‘All or Nothing, Sun in Empty Rooms’

Sarah Jones, Violette Editions, 2013

 ‘All or Nothing, Sun in Empty Rooms’, is an essay written for the first major monograph of the work of Sarah Jones, published by Violette Editions in 2013. 

Every artist continually wants to reach the edge of nothingness  – the point where you can’t go any further.  Harry Callahan

Sarah Jones’ art draws upon many of the paradoxes of her chosen medium. Photography has the capacity to show and not tell. It can feel replete, even excessive, yet reticent. It can dramatize what it pictures while turning its subjects and motifs into enigmatic signs of themselves. It can open its arms while giving nothing away. The sources of its pleasure may also disarm and unnerve. And in these pictures, baroque opulence and austere purity collude, while the emotional tenor switches without warning from melodrama to quiet revelation.

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The notion that the creative life gravitates inexorably towards a void has been powerful and seductive at least since the onset of modernism. The steady paring back. The gradual emptying out. The incremental casting aside of all but the most essential. It is difficult to imagine the visual art, music and literature of the last one hundred years without this tendency. Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin. John Cage and Eliane Radigue. Samuel Beckett. Nevertheless, what this might mean for an artist working with photography has remained an open question. One response would be that it is simply not possible, that photography’s essential quality is description, which plunges it headlong into the world, or plunges the world into the photograph. No edge of nothingness, but the centre of chaos. Even so, at least two paths to that edge are open to the medium and they are both present in Sarah Jones’ pictures.

The first path involves something like a negation or suspension, taking photography away from depiction, perhaps towards the abstract.  This might include attention to the motifs of abstraction that are out there in the world. Jones’ photographs of studio coves, those monochromatic backgrounds used by the photography, film and television industries, could be thought of as examples of found abstraction. They are pensive stage sets awaiting the performance of things or people. Her photographs of the walls of artists’ studios evoke something similar. Grubby monochromes, smudged and stained. Then there are the great swathes of cosmic black, blinding white and solidly lush colour that haunt the entire span of Jones’ work. They emphasize her subjects but threaten to smother them.

It is worth noting just what status the monochrome and the blank image have for photographers. Or do not have, since they mark a direction few have been willing to take or even recognize.  For a contemporary painterthe blank canvas and the monochrome loom very large on the horizon of possibility.  Once the blank canvas was accepted as an artistic gesture and a legitimate work of art, every painting thereafter would be a painting on a painting. Even a painted monochrome is a painting on a painting. While a similar condition does exist for photography (for example in the form of the unexposed/overexposed negative or the monochrome made by a variety of possible means) its profound implications have barely made a dent on the understanding of the medium. Indeed, photography has had a rather repressed relation to its founding blankness. Consider what it would it mean if the first exercise for students of photography was to make a print from an unexposed negative and then a print from a totally overexposed negative (assuming they still shoot on film and print in a darkroom, as Jones does).  Would this be no more than an exercise, a hoop to jump through? Or would it ground an understanding of photography upon something else, something set apart from the weighty presumptions of realism?

In this regard the remark by Harry Callahan quoted above is illuminating and unusual. “Every artist continually wants to reach the edge of nothingness – the point where you can’t go any further.” Callahan was a photographer, one who charted a path on a map signposted by abstraction, purity, even minimalism, but he never really became an abstract artist. For him, photography’s path to the edge of nothingness demanded the distilling of what mattered to him in the world, of what mattered in his medium and what mattered as a picture. Photography was to be understood as a subtractive art, a matter of clearing away the excesses and distractions, the better to present what remained.

One of the works of art that has meant a great deal to Sarah Jones is Edward Hopper’s Sun in an Empty Room, painted in 1963. Hopper was a figurative artist with little apparent interest in abstraction or the monochrome. But he was certainly interested in distilling, using the most minimal means to evoke moments of quiet or disquiet in the noisy maelstrom of modern life.  Figures alone in cinemas, theatres or bedrooms. Couples contemplating relationships in limpid afternoons, or quiet nights. Fatigued workers at the office after hours. In this painting however, Hopper’s characters have left the scene. The human drama has been drained out. Or rather it has been muted and displaced onto a vacant dwelling offered up, by way of the word ‘empty’, between one occupant and the next. The representation of drama is eclipsed by the drama of representation. In truth this painting is no more or less empty, no more or less full, than any work by Hopper. Every inch of all his canvases is painted. To call this one empty is to tame its anxiety with the comfort of narrative. (What if he’d titled it Room Filled with Light?)

It is tempting to see this painting as the logical terminus of Hopper’s trajectory, his reaching the edge of nothingness while remaining loyal to the figurative. But artistic development is not logical. Hopper had been reaching for that edge for decades, manoeuvring around his own compelling idea of nothingness. Sun in an Empty Room was a late painting but not his last. In fact, his final canvas, painted two and a half years later, presents two comedians, small and absurd, taking their bow at the front of the vast black void of a stage. “I can’t go on. I’ll go on”, wrote Beckett in The Unnamable. Characters suspended at the edge of nothingness. There are echoes of this painting too in Jones’ photographs.

Since 1995 Sarah Jones has been interested in the beds and consulting rooms of practising psychoanalysts. While not exactly voids these are neutral spaces in many respects. They are plain in their décor and understated enough to not interrupt or influence the free flow of thoughts, feelings and words upon which analysis depends.

The analyst hopes to establish a secure environment free of judgment in which the patient may open up in whichever way works for them. ‘Say the first thing that comes into your head’. The invitation is almost a cliché but its value is undimmed. Of course, the mind is no blank canvas. Freud compared it to a ‘mystic writing pad’, upon which the past residues of experience, from years ago or yesterday, leave their traces on top of each other, like an accumulation of marks on a wall.

Jones photographs these rooms as spaces vacant between occupants. At first it was a response to the theory she was encountering on the Fine Art Master’s course at Goldsmith’s college. Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. In some ways it was an obvious, even banal response. Nevertheless, while the manifest content of these photographs is clear enough, the latent meanings have proven to be far from obvious. Just as Jones kept the series going for many years, the photographs recur throughout this book, and her oeuvre as variations on a theme. The compositions are more or less consistent, adapted slightly to the particulars of the rooms and the practicalities of picturing them.  A daybed with a pillow or cushion photographed side-on, a wall or window, and perhaps a framed picture or domesticated plant.

The most serene example in the series is an image of sun in an empty room. It shows the consulting room of the London-based psychoanalyst and writer Stephen Grosz. Five years after it was taken it appeared on the dust jacket of Grosz’s book The Examined Life: How We Find and Lose Ourselves (2013), a collection of essays based on case studies from his professional experience. A mute photograph serves as an entrée for words drawn from the ‘talking cure’. Stories and parables, Grosz’s writings are also pared back almost to sketches without embellishment.

It was only once I had finished reading Grosz’s book that I noticed the image on the dust jacket is reproduced the other way around. No doubt this was a designer’s license, allowing the pillow to appear on the front cover while the length of the daybed wraps around the spine and onto the back. Thus flipped and folded, the photograph envelops and binds Grosz’s accounts of what went on in the room. Jones does reverse her photographs occasionally, reproducing them one way then the other as with Horse (profile) (II), 2013.  This kind of ‘mirror image’ is a peculiar, even perverse species of manipulation. It keeps the picture quite intact while fundamentally changing its relation to reality. It is natural yet unnatural, true yet distorting, ordinary yet extraordinary. As a result, it tends toward the uncanny, which was famously described by Freud in 1919 as “that class of frightening thing which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”. The reversed photograph reveals the world but at a cost, showing us the “familiar and agreeable” but in some way “concealed and kept out of sight”.  More to the point, all optical images are reversed. Light passing through an aperture is cast upon a surface upside down and back to front (even the ‘image’ received upon the human retina needs to be reconfigured by the mind).  Scrutinising the projected image on the ground glass screen of her large format plate cameras, Jones is acutely aware of this natural phenomenon.

Reversal also draws attention to the immateriality of the image. Unlike a painting a photographic negative or digital file has no significant thickness, no surface, no front, no back. And unless the depiction reveals its proper orientation – by containing writing, for example – we have no way of knowing what is left and what is right, what is wrong and what is right. But this very immateriality may draw our attention to the qualities of the support that bears the image, be it a photographic print, a book jacket or a screen. Only mental images are properly immaterial.

Sarah Jones’s framing of Stephen Grosz’s consulting room is dominated by a diaphanous curtain which allows light to enter the interior, while diffusing the details of the exterior. The scene is trapped, or protected, between the camera and what lies outside.  In more ways than one then, such a picture puts photography in reach of the edge of nothingness – the point where you can’t go any further.  This edge is as much technical as pictorial or conceptual, because such subtle light conditions push the limits of photographic emulsion and the printer’s expertise, revealing their specific qualities. Having first shot the room on a 5×4 inch camera with Kodak film, Jones returned with a 10×8 inch camera and Fuji film. Each rendering is distinct and there is no correct version. The less there is on the edge of nothingness, the more it matters, and the clearer the interpretive nature of the photographic materials. We do not, cannot, ‘know’ this room directly. But we know it existed.

When asked what he was after with Sun in an Empty Room, Edward Hopper was at first silent. After some thought and with a little exasperation he replied: “I’m after ME.” Around the same time the painter Philip Guston recalled something the composer John Cage once told him:

“When you start working everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”

Hopper made the painting in his studio, not in the room he was depicting. That is a painter’s freedom, which is not really open to a photographer. Sarah Jones had to be in that room. Twice at least. Twice there on the edge of its nothingness. So perhaps, strictly speaking, an empty room cannot be photographed; it can only be painted. That said, one of the most perplexing qualities of photography is its erasure of the photographer, its ability to put itself forward as if automatic, spontaneous, self-generated. The photographer is there but the result absents them.  We must look for her elsewhere.