PRINT May 2000


IT IS HARD TO TELL with the elliptical art of James Coleman, but Photograph, the newest of his “projected image” works based on a subtle succession of slides in a carousel, seems unusually personal for him. It begins with a sequence of abstract images, blank fields of soft-edged forms and dim auras. Given the work’s title, and Coleman’s acuteness to the qualities and technical histories of his media, the suggestion of out-of-focus or overdeveloped photographs should certainly be taken seriously; the sense that an art form is meditating on itself is a constant with him. Yet the allusion could also be to clouds, to vast outdoor distances, and from there to the nebulous architecture of the sublime. My confession: For me, associations like these, and the body of feeling that comes with them, are deeply linked to the Irish countryside, where I in part grew up and where I know that Coleman (himself Irish) spends time. Does that connection figure in his own view of these images? Perhaps, but it is overreaching to say so—just as it is overreaching to imagine an unfocused blur as the Irish sky.

Indeed, when recognizable images eventually appear in Photograph, they show nothing Romantic. Two young girls stand before a wall painted a shade of cream that instantly spells “institution.” In the series of pictures that follows, a blackboard identifies the place as a school. Solemn of affect, the girls don’t so much interact as stand in each other’s neighborhood. They wear the cheap, bright-colored sweats and sports clothes that you see the world over; but then, as the group expands in ensuing slides, the clothes become improvised theatrical costumes—leotards, mascara, feathers, silver and sequins, bracelets. Gathering in a school hall, the kids strike poses, practicing to perform.

Meanwhile, on the sound track, we hear a girl speak, at a hesitant, thoughtful pace. Her words have the rhythmic cadence of nineteenth-century poetry, and a sensibility of sensitive introspection: We hear of a lone spirit, of dark hours, of a silent soul. The pull of the language, though, is less toward the cliché than toward the familiar; there are no obvious quotations, no lines you recognize, just lines that sound like you could, as if the script were a kind of doctored collage of phrases that barely missed Bartlett’s (which is exactly what I suspect it to be). Such language today seems too weak to carry the weight of subjectivity that the words connote. And yet, spoken by a child, it sustains a certain gravity, for it suggests an effort to come to identity—to know the developing self—that must be respected, even if the intimations of personality being reached for are secondhand ones. (In any case, having reached for a similarly Romantic content in front of the amorphous abstractions, one cannot feel superior.) Performance, it seems, even if it is a matter of inheriting shopworn roles, may also be life’s opening, a way up and out. Which takes you back to what you hear as the cycle begins: soft breathing, and the sounds and small sighs a child might make while sleeping—or, just as possibly, while thinking very hard.

David Frankel