Simon Read

If as many entities exist as there are points of view—Ortega’s theory of perspectivismo—then there is a camera for every subject. Working on this assumption Simon Read, as much inventor as artist, perfected (among other things) a pinhole device the height and width of a gallery, and a rotating apparatus to create anamorphic portraits. Basing his art on principles of Renaissance perspective, he took his cues from Jan Dibbets and John Hilliard, elaborating the metaphor of eye as camera to remind viewers of lacunae inherent in coherent but arbitrary systems. Having done so, he regarded them as adumbrations of other, more complex, orders, imaginable only by extrapolation.

A studio fire in 1979 forced Read to begin again, in a 10-by-12-foot bedroom. One entire corner became an angled, inverted triangular pinhole camera, opposite which stood an eight-foot-high drawing of a tree in white on black. When the photograph was taken, some of the three-dimensionality of the mechanism was transferred to the recreation of the object. An initial task consisted of arranging 500 apertures to produce the perspectival prints in this show. Calculations were complex, Read told me: “The angle between the front of the camera and the wall had to be determined. The relationship between these was taken as if between two rectangles where one plane (wall) would see the other (front of camera) in perspective. Having arrived at a perspective of front plane as seen from back plane, the form the camera would take as a triangle had to be superimposed on this. Then the back as corner rather than a flat plane had to be taken into consideration. . . .”

Rather than settling for mathematical solutions, Read operated by what he calls “whimsy,” a play between necessary projection and willful distortion. Drawings recalling Naum Gabo constructions were made to illustrate experiments with five vanishing points, or vanishing points shifting downwards and inwards as the eye moved. Certain features of the drawings—the superimposition of square grids, for instance—were inherited from previous series. Gradually, problem solving gave way to an acceptance of rules based on former decisions. Finally, reliance on those rules was crystallized to form a game structure existing in and for itself, generating more plans from within boundaries that threatened to exclude the artist completely. Developing took place on the wall; then the pictures were laid on the floor. When images had been completely bleached out, relevant portions were returned by brushing with sepia tone. Yet if those brushstrokes were a flourish celebrating Read’s resumption of control, the appearance of serried ranks of trees seen in partial perspective, “infinite riches in a little room,” did not clinch matters. By this time the hunt had moved on.

“The thrill of the chase is more interesting than the quarry.” Read’s epigraph to the show marks a private rebellion against finish, perhaps even inaugurating a new period in his career. Yet the insistence on replacing problem-solving with mental process seems dangerous. A man in a bedsitter fills his room with trees. Instead of presenting this as the complete work it doubtless is, Read repeats it three times, moves through and beyond the possibilities of the props at hand and offers the (frequently arbitrary) decision-making that impels the drawings as the gesture that catches the spectator’s attention. Such scattershooting weakens the room/camera/mind conceit on which “The Chase” depends. (“Camera,” after all, is Latin for “room.”) Though there is a certain mannerist boldness about the decision to concentrate on digression as the theme of the work, even an incipient expressionism never previously courted, yet where style so closely resembles etiquette (the manipulation of a set of laws, either of perspective or of prestidigitation—the product, Read states, exists between fake and phenomenon), issues are easily avoided. After being sighted, approached, almost captured, the fox is allowed to escape into the undergrowth.

Stuart Morgan