Time As Subject
by Paddy Johnson
Good art offers a different vision of the world around us. It helps us see objects in a new light, and recognize the value of new forms. Its meaning, however, is not always immediately apparent.
Such is the case with artist Marsha Owett’s “Landscapes Inches Away”, a suite of photographs documenting the sand and water along the shoreline of Shimoda Prefecture, Japan. On her art, Owett speaks simply: “I like things that look like other things”. It’s a sentiment made evident by the work itself, which more often resembles aerial landscape photography than simple sand and water. The very specificity of the Owett’s subject - sand, water, at this beach in this prefecture of Japan - is what allows the originality and insight of the photographer’s vision to become visible. Owett does not ascribe any grand narrative for photographs, and in so doing she sets them free: where street photography invites the complications of history, or photography-about-photography muddles visual expression with recitations of theory,
Owett’s minimal subject leaves the viewer with vision alone.Owett’s documentation of sand and water for example, instantaneously evokes an abstract notion of timelessness, while our recognition of forms within those photographs is, by contrast, very specific. A drawn forest emerges out of one image, brown tentacles in another; we cannot help but find the concrete within these essentially abstract fields, and this very concreteness is tied to a time, to a place, to a specific kind of vision owned by the viewer. Our readiness to find forms in abstraction is historical, political, and the muteness of the sand behaves like the blankness of a mirror’s silver.
That said, perhaps the subject matter is not entirely mute. It tells its own story. While Owett’s work has a more focused relationship to time than many artists who find representation within natural forms, the process of locating these forms can be placed within an established contemporary art narrative. Well-known artist Alex MacLean, whose aerial photographs reveal the relationship between the built and natural world, marks one obvious contemporary; so does Rosalind Nashasibi, whose film “eyeballing” finds proof of surveillance through the anthropomorphizing of found objects. Just as our reading of the images is multiplied, Owett herself is but one artist offering up images in a multiplied reading of our environment.
Owett adds to the layers in her work with a mastery of form, capturing rich textures that often recall the language of painting. While unalterably flat, the photographic surface under Owett’s command feels as alive as paint, flowing from an artist’s brush. It’s no surprise, looking at the images, to learn that Owett herself has a background in painting. Her work in “neo-grunge” paintings, which she began exhibiting in 1996, clearly influences her decisions as a photographer.
In medium, these photographs are a departure from her earlier art making. Her practice, though, remains intuitive. The vast majority of the photographs Owett took in Shimoda Prefecture - where she was shooting over the course of three days with a point-and-shoot camera (The Canon Powershot 6D600) - appear in the show. The images were taken quickly, and without planning. Nothing was arranged or touched, as with all her photographs. They are, as Owett aptly describes them, “ready-made still lives.
The variation Owett finds through this process is also the work’s virtuosity. Sand is often defined by its uniform look, yet Owett, working with a restrained palette, reveals its rich diversity. Compare “Forest”, a taupe-colored print capturing what resembles a prehistoric cave drawing of trees, to “Transformation”, which is virtually indistinguishable from a shot taken from hundreds of miles above. Both are images of the same sand, on the same beach, yet they aren’t burdened by the sameness that could easily plague a subject that is described only through sand and water. The rocks, sticks, seaweed, and smoothed out glass often found on beaches never appear.
Four prints hanging in the reception area break from this form, each picturing rocks and sand. Of course, as with much of Owett’s work, they don’t quite resemble their subjects alone. When first encountered, the work reads as Icelandic glacial images, the blackened tips of mountain-tops surrounded by snow. Ultimately, of course, they’re only rocks: rocks, and sand, acting out the same geological forces in pathetic miniature.
Once again, the suggestion of ancient mountains, weathered over thousands of years, brings time to the fore. Here, though, the interpretation is consistent; whether the viewer sees these works as sand and rocks or glacial forms, the subject of timelessness remains. Timelessness, accompanied by the incredibly specific timeliness of the photographic snapshot: at this moment, and no other, were things thus. A consciousness of historical progression never truly leaves the viewer.
Of course, Owett probably didn’t pick up the camera for these reasons. Her process is driven by instinct and a desire to share what she sees and experiences with those around her. Thusly, the story of these pictures, unfolds on its own. Owett’s great skill, is in her ability to find landscape in which multiple histories and narratives wash over the viewer, like water on a deserted beach.
Paddy Johnson is the founding editor of Art Fag City. In addition to her work on the blog, she has been published in New York Magazine, artreview.com, Art in America, The Daily, Print Magazine, Time Out NY, The Reeler, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, and New York Press, and linked to by publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Boing-Boing, The New York Observer, Gawker, Design Observer, Make Magazine, The Awl, Artinfo, and we-make-money-not-art. Paddy lectures widely about art and the Internet at venues including Yale University, Parsons, Rutgers, South by Southwest, and the Whitney Independent Study Program. In 2008, she served on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation New Media Fellowships and became the first blogger to earn a Creative Capital Arts Writers grant from the Creative Capital Foundation. Two years later, Paddy was nominated for best art critic at The Rob Pruitt Art Awards and won The 2010 Village Voice award for Best Art Blog. Paddy also writes a regular column on art for The L Magazine.