Bloomfield Hills, MI

Carl Toth

Cranbrook Art Museum

This retrospective of 20 years of Carl Toth’s work is called “Slightly Torqued,” that is, convoluted or twisted. A torque is the precisely measurable rotary force in a mechanism, and in Toth’s case the mechanism is the camera, the piece that produces the torque its lens. In an untitled work from 1972, Toth shows a woman holding a stereo camera—a camera with twin lenses that can be used simultaneously, but that produce slightly different results. The image of this woman is itself a composite of two pictures of her in slightly different positions, suggestive of the torque effect the stereo camera can create. Toth is clearly interested in the effects of temporal and spatial continuity and discontinuity that can be achieved by rotating the camera. Time and space seem twisted out of shape: the implied torque of all the photographs suggests that the space-time continuum is twisted into whatever shape the implicitly hydra-eyed camera wishes.

From this relatively simple yet ingenious beginning, Toth’s works become more and more convoluted, until finally he creates large, multiframed, virtually panoramic pieces using a color copier—that have an installation, even performance, feel to them, as well as a narrative look. But this is deceptive: however much certain themes suggestively recur, as if they were characters in search of a story there is no thematic coherence. Everything, indeed, rotates with centrifugal force, with almost radical unintelligibility. These works carry Toth’s typically fractured, incongruent look to an abstract point of no return. The result is a kind of abstract mosaic with incidents of realistic representation, although how “realistic” is always put in question by the implicit changes in point of view. Surface as such unexpectedly becomes the main interest in these works, giving them a peculiar hallucinatory presence. In fact, the wood-grain motif recurs in Toth’s imagery with an irregularity that bespeaks its own enigmatic physiognomy.

Toth seems to wish to question our perception of the photograph as a stable object and a reliable record by disturbing the epistemological certainty—indeed, ontological security—it conventionally affords. More particularly, his torque action brackets the photograph as an object to suggest that it is no more—and no less—than a record of the camera’s unteleological process, however circumspect and pointed it seems. This becomes transparent in the works in which he uses positive and negative simultaneously, as though the difference between them were not merely nominal, but matter-of-factly reflected a difference in time and process, which in a sense it does. They are not prioritized—just as no single image of surface has priority in Toth’s works—to the extent that both seem equally substantive and nominal, real and illusory. The torque inevitably creates an uncanny effect: Toth’s eccentric combination of images suggests a stream of consciousness, or rather unconsciousness. This stream has a certain elegance, because it is impossible to differentiate between the immediate and the remembered, the concrete and the abstract. Every one of Toth’s photographic constellations is a perverse compromise, an unstable balance of forces in the specious present, like the torque itself.

Donald Kuspit