By: Stuart Munro
Painting, photography and film are at the heart of Matt Saunders’s current exhibition, “Two Worlds,” at Blum & Poe gallery in Tokyo. The exhibition features two new bodies of work that are interrelated. One is a continuation of “paintings” encapsulated in photographic prints, while the other is a film installation Two Worlds (2015), which lends its title to the exhibition itself and comprises a multi-screen animated film projected around the gallery.
While both pieces make for stunning imagery, there is also an underlying thoughtfulness at work. The prints represent the artist’s search for a way of working beyond painting (and in some ways beyond the photograph). The animated projection, meanwhile, draws out a series of fleeting references to things that, although seem familiar, are harder to identify, and in the “paintings” these fleeting references become permanent uncanny reminders of the projected film itself, with both framed by the real-life landscape that lays beyond the gallery window. Born in 1975 in Tacoma, Washington, Saunders studied at Yale University, where he earned his MFA. His recent works have continued along a similar path of exploring ways of painting that could expand on the image-making process of photography. Saunders’s “The Anxiety of Photography” at Aspen Art Museum (2011) and “Test Pattern” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (2013) featured works that utilized the idea that photographic paper could become a “ground” on which a real canvas is laid and an image transferred onto the former over time. Here, with an exposure possibly as long as one whole day, the image penetrates the canvas and appears on the photochemical surface underneath.
It’s clear that Saunders enjoys the technical aspect of working this way, but he equally encourages the whimsical imagery that arises from it—from the unrefined to the un-choreographed to the unedited—as something that, in his own words, suggests “a way of painting … that can be bigger than our idea of the photograph.” Like these images themselves, the figures and faces that appear in Saunders’s paintings are illusive and unspecific, remaining indeterminate and open to interpretation at all times. Saunders’s technique of exposing the canvas of unknown portraits onto photographic paper has led him to some unexpected finds. The simple act of laying one material on top of the other, one slowly built from layers of paint and the other instantly captured by a photochemical reveal, causes the final painting–photograph composite to hang in a state of abeyance.
At Blum & Poe, the images that surround the projection screens appear “glacial” with light incrementally penetrating draped cloth in Door #2 (version 2) (2015), or framed canvases in RWF (2015), with extraordinary depth. Tree (Meiji) (2015) references the park located outside the gallery space and very clearly situates this work, and the exhibition, within the city of Tokyo. The faint impression of neon and smoldering views through a moiré of fabric shown in Night #2 (version 1 & 2) (2015) is seen in greater detail in Poelzig (Reverdy) #8 (2015), potentially hinting at condensation forming on the glass of a cold window at night. Dots of light making their way through the canvas fabric take on the uncanny quality of pixels, and one is left wondering whether the images were inspired by a television screen or views from high up overlooking the ground-level street below.
The multi-screen installation Two Worlds (2015) is made from ink on Mylar film, and based on images gathered from films and television programs that have been painted in “negative” and projected, enlarged and exposed on photographic paper. These images hint at the outline of someone diving, swimming or walking, and are interspersed with marks and textures from sweeping brush-strokes and smeared impressions, which when projected on the wall are enlarged to almost human-like proportions. The uncanniness of the texture intercutting the soft outlines appear almost like landscapes in themselves, attempting to persuade viewers that what they’re looking at is in fact something very different than what they see. Saunders’s reproduced portraits of pre-war film actresses, and scenes cut from 1960s detective dramas like Danger Man and The Prisoner, reappear in his projection of “pulp fiction.” They feature fragments of film rendered in swathes of tone and color, presenting pictures of the world outside the window and beyond any picture frame or viewfinder.
Two Worlds overlooks the nearby Meiji Jingu Park and Tokyo’s Harajuku Station, and while the elements of the park and city life happening below the gallery space lend themselves to the work’s abstraction in general, the venue’s proximity to the headquarters of the national broadcasting service NHK makes Saunders’s creation even more potent. Fact and fiction have long been part of his work, even when he is reworking in ink images of pre-war European actresses Hertha Thiele and Asta Nielsen, or British actor Patrick McGoohan as a suave but unsophisticated government agent in the television series Danger Man, who makes a fleeting cameo in the projected film.
As unspecific as his subjects may be at times, they do emphasize Saunders’s interest in fiction and persuasion, and seeing the power of images as something more meaningful than just being decorative. His work is incredibly evocative and compelling, to the point where one begins to see things in abstraction that may or may not exist definitively. Viewers are compelled to go along with the idea that what is projected on the wall exists outside the window. And while the exhibition’s title, “Two Worlds,” references both bodies of Saunders’s works on display, it could easily refer to our relationship with the world at large and the sophisticated fictions and narratives that are entwined with our everyday lives, whether on the television screen or beyond.