An introduction by Josh Cohen
- ‘The Uncanny’ – when Strachey thus renders Freud’s ‘Das Unheimlich’, he hints at an affinity: the homely is canny. Proximity begets knowingness – your unthinking rapport with your house or your lover tells you as much. Who hasn’t looked at the people and things closest to them and felt the self-assuring glow that comes from the sense of oneself and one’s world adding up, more or less, to one?
- But then, who hasn’t felt the opposite? The joy and terror that follows the fleeting intimation of a kink in the familiar? Freud’s question: what if the unheimlich, the unhomely, or, to venture a new translation, the not-at-home, is not the other of the homely, but on the contrary, its very heart?
- Put another way, what if we looked at pictures of people and places not to confirm what we know about them, but to register the unknown lurking imperceptibly at their edges?
- Take, for example, The Entitled: Girl with Dog. Imagine her in the miniaturized fullness of the Georgian original, her eyes locked eternally in intimate embrace with yours. Her portrait confirms her place right at home, in the hallway, by the bedside, next her lover’s heart. Now here she is again, but stripped of her world, revealed as the scratching on wood she always secretly was. The elongated dots of her eyes have, if anything, gained in intimacy. But a new intimacy, the frightening intimacy of the impersonal, of the ghostly abstraction hiding behind the gaze of the one we know and love.
- Of course, we learn all this from dreams, those comical, terrorizing alienations of our known world. Dreams often show us the world as seen from the vantage of bird, plane, God, but only to mock our presumption, like the trees looking up at us from Snowscape 2, leaning forward in mock salute, rocking, dancing and laughing with the creepy animacy of the inhuman. Know us?, they seem to bray, You know nothing. Recalling the dreamy poet who tells us it takes ‘a mind of winter’ to behold the trees in the snow. The wintry mind that ‘beholds/ Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.’
- It takes a mind of winter, surely, to behold The Entitled III, the mad Yin of his greatcoat sweeping across the Yang of naked wood. Even as his swelling torso juts out in the rudely defiant assertion of life, his face ebbs away, claimed irresistibly by the grainy void that gave birth to it. His melancholy stare bespeaks the knowledge of his consignment to this permanent fade, like a Polaroid frozen in reverse resolution.
- The same predicament in Turn Your Back to the Woods, where the trees resurface alongside their companion houses, stricken Monopoly hotels randomly displaced from Park Lane to the murk of anonymity. Their fluorescent definition protests the spreading smudges that threaten to absorb them. Again, a warning against false knowledge: just because you know your address, don’t assume you know where your home is.
- Dissolve of the image, as though the fixer’s been extracted from the photograph. The Georgian portrait as aid to memory, rediscovered through the ghosts of The Entitled as a fleeting monument to forgetting. The solid graphics of that waking world, with all its minute personal and social differentiations, taken over by the hazy ambiguities of dream life. The eye of The Entitled VII, for example – not the seal of the noble’s selfhood, but the central hieroglyphic in an insoluble rebus: a three, a bird, a bracket? The mouth offers resigned amusement at its own reduction to an inky smudge. From a certain perspective, this permanent residence in someone else’s dream is funny.
- He might just be thinking: Everything’s Perfect. We should resist hearing too much irony in this title. What we see here is not nature painted, put at knowing distance, but nature become painting, an elimination of the distance between the two terms. The thin strands of off-white hanging from their thicker source don’t picture a waterfall; they are the waterfall as picture. Look from those snaking s’s to the plane trees outside your window: the question of which came first will no longer be obvious. Isn’t perfection a perfectly good word for this mad identity of art and world?
- Apparently the Lover’s Eye was a token of the dead child or the illicit lover, its violent extrication from the face the only, paradoxical means of protecting it from the unwanted or suspicious gaze. You’d have thought a display box would restore them to public knowledge, which the passing centuries would in any case have rendered harmless. But these are perverse boxes, bent on telling us that display was only ever really about withholding. Yet another siren eye, promising the very revelation that it blocks.
- Trees sprouting whole from the solid white void, as if memory had sprung from its underground hold wholly intact. They bear strung traces of childhood – houses, swings, Everything to Remember. Once again, a disconcerting question of priority in there: are we witness to an experience that precedes the image, or did the image come first? So temptingly reassuring to see here the evocation of a memory, say the haunting delight of the swinging child’s smile. It defends us from the more unhomely possibility that the image invents the memory, that we’re living in the shadow of the dream.
- All around these rooms, invitations to enter, linger, converse. Accept by all means, as long as you don’t make the mistake of thinking these images speak in your language. And don’t get too comfortable. You’re not at home now.