New York

Hamish Fulton and Jean Le Gac

Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery and John Gibson Gallery

Travel has a universal appeal. It holds out the tantalizing hope of being able to step outside of oneself, shedding that shell of circumstance and habit that structures one’s day-to-day existence. It also has the effect of vastly sharpening perceptions. The senses are put on 24-hour alert, and the most peripheral baggage, details of which pass unnoticed at home, suddenly commands attention. Road-signs, labels, wrappers, newspapers, restaurant china, all become the focus of this heightened awareness. It’s hard to dwell on yourself when traveling; too much gets in the way.

Whether mythical or real, journeys have provided an endless source of subject matter. As often as not, voyages serve as a metaphor for life itself, charting one’s progress through time as well as space. Despite its literary popularity, traveling has not held much interest as a subject for artists’ work. Two very different exhibitions, however, give evidence that they have begun to employ it as a medium.

Hamish Fulton, a young English artist who has had little exposure in the United States, showed a series of very large, grainy black and white photographs representing particular moments in walks he has been taking for several years around the English countryside. Each photo is annotated briefly with the location of the walk, its length, and duration—often several days. Unlike Richard Long, who has also spent considerable time hoofing it esthetically around England, leaving piles of rocks, etc. to mark his passage, Fulton is not concerned that his presence affect any of the places he passes through; as he proceeds along his journey with his senses tuned to receive every signal, the land makes its mark on him.

In this respect Fulton’s walks hark back to an 18th-century literary tradition, where extended trips on foot—Samuel Johnson’s tour of the Hebrides, for instance—offered the souls of nature-loving literati certain restorative benefits. Love of the countryside has always been a particularly English trait, perhaps because so little in that well-groomed isle, even 200 years ago, remained untouched by civilization. Uninhabited territory, then and now, seems to the English less a danger or a challenge than an opportunity for pleasure and introspection—a sort of extended garden. To be sure, the English “wilderness” lacks extremes of climate or terrain, and thus projects a gentle, soft friendliness that comes through in Fulton’s landscapes.

His photographs convey the transitory nature of his momentary perceptions, juxtaposing them with the timeless sense of place that pervades the views. The landscape, which has been there forever, whether or not anyone chose to look, is often punctuated by something particular and transient. A ray of sunlight outlining a dark cloud; a herd of deer in a field; rings on the surface of a pond produced by a tossed stone—such events enable Fulton to isolate his moments from the landscape’s overwhelming sense of indifferent permanence.

Fulton’s photographs document a very personal communing with nature more often found in poetry, but here rendered wordlessly. Jean Le Gac, a French artist, bends his travels to quite different ends. Color photographs, much closer in spirit to vacation snapshots than to Fulton’s landscapes, are accompanied by extensive stories (translated from French). Le Gac’s head teems with references. Everything he sees reminds him of something he has read; it is as though his entire purpose in traveling is to find the perfect spot to film some favorite novel on location. His store of images is far-reaching; The Excursion, a trip through France or Switzerland, unearthed recollections of French novels, fairy tales, American movies, the rocks in a Cézanne landscape, The Last of the Mohicans, and, he tells us in one caption, “the junction of the by-road that takes Tintin and Milon to the castle of Moulinsart.” His is a romantic view of sightseeing that anyone with a cinematic approach to literature can appreciate.

A series of photographs of a trip to England called In a Mini Bus provides the artist with a chance to write his own novel. A photo of a dog lying in the window of a grocery store evoked the following characterization of the unseen grocer: “Sundays you can see him with his dog at the edge of the lake. He throws breadcrumbs to the ducks, mumbling between his teeth all the while as if he were telling ‘decades’ on his rosary beads.” Le Gac goes on to say that the grocer isn’t a very good businessman, but he has enjoyed figures and bookkeeping since he was a child, and he likes to hear the bell on the door jangle when customers come in. All the photos in the Mini Bus piece carry equally elaborate fictions.

Though the subjects of Le Gac’s photos are miles away from Fulton’s, they both reveal the traveler’s heightened attention to detail. Fulton, however, presents his observations without comment. Le Gac, in concentrating on the narrative triggered by the scene, ends up by obscuring his own persona, which is so gently evident in Fulton’s work. One cannot help wondering if Le Gac has missed his calling. Is he, as he purports to be, a Conceptual artist/photographer, or is he, perhaps, a novelist or filmmaker manqué? His work leaves us with such doubts. Fulton, on the other hand, makes his position eminently clear.

––Nancy Foote