James Pfaff: Alex & Me / Reviewed by Sylvia Grace Borda / 26.06.18
Alex & Me is more than just an exploration of the subject of nine rolls of film taken on a three week road trip in 1998 by artist-photographer, James Pfaff. Along with his muse, Alex, Pfaff documents his travels between Toronto and New Orleans and then onto New York. It is a series mediated by the artist’s memory and respect for Alex. It marks a period of intense collaboration with his muse, and an extended collaboration with curator, Francesca Seravalle, who worked with Pfaff in the current exhibition to re-interpret an analog narrative about love, life and visual voyeurism.
Equally there are not many opportunities for artists to have a visual or verbal ‘white box’ to create within. Street Level Photoworks encouraged Pfaff to work in situ at its printing and studio facilities before the exhibition launch to produce his ideas into painted and scaled images. In so doing, Street Level became a co-collaborator assisting the artist in the creation of rich bodies of work that not only engage directly with the gallery space specifically but extend the notion of fine art photographic practice.
In the exhibition, viewers can explore serial portraits of Alex, texts written to her by the artist, landscape pictures, journals, and interior and exterior shots of various locations visited by the travellers. Some might argue this opus of work borrows informally in composition from the likes of William Eggleston or Stephen Shore’s postcards of Amarillo, Texas. The text based photo works are similarly reminiscent of Ingrid and Iain Baxter, N.E. Thing Co. The couple were Invited to produce the cover of Art In America‘s May-June 1969 issue, producing an assortment of annotated 35mm slides that formed an eclectic road show depicting art installations, banal urban scenes, and wild Canadian landscapes.
While Pfaff’s work might conjure up earlier manifestations of colour and conceptual photo text works in its unconventional use of varying scale, installation and vignettes, his focus remains on illustrating an immediacy and spontaneity in which he deftly captures an impression of a fleeting single moment at a certain time and place with Alex. Pfaff’s approach to subject matter is placed firmly within the context of memory and how recorded spaces can remain authentic but also malleable when we peer back in time. For example, there is a photo wall depicting scenes from Niagara Falls that is placed adjacent to a plinth showing a cigarette and wheel followed by more formalised compositions of cafés and restaurants. All hint at being both remarkable and incidental moments recorded by the artist’s camera; remnants that tunnel into a past state of being, now re-edited to create new places of observation and contemplation.
In this way, Pfaff also aims to drive discourse across his visual and verbal interpretations of ‘Alex & Me’. The viewer inevitably becomes an active participant in the process. Many of Pfaff’s images have flourishes of a brush of paint or annotated with a title or layered with handwritten texts on the image plane. These all add contextual emphasis, but critically such touches construct highlighted moments that the viewer can negotiate.
Somehow in the midst, we become like Pfaff searching for meaning in the captured images, and in the ephemeral portraits of Alex. As we wander along the spaces, we do so engaging our own memories linked by our own histories. As such Pfaff’s use of various materials and processes become sources of visual and intellectual investigation for viewers each to pursue and unravel at their own pace.
The exhibition is a complex and poetic reflection on the destructive and redemptive powers of photography and memory. While primarily looking at Alex, the artist’s road trip muse, we engage with the notion of personal renewal through image and recall. Pfaff’s understated photographic works share notions of ‘locality’ in relation to our psyche and offers new planes for interrogation.
Ultimately through Pfaff and Seravalle’s partnership in editing of this exhibition, their working methods of extracting images becomes an act of translation where each archival photo image becomes a foundation for creating new artifacts. The resulting photo-artworks are stunning pieces which ask viewers not only to consider what’s being depicted but how photographs can become singular and unique objects through the use of text and surface manipulation. By creating a platform that places viewers between several realities, Pfaff allows viewers to experience photographs as art installations, unique objects, memory banks where viewers can continuously travel backwards and forwards in time. The strength of this exhibition lies in its arrangement, the keen eye of the photographer, and in the physicality of what has been arranged.
A summative work to the exhibition, Pfaff had a neon sign created and enlarged in his handwriting that confronts viewers with the words: ‘Ever been changed by someone’. Reflective and personalised, this single question acts as a fluid anchor to Pfaff’s internal/external travelogue and which can similarly be posed to viewers of Pfaff’s metaphoric opus. Words are possibly not sufficient to translate the layered depths of this exhibition that seek to express spatial and memory events through the materiality of both images and text. Alex & Me plays on the intimate feat of letting go – relinquishing of one’s personal muse to a series of collective memories – which can be a powerful act and remind us of the necessity to remember, to share, to document – and to transcend one’s experiences.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Sylvia Grace Borda
Below installation images of James Pfaff: Alex & Me courtesy of Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow.
Street Level Photoworks, Trongate 103, Glasgow