Dancing the Square
Monograph Essay for Joseph Hoflehner, Retrospective 1975-2015 (teNeuesm, 2015)
“Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured,
and little to be enjoyed.”
Imlac in Samuel Johnson’s 18th Century novel “Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia”.
This book, “Joseph Hoflehner Retrospective 1975-2015”, is an intelligently selected collection of representative work from 40 years of black and white photography. It is distinctive, considered, and, surprising given its seeming simplicity, resonant with empathy.
The archetypal Hoflehner photograph has a single leafy tree in the center of a floodplain, with a few dozen liminal sentinel fence posts behind, bisecting the frame on the distant horizon. The isolated tree is spectrally doubled in the reflective surface. The top of the frame is gray, the middle luminous, and the bottom edge smudged out. Light and dark cushion the view, vignetting the scene. We’re looking out of a train window as we pass by some past Paradise. Everything is perfectly ordered in this odd and special place. Nothing is extraneous. The Great Flood has swept through leaving the Tree of Life or Knowledge. We see the second tree, mirrored, and can wonder at that; heaven and the other connect. What happens down there?
Mr. Hoflehner says a lot with very little.
Robert Adams, an inspired American photographer and thinker, contemporary to Hoflehner, responds to the stoic Samuel Johnson comment above by saying that the traditional job of art is "to reconcile us to life”. That is what these images do.
Imagine layers of images printed on a few whisper thin microscope slide glass then sandwiched together, as a mille-feuille diorama. The result has almost no volume but plays like a shadow box of two-dimensional scenes adjacent and in register with each other. It is not 3-D but similar to what you see when you view vintage glass plate stereos. It is odd. It is what you would discover if you could pry apart an origami landscape and fold the separate sections in and out. It is tidy and magical.
There is an ounce of excess, however. It is all there plus something. Surface tension lets water fill a glass just to overflowing without spilling. A pipette holds more water than it should; it is full to the top with liquid, with the capillary action supporting the extra. There is more there than ought to be.
So the works are tense.
They are also dense with sexuality.
This is unexpected. Do not mistake the Hoflehner images as cool. Think of perfect flowers that have both male and female sexuality with stamens and pistils, a busy and lovely and welcoming and unique complexity. Monoclinous is an odder and prettier word than hermaphrodite, but that’s what it is here. This is not eros but simultaneous attraction and repulsion. The disparate elements in the images are at heightened play. They look cool but feel warm; we respond vicariously. There are all the phallic skyscrapers surrounded by labial clouds; id airplanes looming large over bikini clad quarry, a desert dune as mons veneris, the hill of Venus.
Thump, thump, thump.
The inky black sinuously laps at the silky matte gray sea. It is crepuscular: twilight or maybe dawn. Shapes of light and dark meet with a curtain of clouds, lit by a low hanging sun to our right out of the frame. It brightly catches the sharp edge of the curve and makes the water pulse. It is yin and yang seen from a low point of view. The abyss is at the bottom and closest to us.
Another hazy scene, and it is unmistakably the Palm Jumeirah on the coast of Dubai UAE but that only serves to locate us in the world. That is information. But what is it? The seeming fronds of the tree scud across the water towards a crescent barrier, that may or may not be a horizon with an infinite sea beyond. This is topped by a cyclorama of swatches of irregular cloud and sky. Solid and liquid land and sea, and air and light play with each other. It is a giant thumb print in the void.
These two images dance the square in a Cartesian face-off between the physical, the mental and the spiritual. We make sense of what we see; we identify the subject but the composition and interplay of the blocks of black and white and all of those silvers suggest other dimensions. The scene becomes other worldly. It is overlaid with a sense of the uncanny, where, ethereally affect and effect meet.
Think of these photographs as gelatin silver mandalas offering visions of completion, an end of our questing dreams. The balance is eccentric but true, like pi, infinitely divisible. It’s radial as opposed to symmetrical or asymmetrical. Triangles of shape embrace exquisitely, tentatively kissing.
Pairing the Hoflehner images in this way may seem insistent or didactic. “Look at them this way. Composition!!! What do these these two pictures have in common? Discuss.” Yet these pairings are not so much formal as sensitive and revelatory. Your eye finds the vortexes, even when out of the frame. These photographs have centers, and light and shadow and life emanate from there. All things converge and diverge.
Consider another two images.
Space is compressed, places of very light and very dark meet or overlap, strong horizons are violated by vectoring scratches: poles, trees, wires. It is simultaneously familiar and alien. Hoflehner looks at it his way. Whitish walls reflect light, a dark canopy shelters a cloud of shadow, an Indian chief’s bonnet of leaves pops up at top, telephone wires travel to the right, the lines complete a wide V through the middle of the image.
A chalky mirror of sea contrasts with a clotted sky. A giant’s “pick up” sticks have been dropped randomly from above into the water. There is a mad perfection in this imperfection.
Mr. Hoflehner is Austrian and lives in Wels, but that is where he is from. He is journeyer, and the book reflects this from the beginning, literally ‘the road”. These photographs were made all over the world. Yet nothing feels foreign. Truths turn up all over, something along the lines of "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”. Tanzania, Russia, China, U.S., Yemen, Paris - it’s all one here.
The mood and mode of Hoflehner’s still and abstract landscapes are broken dramatically by scenes of the kamikaze-like planes strafing St. Maarten beachgoers. These are distinctly different. DANGER they proclaim. The artist is figuratively shaking the box with these, challenging the horizon. These are funny and dark. Our photographer is quite mad, or, ironically, given the consistency with which the pictures are organized, off balance. This is a good thing for an artist.
Except in the Caribbean pictures, there are no people in most of these images. Absolute and dead silence reigns. Perhaps closing off one sense makes the other senses open up. Do we see more when we are not distracted by sound? It’s possible. Don’t look for footprints. Shhh! Not even a whisper.
Even the scenes of mechanical Mothras overhead (St. Maarten above) may be so deafeningly loud in real life as to be silencing.
Most of these works affect us like zen gardens, with the photographic capture of essences of nature, entry points for us to entertain considerations of meaning. These are distillations for our reflection.
They fit in your eye.
Ok. That said, let’s back up and recognize the success of these images is their handsomeness, their directness, their immediacy. They’re great looking. There is no confusion. What you see is what you see. The work is rigorous. Exact. That’s plenty. It may be too late in this writing, but there is no need to load these up with too much freight. There is sublime pleasure in looking at this work.
It is not just the sighting of the image, it is the whole megillah. Hoflehner loves his veils of smoke and haze to which he adds a a final fillip of creamy toning in the darkroom. His long exposures worthy of Daguerre render smooth seas and perfect horizons, rubbing out superfluous information, and these are interrupted by his shell games of revelation, peek-a-boo curtains of mists and showers. To this he makes a final intervention, with some liquid dream, some chemistry from his hand, a little more obfuscation. This is the total package.
As striking as the restrained, desert island escape images are; they are balanced by work that is clustered and dense, in some instances to the point of opacity: urban scenes, intersecting building and city walls, banks of lights from offices and apartments. The scenes compliment each other in the whole portfolio.
A single work as a whole is incremental as if each piece of information has been trimmed and inspected, turned over and over and then added, bit by bit until the frame holds the proper weight for that moment - whatever Hoflehner has in mind. Return to the ideas of the overlapping translucent/transparent slides and the brimming water glass. Waves of combed sand rake up to the apex of the hill, lightning crackles electrically from the top of a building, silhouetted tree branches at all angles circle the frame leaving a soaring void in the center, islands and oases interrupt the horizon, ships founder, a wall of bamboo creates an etched wall, the details of the cityscape are an inviolable and impenetrable coral reef.
It is all a mad dance in the frame.