New York

Willie Doherty

A quick reader of Willie Doherty’s recent photographs and video might think of film noir, with its dark palette, its tensions and secrets, and its hint of violence, promised or past. But the story is drained and de-peopled, and has no plot, or no plot but that an American viewer might supply from knowledge gained outside Doherty’s work. There are holes in some white-painted metal, and blots of rust have formed around them, suggesting, maybe, a vernacular Clyfford Still. Many people in Northern Ireland, where these images were made, might recognize such shapes, but in case we’re unfamiliar with recent Irish history Doherty writes a blunt title: Bullet Holes.

Other titles are equally constructive. A red parked car becomes Suspicious Vehicle; a shot of a country road is called At the Border 1 (Walking towards a Military Checkpoint). The information sets a mood, but the checkpoint itself, unseen, supplies no narrative to back it up. And Suspicious Vehicle could be renamed Just Some Bloke’s Car without the image having to change a whit. In part an art-world discussion of how we interpret pictures (in earlier work, Doherty uses the Conceptual art device of overlaying text directly on the image), photographs like these also illustrate the watchful paranoia necessary for life in wartime.

Many of these aluminum-mounted Cibachromes (all 1995) imply the containment and closure of view. Doherty’s road aims as straight toward its vanishing point as the highway in Robert Frank’s U.S. 285, New Mexico, 1955–56, but where that image has an agoraphobic openness, this one is overshadowed and stoppered up by Irish trees and hedgerows, and somewhere out of sight there’s a barrier. The photographs’ depth of field doesn’t seem to lead anywhere worth going. In Tunnel, it ends in darkness; in Bullet Holes, it’s flattened by the pocked metal; in Control Zone we’re kept from it by a row of bollards, mostly concrete and modern, but one of them huge and apparently ancient.

Yet Ireland has a long tradition of scenery, or, rather, of writing and imagery that codify the landscape into ideologically and commercially useful scenic packets. Doherty evades that tradition by locating spaces between—between road and margin, field and rubbish dump, street and firing range. For No Smoke without Fire, 1994, a continuous video loop, he walked a lamp and a camera at night through an unnameable sort of territory within earshot of a busy roadway. There are tussocky grasses and thistles, straggly bushes, the going neither easy nor hard, and there is debris—paper and plastic, bags and boxes—that could well have accumulated entropically but that after a while begins to look like the clues in a thriller. Demystifying Ireland’s picturesque, Doherty suggests mysteries elsewhere—but these are tied to history and society.

If Hollywood seems to be one echo here, others might be Robert Smithson’s non-sites, or, in the distantly buzzing highway in No Smoke without Fire, Tony Smith’s early-’50s nighttime drive on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike, where he found a landscape that “was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art,” and an experience that “was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art.” Thirty years of civil strife might also be an experience “mapped out but not socially recognized,” and they too might simultaneously call artmaking into question and remain art’s proper subject.

David Frankel