Art News Magazine recently proclaimed photography “the medium of the moment.” But maybe the publication wasn’t doing photography any favors.
Alex Ferguson and Jeremy Bringard bring a challenging vision of photographic art to a joint exhibit at Art Barn, one that undercuts assumptions inherent in the Art News analysis. The fact that all photography is lumped together—in a way that critics would never treat different styles of painting—shows that people expect photography to be similarly representational. And though the magazine doesn’t say so outright, part of the rationale for its thesis is that a post-inflationary art market favors affordable works, easily reproduced and acquired. Although there have long been photographers experimenting with the medium, they have tended to be marginalized, and a conservative art market means conservative aesthetics.
In the works showcased in the exhibit the artists have dubbed “A Mishap That Became an Occurrence,” Ferguson and Bringard’s lenses have created daring, abstract works through chance elements. Bringard, however, confesses his discomfort with that specific designation. “I don’t like the word ‘abstract,’” he says. “I wish there was another word for it.”
Bringard took his images from found objects captured during long walks around his downtown neighborhood. The works almost don’t even look like photographs at first. They resemble works by his favorite painters, like Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, with heavy, expressionistic effects. The titles demonstrate a literary influence—“Navigation of an Absentee Captain” and “Light Burns Clear,” taken from Steinbeck’s introduction to Winter of Our Discontent—but the loose connection between the titles and the individual works may actually owe more to music. “I like long, elegant song titles that have nothing to do with the song,” he admits. “It adds to the mystery.”
“Wit of the Insane,” a seemingly prosaic painted-over graffiti, reveals its mystery when you notice an ominous shadow hovering over the image, adding a layer of texture. “A Collapsed Star Becomes Singular” resembles an astronomical broadcast from the Hubble telescope, and the title is a Stephen Hawking reference. These pieces, though of unspecified origin, are meditations. He wants the viewer to make his works objects of study.
“An orange takes on a more orange quality when you take time to study it, and find out what it’s made of, what makes it an orange,” Bringard says of his technique. “Like a Rorschach test, I want people to examine them and assign their own meanings. Their small size [some as small as 5 by 7 inches] makes viewers go in and confront them alone, not with the comfort of a group.”
Ferguson’s pieces are taken from his Olympic Foot Travel Project, in which he placed pieces of 120 mm film on sidewalks downtown during the Olympics. He retrieved them later, after they were etched by the footprints of people from all over the world. He documented place and time, and recorded journal entries on the white space next to the images. When he ran out of clear film, Ferguson began using film with pre-existing images, like one with a figure from his work with local band Alchemy. Another one has a long rip in the negative, violent scratches and images like tiny lights. Others have salt crystals or sugar, some kind of spilled drink, the waffle print of a boot. Pock marks of grit resemble a stellar constellation.
Like Bringard, he feels he shares the act of creation with the beholder. One journal entry reads, “Who was the artist? My role was small in the creation of these images: time, weather, hordes, location all played important roles.” Attendees at the show will begin the cycle anew, with film placed on the floor of the gallery to record viewers’ “impressions.”
Ferguson also admitted that his style has an additional, practical benefit for a working artist: “One problem has always plagued photographers, that their work is reproducible from negatives, so their works were not perceived as unique.” He solved this problem by attaching the negative from each work on the matte along with the print, completing the documentation.
Both Bringard and Ferguson acknowledge some unique dangers of their brand of “found art.” “Security was all around [during the Olympics], and if anyone had noticed what I was doing, I’m sure it didn’t look normal,” laughs Ferguson. Of his own scavenging, Bringard concurs, “I don’t have a problem looking into a dumpster, and have even been stopped by the FBI! You may look odd doing that, but you can find the most beautiful things.”