‘A Simple Text’ makes a not-so simple statement
November 25, 2005
Virtually all of Sarah Charlesworth’s recent works have been designed to put the viewer in a meditative state.
The New York photographer’s 2002 series “Neverland” was a meditation on ordinary objects. Taking images of such things as a tree, a sailboat and a pencil, and putting each alone against a background of saturated color, invites contemplation about the item. A selection of the “Neverland” photographs in the rear room of the Baldwin Gallery is displayed with the pieces at varying heights on the wall, making it, in Charlesworth’s words, a “floating installation.” That dreamscape pulls viewers further away from ordinary perception, and closer to the associations and feelings we have regarding the objects.”So they’re simple, recognizable objects someone would see,” said Charlesworth. “But they’re exploring the way in which objects become symbols, the way we create a symbolic world around us.”In “0 + 1,” which first showed at the Baldwin Gallery in 2003, Charlesworth went even further into a minimalist presentation. The white-on-white images, said the artist, were about, “if something came out of nothing, what would it be? It was revealing how sensitive our perception is, how we can recognize things out of the most minimal information.”With her latest series “A Simple Text,” which shows through Dec. 22 in the front room of the Baldwin Gallery, Charlesworth goes deeper toward the spiritual end of meditation. The photographs have a close connection to the “Neverland” work, with each object displayed on a glowing backdrop of single color, usually either red or white. But the objects Charlesworth has chosen now are more suggestive: Two of them feature the Buddha figure; others are taken from nature – branches, leaves, flowers. It seems fitting to learn that “A Simple Text” was planned specifically for the Baldwin Gallery and made in the wake of the death of gallery founder Harley Baldwin. Moreover, Charlesworth’s mother died shortly after Baldwin. The series, then, was inspired in part by the artist’s desire to get past the lingering shadow of death.
“It’s trying to take an emotion, sort of sorrowful, and moving through that feeling and making it more enlightening and transcendent,” said Charlesworth. “The quietness in this work has to do with negotiating through these difficult feelings. I don’t think of the work as about mourning. It’s moving beyond that. It’s – if not celebratory, it’s joyful.”While the earliest tradition of photography was to document the world as it was, Charlesworth is among a line of photographers using the medium in a different way. A photographer for some 25 years, following a brief flirtation with painting, Charlesworth connects tightly to the techniques of photography. But her early influence was conceptual art, and she sees her end product as simply art, more than an example of photography. Where much photography depicts the literal world, Charlesworth attempts to take viewers out of the usual state of being. Contemporary culture is marked by visual clutter moving by at eye-blinking speed; her work is intended to reverse that.”We live in a culture bombarded with information,” she said. “I’m interested in clearing away the visual confusion, and making meaning out of images. It’s interesting to see how the shape of things, the color, the scale, affects how we get meaning from these things. It takes you to a place where you stop, and just take time to be with that space.”It’s not about perceiving the world,” she added, “but thinking about the world, and how we order that experience. It’s, ‘Let’s stop the world and look at one branch.'”
One piece in “A Simple Text” stands out from the rest. Titled “A Simple Text,” it is relatively multidimensional, with images of dice, a green apple, a blue egg and more. The objects are arranged about an open book that has, pointedly, no text at all, rather empty white pages. It was the first piece Charlesworth made in the series, and she sees it as a sort of introduction to the rest of the art.”It’s about reading shapes and colors and forms – a different kind of reading,” she said. “A different kind of text.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org