Los Angeles

Cam Slocum

Pence Gallery

“Still,” the title of Cam Slocum’s recent body of work, refers to the frozen, continuous, disquieting life inside photographs of violence. This work taps into the human appetite for, and repulsion toward, representations of death. Slocum has taken such images, blown them up to 72 by 72 inches (aren’t a lot of artists reconsidering the big artwork? how else to get your attention?), and turned them into beautiful, grand paintings. The technique is derived from a late-19th-century photographic process in which large-scale negatives are developed by sunlight, then impregnated with pure pigment on canvas. The resulting images, with their drips, streaks, and general fuzziness, force the viewer to slow down in order to get a clear reading, and prevent a cool cataloguing and dismissal. By treading on the territory of nostalgia and romance, these soft, hazy, languid paintings leave one in a state of agitated desire. Yet their heavenly state of memory is utterly grim and sorrowful. This handling of information places the work in a beguiling zone of ambiguity. Viewers straddle an uneasy fence of admiring the formal aspects of each piece while focusing their attention on the horrors of brutality.

Five of the eight paintings in this show (all 1988) portray different aspects of death. A collapsed female figure, possibly alive, lies in a cavernous interior. Lush foliage surrounds a wide tranquil river in which floats the barely visible, stripped and bloated body of a man. A funeral procession of women in black, with a child in shorts, is followed by men in suits with their arms around each other, a casket on their shoulders. A group of boys with toy pistols play fake execution: one boy stands against a wall with arms raised, a hood over his head. And, most arresting of all, a lynched man—photographed at night, with a flash, he hangs from the limb of a tree whose bleached leaves look like feathers, suspended like a breath of mercy.

Slocum also has three pictures of Bristlecone Pines, dignified trees that are among the oldest living organisms on earth. Though the two sets of images have different subjects, there is something oddly compatible about them. As physical presences, both types of pictures are heavy in tone, morose expressions of a haunted, deafening silence. The trees endure every conceivable assault of storm, while the human figure, vulnerable and doughy, decays and disappears: only human misery is indestructible. How long can we look at photographs of the dead? Something tells me we must never forget them. Only by taking the dead in, holding them close, can we endure. Certainly, that’s one of our jobs as the living. By provoking such thoughts, Slocum stretches the fabric between being alive and its frightfully intriguing opposite.

Benjamin Weissman