September 22, 2010

From the Interior: Frank Rodick (Part 2)

 (Untitled No. 93 from Liquid City)

There is a gradual, but none the less distinct, shift in your work from early projects that concentrate on the photographic moment (or at least some external reality, however distorted) to what you're doing now, describing closed worlds of visual experience. I wonder if you could describe how this came about?

I think where I am now – wherever that is – is always where I’ve been heading. You’re right, of course, the Liquid City work has a more defined connection to external reality, as you put it. It’s reality passed through the mill of, say, a dream or a vision… Of course, the medium for that transformation is subjective individual consciousness. And that’s what’s really interested me all along. It’s not that realism doesn’t interest me, it’s just that for me this is the most fundamental and by far the most interesting reality of all. (David Shields, among others, puts it nicely in his book Reality Hunger when he says that deep down all artists want to be realists. They just differ as to what they believe that reality consists of).

The starting point for Liquid City was the city street, which was a natural environment for my first real photography project. For one thing, I just loved Robert Frank’s The Americans, that dark poetry, the unsentimental melancholy… And I grew up on city streets, spending lots of time in Montreal’s downtown core, riding subways and buses – my parents never owned a car and sitting on buses was a perfect way to just watch this panoply of human phenomena – and walking the streets was what I liked to do. There was always great stuff to see.

In visual terms the thing was to find a way to make it look the way I felt it, or at least move it in that direction. Like a lot of things, the aesthetic for Liquid City, or whatever you want to call it, came about by accident. I just started taking a lot of pictures (the best single piece of advice I ever got from a photography teacher was from Henry Gordillo who told us to take more pictures than we ever imagined we could) and some were blurred and a few were shot from the hip and eventually I got a better sense of what I wanted to do. I just really began to like the way some of these images took things away from a kind of particularity that located the image in a specific external place; it started to look to me like the location point was internal in a sense, although there were definite and recognizable correspondences to what was going on in the outside world. And that also defined for me part of the urban experience: that miasma of flowing, transient experience, where nothing stops moving, everything’s in play and wonderfully mysterious…

Sub rosa was started later but done concurrently with Liquid City, although in a more compressed time frame, from 1995 to 1997. The human figure is almost always central to my work in some way and again, I wanted to take something that engaged with me personally – in this case, the female body – and work that image into something that pushed it somewhere deeper for me. And again, in sub rosa, there was the good fortune of accident, which started with some long expired Polaroid film that produced some pretty quirky things. I just pushed it from there.

But throughout the period of Liquid City and sub rosa I was collecting videotape, some of it appropriated, some I’d shot myself, not sure what I’d do with it but feeling like eventually it might come together into something…

(No. 5 from sub rosa)

Céline – who, in my opinion, might have written the best novel of the twentieth century, Journey to the Edge of the Night – said this fabulous thing, which I’m paraphrasing here. It was something like “I want to make hallucinations that are more real than real life.” And that was just says it so much better than I could. Real life, traditionally expressed in the photograph (whatever that means, probably not much anymore, which is a good thing) just didn’t do it for me. So I’d say that around 2000 I just stopped making images of what was in front of my eyeballs – I stopped carrying my camera around too, for the most part – and started working on visually extracting what was behind them. And I think that was what Arena was about… Really, that was what I’ve been interested in all along. It’s not that naturalism is boring – well, maybe it is, a little – it’s just that all that tension and chaos and energy and dread and ecstasy – and yes, it’s all tied into sex and death, all really interesting things are, after all – all that stuff was just so much more interesting, so much more beyond just interesting. And that’s what I was looking for, stuff that could really excite me, where I could look at an image coming together and say, simultaneously, I’ve never seen this thing before but it’s as familiar to me as my own life. It was like trying to dredge up the entrails so to speak of your mind, which is the biggest, wildest space of all.

(3 a.m. (engram) from Arena)

I guess one question was how to bend the photographic medium around that holy chore. Some people might say, why use photography, there are other media more suited to it. But so what? Bending something in a direction that maybe it’s not quite as supple is, again, a rather interesting, even exciting, thing to do. It takes you places you didn’t expect, which as you know is a big deal to me.

I think what happened too is that by around 2000 I’ve gotten that business of linking images to external reality pretty well out of my system. Actually I’m still very fond of the early photographs – Untitled, no. 1 from Liquid City is still one of my favorite images – and I had to make them to get to where I went later. But it took me a while to get to the point where the starting point was no longer outside but inside. Of course, this inside-outside business is a little bit specious; every image is a self portrait, which is to say, that it reflects internal realities. It’s just that our internal realities – and, perhaps better put, our internal imperatives – are different enough in each of us that they manifest themselves like different worlds, which is what they are.

Looking at your work, even from the beginning, it seems there is a profound sense of anxiety, particularly concerning the body and the coherence of identity that I would connect (perhaps wrongly?) to the influence of someone like Francis Bacon. But there is also an obvious concern with multiple images and seriality that suggests a broader range of interests. Maybe you could tell me a little about what has helped you arrive at such a unique style?

It’s a tough question to answer. Maybe one way to start is with questions of my own, in this case, a list – in no particular order and by no means exhaustive – of questions that have motivated my work or, or more precisely, that I think have motivated my work:

What are the ways of representing “internal” realities through a visual medium, particularly still photography, which is so effective at evoking a sense of external reality?

How can the still image engage visceral emotions and feelings and sensations that correspond to words such as rage, lust, fear, and ecstasy without reducing these conceptions to the intellectual constructs implied in language itself?

Can you illuminate those things pertaining to the self that reside in shadow while still retaining the shadow itself?

How does one balance a faithful representation of what is inherently unclear with the desire to communicate?

Can you give a sense of auditory volume to a still and silent image?

To what degree is self-reflection and self-examination compatible with what might be called truthfulness?

Can one create something without trace of redemptive purpose?

What does the taking of risks really mean in the creative process?

Perhaps these questions give an idea of at least some of the itches I may have been trying to scratch.

As for influences, yes, of course, you’re right about Bacon although I engaged with his work relatively late. I’d also include Munch, Schiele, Kiefer, Beckmann, Kitaj, even Warhol, among the painters, in no particular order. From film, Tarkovsky, Lynch, Haneke, Renoir, the early Bertolluci, Antionioni, the early Wenders, Dreyer. From literature, Dostoevesky, Kertesz, Thomas Bernhard, Kafka, Camus, Houellebecq, Thomas Mann, Kundera, Coetzee, and, of course, Céline. Probably literature, as a medium, has been the most important precisely because it isn’t visual; I find it spurs me on but leaves me with freer rein in terms of visual imagination. I haven’t listed any photographers because they’ve perhaps been less important to me on the whole, particularly once I started making more images myself. But some of the ones that come to mind include Robert Frank, Arbus, particularly the later work, Witkin, and S.A. Bachman. And no doubt, I’ve left out many others.

In line with that, what I’d say about the matter of influence is that it’s much less about formal elements than it is about a resonant sensibility. What I think all these artists have in common is that each, in their own ways, has done work that cuts to the quick; they’re really quite savage in their ability to cut past the bullshit that people use mainly to distract themselves from the realities that trouble us all. And at times that bullshit can even be reasonably interesting or amusing or seductive, but in the end it falls short in that it evades what matters most. But, to me, these artists don’t turn away from difficult things; those are precisely the things that draw them even when it involves pretty savage self examination. And they don’t try to clear confusion when that confusion is elemental. Rather they stay with that uncertainty and they explore and engage it.

Their vocation isn’t to give the audience relief or catharsis or therapy or well-being. Missions are for missionaries. I think they have the instinct to forswear any sense of moral obligation to their audience. When you do that, your creative parameters increase and so does the relative integrity you bring to the whole enterprise.

Harold Pinter said this about Samuel Beckett:

"He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going, and the more he grinds my nose in the shit, the more I am grateful to him. He's not fucking me about, he's not leading me up any garden path, he's not slipping me a wink, he's not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he's not selling me anything I don't want to buy — he doesn't give a bollock whether I buy or not — he hasn't got his hand over his heart. Well, I'll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty."

How great is that? It’s the most extraordinary compliment paid by one artist to another that I’ve ever read or heard.

(Decrement from Faithless Grottoes)

In the end, my feeling is that anyone’s best work comes from one place and that place is the most profound wound you have in your heart. Everyone has one of those... a great, big gaping wound, and, we spend our lifetimes dealing with it, one way or another.

You mentioned the issue of anxiety and the body. I’d say that whatever anxiety comes through from my work is less about the body than expressed through the body. I trust bodies more than I trust minds. There’s a reason for the term mind-fucking and that is that minds are really good at not only getting fucked around but doing the fucking around as well. But the most affecting truths, I think, are inevitably found below the neck...  Sex and death, you can engage those two things on a lot of levels, but the one that counts most in terms of being human is the physical. Just ask anyone who’s in the process of getting fucked. Or anyone who really knows and feels they’re dying.

When I watched my father doing that – dying – a few years ago, there were lots of words and ideas to fall back on. To a very large extent, civilization is based on varying collections of these words and conceptions. But what I somehow remember is that just watching him die – and it was a very corporeal event, bits of him seemed to be falling away – seemed to drown out the meaning of all those conceptions and it was like all these supposed meanings were put to rest by an existential hum that had become more like a loud whine or a screech. It was unintelligible but as real as anything. And I don’t think that experience was an expression of something as simple or not so simple as grief; it was much more elemental. And with that sound – if I can call it that, that’s what it felt like – came the kind of anxiety that just settles into bone.

As for the use of multiple images and seriality, what I found after a time was that the single image could only take me so far. Now I really like the still image, precisely for its stillness, which has a kind of otherworldliness that I think is positively terrific. But that just makes combining images that much more interesting to me; it increases the complexity, the ambiguities, the transience of the work, while retaining that mystery of the still image.

(Porneia from Faithless Grottoes)

There are lots of ways of describing the differences between artists. And I think one of those ways is along a kind of “clarity/obscurity continuum.” I know that’s a terribly clumsy way of phrasing it, but I think there are artists, just as there are people in all walks of life, who incline more to making things clearer and those who don’t just revel in but believe in the fundamental reality of a certain kind of intrinsic obscurity. Primo Levi had this great quote in an interview he did in La Stampa, where he compares his work to Kafka:

"In my writings, for better or for worse, knowingly or unknowingly, I have always made an effort to move from dark to clear, like a filtration pump that sucks in cloudy water and expels it clarified, if not sterile. Kafka takes an opposite path; he pours out an endless stream of hallucinations dredged up from levels unbelievably deep, and never filters them. The reader feels them swarming with seeds and spores: they are burning with meaning, but he is never helped to tear down or bypass the veil, so as to see things in the place where they are hidden. Kafka never touches ground, he never deigns to offer you the clue to the maze."

Well, I incline to the Kafka camp – here please insert the requisite disclaimers – because for me that’s where what I feel as reality lies. (W.G. Sebald talked about the fog, as the fundamental metaphor for human experience.) Again, there are lots of formal tools to explore and express complexity/obscurity/vagueness and the multiplicity and fracturing of images is just one of them.

When I think of works that really meant a lot to me, not just as an artist, but as a human being trying to make his way through this whole thing, so much of the stuff that comes to mind – Kafka’s The Castle, Lynch’s Lost Highway, the poems of Paul Celan, as just a few examples – that stuff was infused with multiple meanings. Which is not to say they were a complete mess, although they’re necessarily untidy and they’re certainly uncomfortable. But one of the things about human beings is that we’re creatures that are tend to look for clarity and explanation, but ultimately we live in a world that owes nothing to that inclination, or any of our other inclinations for that matter.

I’m as sure of anything that to get to that place, that place of shadow and fog and roiling emotion, you can’t do it through reliance on ideas. Ideas useful for all kinds of things, but when they become a kind of rigid blueprint for art, you suck the life out of the work. I have to rely on, for want of a better word, instinct, on getting lost in things and letting things come to me and getting frustrated and staying frustrated long enough but also excited long enough that I go someplace that feels “elsewhere”… because comfort means that you think you know something, when the reality is that, as Vico said, what we don’t know is always so much greater than what we do know.

(The Bathers from Revisitations)

Maybe that helped me feel as free as I have – or as compelled as I have, it depends on how you look at it. There’s so much more that could be said here... and I’m not even sure I answered your question.

An excellent catalogue for Frank's recent mid-career retrospective is available from the Deborah Colton Gallery, via their website, or It is very well illustrated and has an informative essay by Katherine Ware, curator at the New Mexico Museum of Art. The first part if this interview can be found here, while for further reading try this article by Bob Black.