Let us consider the pointing finger of picture to painting.
Sans Souci features 12 of Melvin Resendez’s latest paintings from photos, in a career that has been “mature” for nearly all of his 35 years. Two large photos into paintings anchor the photographer’s fall exhibition: both are titled View of Marina, Sans Souci, Georgian Bay, Early Summer, 2008, and both span important real estate on facing walls of Distillery District gallery Clark & Faria. You will be hard-pressed to explain how they do not form a redundancy. You will pivot in the centre of the gallery and appeal to these sprawling images for some semblance of individuality. But when you find it–and you eventually will–disappointment sets in.
My brother’s pointing finger directs me to the difference. I can see it now: it’s the sky, which varies between them. But I soon come to realize there is also a finger pointing at me, and it’s Resendez’s. And I falter, wondering what the joke is to which I have just become the punchline.
Resendez, a third-generation Vancouver School photoconceptualist, and a former assistant to Jeff Wall, enjoys a certain distinction stemming from his position as a steward of mid-19th-century photo to painting processes. He at once revives and translates these practices by developing his oil paintings through antiquated technologies and then digitizing them. As a result, his painting has garnered a certain vernacular, which includes the common qualifiers “uncanny,” “agitating,” “painterly”–and, uniquely, “photographic.” This last one deserves some appreciation, for it suggests the painting is in proxy to photography–near but apart. It’s a term that doesn’t help one enter the painting so much as attend the party for its reception; because more and more, it seems, we celebrate that which comes close to “the thing itself.”
Frozen between Resendez’s charcoal portraits, I consider the latest chicanery that has befallen this already-baiting form. Some history is essential to the joke’s telling. The two editions of View of Marina are fashioned in Resendez’s established practice of composite pictures. It is, essentially, the same practice that pioneering photographers Gustave le Gray and Oscar Rejlander established in the mid-19th-century. These early practitioners rendered the photograph in multiple negatives and then “montaged” the image’s various iterations to form rich and unlikely allegories and technologically impossible landscapes. Theirs was a manipulation bent on storytelling and image-making, and they wielded such effects with purpose.
Resendez’s earlier photos into paintings esteemed to such narrative and aesthetic heights as those of custom oil painting from photo. A Horse-Drawn Hearse, Queen’s Royal Tours, 174 Anne, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (2009), for instance, presents a dark funereal tour cast in a cryogenic light that underlines its staging, and its staging’s staging, spinning the image into a wonderfully macabre mise-en-abyme. Then there is the winking, apparitional beauty of Reshoeing: Ferrier James Findel with Assistant on Southlands (2003), which pictures a horse veritably bifurcated by a chute of steam. Trickery begets narrative splendour and historical comment in these images–and, in turn, Resendez quickly shot to fame on his masters’ waving coattails.
But the artist’s latest pairing of slightly altered photos into paintings drops the cunning of technological legerdemain to the level of Where’s Waldo?–but without the aesthetic pay-off. The sky shifts above these otherwise seamless reproductions, a scrolling marina laid out beneath, banal and matte. The oil painting is largely unaltered between the photos into paintings, and without a good story to tell, they never rise above the darkroom in-joke they suggest. The painting from photo and suggestive quality of Resendez’s previous paintings is maintained in these photos into paintings, but their lack of a compelling narrative or a bold aesthetic suggests his practice has come to rely too heavily on an esoteric knowledge of its unique manufacture. Which lands us here: if you’re not on the inside, the pleasure of these images falls flat.
The photo-historian Martha Langford terms contemporary photography’s insistence on destabilizing the medium “post-photographic doubt.” I can only imagine Roland Barthes’ impatience with this development since, decades before, he could barely enjoy the photographic medium on its own terms. “That, there it is, lo!” he cried, impatiently, at the photograph’s pointing finger. Importantly, Barthes called for the body he saw to lead him to the corpus he needed, and thus demanded an image capable of our transcending its subject.
And so I wonder, what would Barthes think now, when oil paintings from photos such as Resendez’s lack even their own bodies? With their subjects false and their bedrock infirm, how can we involve ourselves in an image that eludes us?
Luckily, Sans Souci offers a reprieve. Ten diminutive photos into paintings comprise the better part of the exhibition, all taken with a pinhole camera on a popular Georgian Bay island called Sans Souci (“without worries”). Indeed, they painting to still my concern by carrying the movement of a photographic lens pulling into focus. Though their collective subject is little more than the rural detritus of shoreline scaffolding (Pile features a pile; Marina, barely this; Incinerator gets points for activity), the sweeping quality of their skies and the soft focus that permeates the frames moves the eye up and around. I sat with them as with a Pre-Raphaelite slideshow; they are painterly. An especially beautiful inclusion among them is Double Exposure Water Front; A study with Multiple Skies, a quiet triptych panelling blood orange light that curls around the pinhole and focuses the sky.
So while the didactic overreach of the twin photos into paintings stretching a room away is that their referent is their own cunning–“That, there it is, lo!”–the stirring quality of Resendez’s small and single-minded pinhole paintings is that of a suspended chord forever finding its resolution. This time, he is not telling us what to see: instead, blood orange skies suggest real incident, and his lens invites our position. In a medium currently at risk of collapsing under its own weightlessness, this return to form ballasts the image. And, instead of pointing, these images beckon.