ALEX & ME
by James Pfaff
STREET LEVEL PHOTOWORKS GALLERY 19 April – 01 July 2018
GLASGOW INTERNATIONAL 2018
Curated and designed by Francesca Seravalle
Photographs, painting, texts, memorabilia, scratchbooks by James Pfaff
Installation shoots © Sebastian Boettcher
“Alex & Me” is an artistic re-appropriation of a personal archive, a tribute to an important love, made and broken on a road trip in the late summer of ’98 through North America, from Toronto to New Orleans and then back north to New York.
“Ever been changed by someone?” With a neon installation James Pfaff (Glasgow, 1965) asks visitors to probe the importance of the autobiographical in his creative process. The show is a retrospective, touching on the role of obsession in artistic research. The author, over-painting his photographs, writing texts and creating collage out of original items, acts on his personal archive and ephemera to rebuild fractured memories.
For Pfaff, the creative process is both self-analysis and an emotional experience. In his work he gives shape and colour to his memories, as fluid materials that come from the photographs and acquire a second life with the distance of the time. Pfaff’s archival materials become, in this way, the palette he draws from, and the source of his inspiration for experimenting with different interventions in photography. Photography is conceived as the starting point for exploring memory, a process accomplished, in the end, by painting and writing.
“Alex & Me”, the exhibition and book, were developed as a collaboration between James Pfaff and curator Francesca Seravalle.
The book was published by Danilo Montanari (2016), shortlisted at Cosmos – Rencontres d’Arles 2016 by Erik Kessels, and featured by 1000 Words (Natasha Christa). After its success, Pfaff and Seravalle have come together again to reappraise the project as an exhibition. A product of archival research, the exhibition introduces unseen photographs, new mixed media installations, painted objects and a selection of journals made over the last two decades. To immerse visitors in Pfaff’s autobiographical and artistic research, previously unpublished texts and newly written works appear as large-scale prints, so that Pfaff’s words and his photographs are accorded the same conceptual importance.
For Pfaff, writing connects him directly to the audience; by asking a question or by sharing an intimate memory, he opens up an opportunity to identify key moments in the love story, even revealing - when necessary - a dark side of his personality. By offering his own emotional and psychological life as a subject of art, Pfaff, in a way that recalls Sophie Calle’s writing, invites viewers to meditate on grief, loss, and remembrance.
The exhibition is a continuous evolution from the book, marked by chromatic rhythms that express different emotional states, from the black and white sequences of the first room (as in the early pages of the book) to colour in the second room, a transition that indicates an increasing intensity of feeling. The show refuses to be arranged in chronological sequence as a perfect reconstruction of facts. Pfaff’s memories arise instead in chromatic groupings according to mood, as happens in human remembrance, when different elements co-exist in the same space-time unity.
Colours interact to stratify Pfaff’s emotions: love, sadness, depression, happiness, passion, disillusionment and gratification. Red blocks a wall against which a neon sign is lit. The colour acts as a background to genuine and innocent passion. Against it appear the keepsakes of a joyful time when they drove through neon-lit cities at night, visited the studio and tomb of Elvis
Presley, and were arrested by the police. Blue is a period of gasoline stations, suspended time, silence and absence. Blue, from the packaging of cigarettes to car interiors, is the hue of waiting, of contemplating Niagara’s fall, like a breath taken in their two-week trip. It is the spiritual period when Alex guided the artist in a personal transformation. Black is Pfaff’s deepest memory, the beginning; it is the setting out, the dark of the asphalt, driving and speaking for hours, discovering each other.
Black is also the colour of separation, the final cut, as at the end of a 35mm film roll, an apt metaphor for this irreproducible history of love. Inspired by the picket fences of suburban America, white is a pigment of “pure memory,” the “tabula rasa” on which memory is rebuilt. Just as Pfaff painted a pair of his shoes white, so he painted pages of his book. Coming back to his photograph of the Waffle House and of the Ohio Cinema signage for this exhibition, he turned again to white, painting these pictures to refresh, clean, abstract and even delete parts of his memories.
White is the colour that makes possible a continual “clean slate” process, a tension between the construction and de-construction of the image as memory: removing, building, erasing, re-building and selecting which memories to keep. In a way, this process empowers Pfaff to define Alex’s presence or absence from his life. White, as a blank, is the colour of Pfaff’s cyclic obsession with cleaning and deleting his memory. A tribute to the 96 white painted pages in the book, the collage of painted pages illustrates this cleansing process; the organic and irregular, undulating marks of his paintbrush, with a gradation of tones on every page show the amount of pressure the artist has exerted on the paper.
“Alex & Me is a tangible performative capsule of memory.” As Natasha Christa suggests, it is a complex work structured and gradually transformed over time. In Pfaff’s original scrap books, made over the last twenty years, without any thought to publication or exhibition, authentic elements of his language – the language of Pfaff, if you like – emerge ‘accidentally’ and in retrospect. In Pfaff’s work, repetition, for example, emerges from the scrapbooks as a practice that was originally unconscious. For years, he glued the same image of Alex into his scrap books. Subsequently, after a period of introspection, when he finally detached himself from his obsession, this became a conscious method, a schema through which – in this show – he came to arrange 46 silver gelatin handprint duplicates as a grid. The grid imposes a new serial order on Pfaff’s obsession, expressing, also, in the images that repeat, over and over, the experience of a road trip like the one he shared with Alex. The complex and meaningful balance between the artist’s obsessions and his aesthetic control over them is, in fact, the subject matter of his art. Repetition plays a central and cathartic role in Pfaff’s obsessive process, made visible through the manual acts of over-painting images, writing on them, adding type-written text, and even cutting up images, to remake the archive. The cyclical and obsessive process of blanching and leaving tracks recalls the cathartic gesture of raking white gravel in a Japanese garden.
Japan has inspired Pfaff since his first visit in 1998. It is the subject of his next work, “The Artist in Japan”, and its influences are discernible here, also, in his aesthetic research for “Alex & Me”. The vast majority of pieces in this exhibition are unique; they have the imperfect beauty associated with the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic so crucial to Pfaff, always reflecting the transience and the imperfections of life, where a melancholic beauty meets the impermanence of all things. Similarly, Pfaff’s photographs are unaltered, undergoing a process of intimate craftsmanship, not so as to appear new or perfectly constructed, but to keep the natural and true dust of time, embracing the limits, the fragility and the power of the analogue language.
“Outside” is the show’s final piece. The title refers to the text contained in the piece, the structure and language of which reflect his latest experiments in collage practice. For this wall composition Pfaff has drawn from an additional archive, “Blue Diamond”, made when his contact with Alex was irrevocably broken. It is an installation where Pfaff uses the photographic medium to gather up and acknowledge the lives of the people and the places he and Alex passed through on their journey, previously unexamined until the making of this exhibition. America stands as a grey-black-blue memory, a strong and steely omnipresence in the iconography of the flag and the anonymous lives of strangers.