New York

Tim Maul

Art City

Tim Maul’s work provides a curious insight into the relationship between photography and writing. Like writing, photography is a transparent medium: an act of inscription upon a surface that effaces itself as it traces what is exterior to it. Despite its apparent coincidence with physical reality, the photograph is an image of what, strictly speaking, never existed, and as such is a hallucination. While other artists have explored this ambivalence through the manipulation of photographic technology, Maul evokes it through the imagery itself. Composed in camera, his photographs—collectively titled “Color Photographs for Home and Office”—are made directly from common surroundings whose familiarity gives rise to uncanny effects.

The photograph’s implication with writing proliferates through several different registers. In the first instance, these photographs are of an intimate scale, framed flush to the image, and presented on the wall in a quasi-narrative sequence, like the pages of a book or of a letter. Indeed, the first image, Untitled, 1986, unveils an open book with a gaping spine and pages that are blank save for a barely perceptible indentation. This image introduces an unmistakably erotic scene of “otherness,” a resistance to interpretation, that is restaged in another untitled photograph, also 1986, which depicts a heavily overtyped sheet of carbon paper, inscribed with what seems to be multiple letters and signatures. It is a “dead letter,” illegible and yet bearing “memory traces” of a subject already narrated in a relation. Its similarity to the Rosetta Stone reminds us that a “letter” is both communication and cipher, yet its meaning may remain indecipherable without privileged access to its code. However, what concerns us here is a question not of its interpretation but of its function as a transparent signifier of a relation between sender and receiver, writer and reader. Like the letter, the photograph also signals a displacement, or play of surface effects, and one to which Maul constantly returns in images of barely legible shadows and mirrored inscriptions on semitransparent surfaces, or of wrapping materials loaded with signs that refuse to disclose their contents.

One “figure” that repeatedly surfaces is a cross: a cryptogram arising as an effect of certain conjunctions in the photograph, not from an entity in “real life.” Its interest lies not in its symbolism but in its function. The cross quarters, marking a boundary between territories. It makes provision for a meaning not intrinsic to those territories but one that nevertheless both unites and separates them. Meaning “lodges” at interfaces; and here, Maul refers to the effect of appearance encountered in Minimalist esthetics, recalling not what is “in” the physical object but what is hallucinated at its boundaries (the surface reflections of Donald Judd’s stacks, or the perceptual displacements of Sol LeWitt’s open cubes). The last photograph in the show, Tim Maul, 1986, depicts a fragment of used brown wrapping paper bearing the handwritten name of the artist. Its ambiguity lies in the impossibility of determining whether the signature represents the artist as addressor or addressee, author or reader of his own “text.” In other words, identity is a relation of differences in which there is no sovereign author or privileged subject. The apparition that pervades the work as a constant erasure, from the lack of inscription of the blank pages to the over-determined script of the carbon copy, is, perhaps, difference itself.

Jean Fisher