A Conversation with a Critic
This conversation took place electronically in August 1999.
John Slyce: There is a conceptual, material, and practical
divide between digital technologies and the materiality of the body -
yet both aspects are expressed to varying degrees in your work. At the
same time, seldom are either linked in a practical sense through the making
of work and even more rare is to see these ideas linked adequately in
a political sense. Could you sketch your own historical formation in relation
to digital work and the bodily image? What were your points of entry into
and exit from the digital? And how did the body assert itself into your
Terry Towery: I was initially drawn to the digital for
its apparent freedom of expression and lack of historicity. Coming out
of a tradition of experimental photography that includes people like Jerry
Uelsmann, Robert Fichter, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Henry Holmes Smith, Laszlo
Moholy Nagy and Man Ray as I did, the seemingly limitless freedoms offered
by the digital realm were very attractive. Having no tradition and no
role models made it an even more seductive area in which to explore my
own personal experiments without any heavy baggage. This kind of naiveté
made it easy to lose myself completely in the computer. From a more purely
practical point of view, a computer is much smaller than a darkroom and
much easier to live with.
JS: But these virtual freedoms ultimately went sour?
TT: A few years into it, I started to get very frustrated
with the complete lack of an "object" in the virtual. I had experimented
with multimedia and projections, sensor based environments and random
events. But none of these moves satisfied my fetish for the object. I
have always been drawn to the surface and physicality of art. The computer
precluded both of these things. The very nature of slick screen and the
glossiness of the hardware began to urge me out of the virtual and back
into the physical. There was no sense of satisfaction from the purely
digital, no ability to say "I made this" at the end of the day.
JS: And the figure? When and how did the body materialize
in your work?
TT: As far as the figure goes, I had been making street photographs that utilized toys for the first few years after I arrived in New York in the late 1980s. The toys were portable and were, at the same time, both human and non-human. I was attempting to blend street photography with set-up photography - a sort of hybrid set-up street genre. It was an easy step to displace the figure of the toys into the virtual and then back into the physical. The fascination with stand-ins for real figures comes from a sense that toy figures are both intimate and alien at the same time. They
are virtual humans in a very real sense. A simulacra if you will.
JS: Surface and physicality - these are desires one sees a lot of contemporary photography reaching out for. Your work, while ostensibly accepting these pursuits, interrupts, disturbs or denies any ultimate achievement of a slick smooth surface by pushing the image through a series
of really pretty messy engagements with mixed media: oils, acrylics,
rusty bits, and gels. At the same time, the physicality of the image,
in relation to the body, is similarly disturbed or pushed out of easy
reach: these bodies are underdeveloped and half-formed; they are almost
mutations of some sort of childlike ideal. Are you getting what you are
after in the way of surface and physicality? How do you see what you are
doing fitting into, or disrupting various art practices - say in painting,
and or photography?
TT: For the first time in a number of years, I am very
pleased with my own work. I have to say, even though it may sound arrogant,
that I think it is great stuff. I recently put it in a box for a couple
of months and when I opened it up again I was surprised at how powerful
it seemed. On some unconscious level this is exactly what I am after.
The surface texture of the work is reflecting the tactile quality of the
dolls very effectively. The process is gratifying and I think that many
artists these days are using photography as part of the process, yet are
frustrated with straight photography in the purest sense. Whether they
are setting up scenes a la Cindy Sherman, David Levinthal, Sandy Skoglund
or William Wegman for the camera almost like a sculptor and using the
camera as a tool to document the set-up or whether they are extending
beyond the photographic process in a way that draws on the work of Robert
Rauschenberg, Anselm Kiefer, The Starns, or Joel Peter Witkin, the photographic
elements become secondary to the creative process. Artists using photography
(as differentiated from photographers) are using scale, environment, digital
processes, printing techniques etc. to give the photographic process some
of the hand made elements that other media have always had. There is a
desire to make work that has a "presence" to it that cannot be experienced
from seeing it reproduced in a magazine or postcard.
JS: The re-materialization of the art-object. Yes, but
it seems to me that when this aura appears in your work it is jagged,
rusted and dangerous - like an old tin can or a rusty nail that is waiting
to bite the hand that doesn't take use precautions.
TT: There is a fascination with decay and destruction that is involved in the images and in the post-processing that I subject the images to. I am moving towards even thicker surfaces. Bigger imagery. I want it to be as thick as it is wide and as sticky as it is scary...
Going back to what you said earlier in respect to this point here, I think the figures are the opposite of "underdeveloped and half-formed". I see them as decayed and fragmented. The wound-like forms of the dolls and the chancre sore like forms on the surfaces are exactly what I am after. They deal with illness, age, decay. Fear and beauty in the same place. Repulsion and attraction. Longing for children and fear of Death. Both arresting time and allowing time to change the work.
The fragmentation of the body and the psyche are a big motivating factor in the making of these images. There are uncanny confusions of animate and inanimate figures. The dolls act as metaphors for humans. If you use real models, Human figures, the general becomes specific to that individual. Humans cannot help but individualize real faces, The dolls allow me to generalize this decay of the figure to larger metaphor.
John Slyce is a London-based writer and critic. He contributes to many of the major art magazines (Flash Art, Art Monthly, Creative Camera, art/text, Dazed & Confused) and has written catalog essays on the work of artists such as Sarah Sze, Adam Chodzko, Gillian Wearing and Sarah Jones. In 1999 he contributed an essay on Wearing's 10-16 to Phaidon's Contemporary Artists series monograph.