The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2019

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MAY 2019 Issue
Art Books

Saul Fletcher, Essays by Ralph Rugoff and Kirsty Bell

Ralph Rugoff and Kirsty Bell
Saul Fletcher
(Inventory Press, 2018)

Saul Fletcher’s first monograph, published by Inventory Press last December, begins with a quote from The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald: “The seasons and the years came and went … and always … one lost more and more of one’s qualities, became less comprehensible to oneself, increasingly abstract.” This sense of abstracted time and memory is present in the 338 images, ranging from the artist’s debut series of work in 1997 to his most recent solo exhibition with Anton Kern Gallery last fall. Including essays by curator Ralph Rugoff and critic Kirsty Bell, the book is a clothbound tome, deserving of that special spot on your bookshelf. In scale, it presents the work almost exactly as it would be exhibited, with reproductions just shy of the actual size of the artist’s C-Prints, silver gelatin prints, and polaroids. ‘Reading’ his work in book form at this intimate scale heightens the narrative, literary, and poetic quality of his photographic assemblages.

Fletcher, born in England and based in Berlin, is a self-taught photographer, apparent in his approach, which is similar to that of a poet or a storyteller—he conveys moods and creates scenes as much as he does images. His visual language is stark and his subjects and objects embody spaces that can only be categorized as psychological landscapes. In Untitled #81 (Hair) (1997), a mass of thick, wet hair is suspended from a source out of frame, its jet-black sleekness contrasted by a surface of drawn scratches and painted scribbles; Untitled #118 (Wood Leg S/P) (2000) presents a hunchback character resting on a chair, sullen-faced and barefoot, his pant leg horizontally extended reveals a long wooden limb; Untitled #132 (rabbit + 2xbirds) (2000), somewhere between a still life and staged scene, shows a rabbit standing upright against a wall with three wildflowers taped next to it, above which two birds with spread wings and a dark mass of moss or fur are all frozen in time. Jörg Heiser tried to name this psychological space in a 1997 review noting “[Fletcher’s] images are neither staged nor real, neither fast-moving nor static, neither intimate nor detached.” This in-between sense, coupled with the artist’s muted palettes, oscillates between the romantic and the nihilistic throughout the monograph.

Fletcher is widely known for working directly on his studio wall—layers of paint and drawing marks, words, scribbles, and objects create combines that serve as both physical site and projection of the psyche, where it is unclear which end of representation reflects the mimesis of the other. Untitled #184 (2007) is a simplified symbol for house, on top of thick cracked paint, made using wooden sticks as lines. A cross—a recurring motif in much of the work—divides the house into four compartments, a few brushstrokes inside and watery, pale streaks of color running down the wall as roots or reflection. On the following page is a snapshot of a modest house taken from the opposite edge of a river, Untitled #263 (2007), nestled in a winter landscape of bare trees, all reflected in the water below. In Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical text The Poetics of Space (referenced throughout Bell’s catalog text), he writes on the dialectics of outside and inside, quoting French philosopher Jean Hyppolite, “you feel the full significance of this myth of outside and inside in alienation, which is founded on these two terms.” Fletcher’s images— here of constructed and actual houses, both inside and outside—are similar in that they are attempting to convey a universal sense of being, as Bachelard puts it, “We seek to determine being, and in so doing, transcend all situations, to give a situation of all situations.”

Courtesy of the artist and Inventory Press.

Fletcher’s language of scribbles and limb-like scrawls evoke early Cy Twombly, and his interest in a sort of mysticism calls on Joseph Beuys. But the characters and figures that inhabit Fletcher’s scenes are not always clear; as in Untitled #131 (Black Suit) (2000). A suit jacket and pants are tacked to the wall, and reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’s Felt Suit (1970), it is an object that is immediately recognizable, yet there is a notion of loss (the suit with no body). In other images, arrangements of sticks and other objects imply a figure without representing one—ghosts in-between existence and nonexistence. Images of his family and friends in this space range from elaborately staged, in Untitled #167 (Hannah S/P) (2004) a man and woman shrouded in a black and scarlet cloak reads as sinister yet tender, to straightforward snapshots that border portraiture, as in Untitled #206 (Ronnie) (2009), of a seated, older man with a hard-to-place expression, resembling one of Cézanne’s card players, or perhaps his Seated Peasant (c. 1892–96). As Ralph Rugoff writes in the introduction of the book, “For all their theatricality, these unsettling images seem to amplify the stillness of photography, to emphasize how its two-dimensional taxidermy transforms living moments into something forever staged.” Determinedly still and staged, not coincidentally so as Heiser’s review suggested.

Themes of introspection, austerity, and stillness are achieved through black and white, sepia, and monotone. Untitled #228 (Landscape 5) (2011) shows a gnarled tree, bare and leafless, a landscape that could exist virtually anywhere. But the tree is diseased and dying slowly. Fletcher captures moments that can be both banal and primal; the artist responding to natural beauty succumbing to sickness brings to mind a line from Sylvia Plath’s 1962 poem “Elm” about Dutch elm disease, written a year before the poet’s suicide: “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.” Fletcher’s work often brings to mind lines of literature, conjuring poets as much as other visual artists.

One of the last two images in the book is the artist’s most recent self-portrait. Unlike the first in the book (a self-portrait of the young artist in a Zorro-like mask, slender and youthful), the most recent self-portrait reveals an older man, back against the wall, peering up from his sunglasses. With only one leg, he leans on a crutch, wearing an ascetic-like robe. Untitled #322 (Schwarze Ratte S/P) (2018) could connect the artist to the common black rat, which was thought to be a primary carrier of Bubonic plague in the 14th century. The last photo in the book, Untitled #323 (The White Death vs. Czeslawa Kwoka) (2018), is another absent-present figure created on the studio wall, a simple and oblong painted face, a t-shirt or cloth as body, and once again, sticks for limbs. The impression of a body, as the title alludes, speaks to Simo Häyhä, nicknamed “White Death,” a 20th century Finnish sniper that killed a record 505 men in war, and Czesława Kwoka, a Polish girl who was killed at Auschwitz at age 14. What survives of her is a haunting portrait taken at the concentration camp; after being beaten by guards, she did her best to hold a straight face for this image. As with all of Fletcher’s images, it contains multitudes of memory and meaning, interchangeably present and absent, that remain with you long after viewing.


Nick Bennett

Nick Bennett studies art history at Hunter College. He recently served as the Director of Programming at the Brooklyn Rail, and was the Curatorial Assistant for exhibitions at the 58th Venice Biennale, Colby Museum, and Mana Contemporary.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2019

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