Camera Arts  January/February 1982

 

Inner City

 

Photographs by David Haxton, Text by David Shapiro

 

In his youth, David Haxton drew houses and floor plans; as an adult, he makes photographs of reticent space. Where his father was a commercial photographer who experimented with color in the 1940s, the son has shown an abiding preoccupation with the photographic studio as performance space and a species of home. Haxton initiated a series of "performance films" in the late '60s that tended to reconstruct the reality of a studio. His photographs emerge from the quiet scrutiny of primary materials and the idea of film as sculptural drama, and continue this architectural dream. For all the sense of debris, this work bears a tension between a carefully controlled stage set and the tools of the artist: paper, fluorescent lights, wires. Photography here is truly the art of finding itself: ars inveniendi. Haxton never intervenes after the exposure, either in the printing or by cropping;interventions occur beforehand in the careful manipulation of light and color. The strewn materials, then, are analogues of the random distributions in a parsimonious Zen garden. And emotion is alluded to-Haxton admits, "violence, for instance. His mangled papers create windows through which one glimpses an uncertain glow of light or more paper: an interior-exterior problem.

Marianne Moore remarked that one must be as clear as one's natural reticence permits. While Haxton is now attracted by the work of Horst P. Horst and other fashion photographers, one wonders where his own sense of worldliness occurs. An allusion to autumn light seems more weighty here than any obvious sense of mode. Neither a coarse revolutionary nor a lax conservative, he creates a melancholy artificial paradise of clarity's dangers.

Haxton has imported the world into his studio in his many landscape references, but he is mostly a grand divider of space to render the feeling of "inscape." He has experimented with the subtleties of real sunlight, but he is not interested in merely collaging different types of light. There is a rage for order, but the rage for chaos is apparent, also; the artist leaves more than a trace of his destructiveness. The slashes of Lucio Fontana, the Italian painter, are conjured, but the structural resilience comes as well from his affinity with the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, whose St. Augustine in the Studio Haxton keeps as a studio-postcard. He never deletes the human, even in those empty studios of streaming banners. There is no need for a fashionable body, since photographs are always embodiments already of the mortal "I was there once." Objects and tools at play also give a sense of scale that is not romantically blurred. The random materials, furiously thrown, are still a controlled vocabulary, as if to remind us that we have neither invented the world nor our language.

Photography takes its own picture here. Haxton sees the shredded paper as his skeins of paint, but his gouged-out volumes are even more the pressure and principle of his main work. While at one time he was mildly obsessed with two-part inventions of changing light-sources, he has now created a synthesis in single images. In Torn White Shadows over Gray, for example, he has permitted,the bizarre flailing about of wires imported from his film work, and the result in compressed space is like a version of a torn-down private Hollywood. But Haxton's system is never effusive or diffuse, like so much contemporary expressionism in painting and photography.

Thrown gray shadows yield a landscape sense, and Haxton has indeed had a lifelong interest in Oriental "landscape" architecture. Space is divided by screens/windows. An old proverb has it that screens were invented to conceal the body. Perhaps, and also to cast its sculptural shadow and that of the Psyche. Haxton permits the poetry of blur, edge, void. While he has the capacity to render a sudden acid blue, his truest fidelity is to this shattered narrative of contemplative space. The Japanese love for the humble, primary material is here translated into a modest but material art: integrity as "letting alone." It is not farfetched to see these strewn scenes of the studio as gardens of chance, stages for the music of John Cage.

David Shapiro is a poet and art critic. His most recent book is Jim Dine, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.