in them but about the spaces between these objects and viewers, as well as the ways we respond to, and interact with, her particular renditions of them. Although all of the photographs in this exhibition were made in European museums, none of the images is concerned to convey the actual histories or factual contexts of the bowls vases or figures that hover within them as apparitions. After all, Smith is an artist, not an archeologist, historian, or scientist, and she never pretends to present detached , objective accounts of cultural objects. Rather than documenting what's out there, in the world, her art makes a place in the world for what's inside our embodied minds. Smith's mesmerizing photographs give form to the spaces where such interior realities as memories and reveries intermingle with such exterior objects as beautiful bowls and vases, whose original contexts have been all but lost.

At the opening of A la recherché du temps perdu ( loosely translated as Remembrance of Things Past), Marcel Proust also meditates upon the ways in which one's surroundings trigger memories. For the French writer, common objects stir recollections that let us connect the past to the present, and thus assure a person of the integrity of his or her identity. Focusing on the moment when sleep gives way to wakefulness and one's most familiar world appears for an instant to be out of focus and strangely alien, Proust suggests that reality's coherence is not intrinsic to its inhabitants. The catch to his description of the intermingling of consciousness and objects is that of the human self, whose wholeness is predicated on finding its place among a vast compendium of things, is the only force that holds these things together in any meaningful pattern.

Visually, Smith's photographs enact similar dramas. Each print stands as a portal to a seemingly magical world where common objects are suffused with more intrigue and enchantment than their literal, physical forms would ordinarily indicate. Even so, Smith's art never gives shape to some far flung fantasy world that's in accessible and esoteric. Rooted in perfectly ordinary experiences, her gorgeous photographs embody the wonder of everyday occurrences by delving more deeply into their quiet complexity.

David Pagel
September 1997
Los Angeles, CA

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