July 21 – August 28, 2011
Falling City is an exhibition of 25 of Arthur Bruso’s photographs. The images in this collection have a fleet quality–they seem casual, unstudied, even random. A passing face on the street captured in a blur reveals a mutual awareness between the subject and the photographer, but the reverie of the moment isn’t interrupted. Abandoned properties, textural details of wood-sided buildings weathered, degenerate and ready for bulldozing are regarded with the same placidity. Initially, the individual photographs seem mundane, but that’s deceptive. Collectively it becomes clear that the glancing quality is not arbitrary. They subtly gain momentum and a unique point of view is revealed.
When I sat down with Bruso to interview him on the occasion of his solo exhibition, Aether: constructions and photograms in 2008–a show I curated–he brought up Lillian Hellman to articulate an aspect of his work of which I’m particularly captivated.
Bruso: Lillian Hellman talks about pentimento in relation to a person’s past. Pentimento is an art conservation term that describes the effect of oil paint becoming more transparent over time, allowing the changes the artist made to show through. Hellman uses the term to explain her way of looking back over a life and reconsidering it with the knowledge and wisdom of the present (“to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.”) For me, my art exists in a continuum. The “Into The Magic Space” film may have been exposed when I was a teenager, but revisiting [the work] after [many years] changed my approach to the images.
As I was curating Falling City perhaps it was because I had the Hellman reference in mind that I thought of another anecdote from the writer’s life. I recalled Mary McCarthy wickedly declaring of Hellman, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” I pondered the quote in relationship to Bruso’s photographs and thought perhaps it was apt. Not as a rebuke, or to taunt a lawsuit such as Hellman took out against McCarthy because of the comment, rather in the sense of an artist commanding their material to serve a vision beyond that of mere data. While we can wonder about Hellman’s self-mythologizing and self-invention; we may also question how relevant that is in the face of her literary achievement. Any story can be imagined a lie, limited or shaped by point of view, and with Bruso’s photos we may never know the full documentary truth. Bruso embraces a medium that continually teases us to question where? when? who? yet these questions are merely a red herring in contemplating his work. Certainly there are clues within some of the images that reveal a timeline: a hairstyle, a landmark. Bruso doesn’t set out to erase time and place, however these simply aren’t the distinguishing themes. Falling City suggests a narrative but it’s as hazy as some of the passing faces his camera captures. The play between stillness and motion, studies in texture and glimpsed scenes generate a rhythm that mimics “looking” as opposed to image making. The artist actively considering his environment is apparent. There’s an immediacy and sketchbook-like quality that’s potent and lively, achieved by trusting the world to reveal itself to a democratic eye.
Bruso utilizes his photographs as an ever-expanding vocabulary. He has an almost encyclopedic collection from which to draw. Since his first camera he never stopped taking pictures. There are images taken during boyhood explorations in the woods, others are experiments from student photo classes, others are more recent. From this visual history he’ll reprint and reconsider, sometimes juxtaposing or repeating images to communicate new ideas. Every photograph he takes becomes part of an on-going investigation and meditation. The images are not about dramatic, decisive moments, but rather an accumulation of observations. They are instances that might otherwise go ignored. Bruso identifies something compelling in the everyday. William Eggleston similarly embraced the mundane, but if Eggleston is comparable to cinematography with his vibrant color and unusual compositions, Bruso is the intimacy of a home movie. One image is captured on the fly while another is carefully composed. Some images are black and white; others have a color palette muted by a combination of age and darkroom intention. The work remains in flux because he is continually reevaluating. “What I thought were failures then, look new and interesting now.” Perhaps the task he has set for us is to decide what greater truth is being revealed, one that doesn’t rely on facts, dates and names, or even the decisive moment but on communicating something even more fundamental, more essential and which only becomes apparent by looking again and again.
—Raymond E. Mingst, curator