Robert Bordo's recent show of paintings continued his exploration of how our experience of space is enhanced or diminished by photography. In mid-19th-century America, before the ubiquity of the postcard, painters brought pristine landscape scenes to an urban public hungry for them. In addition to an array of panoramas, dioramas and proto-cinematic painted spectacles, people eagerly awaited the exhibition of large-scale landscapes by the top artists of the period. (In the case of one Frederic Church canvas 50,000 New Yorkers lined up in a week to spend an estimated hour beholding the picture.) Viewers of these works could often purchase reproductions to commemorate their experience of the paintings - an experience that extended through the reproduced image to allow owners of the prints to remember a landscape most had never seen at first hand. The public's interest in these images waned as the powerful combination of the locomotive and the camera permitted people not only to travel but also to bring home their own images of the places they had seen. Photography diluted the sublime experience of landscape as painters gradually lost their control over the public's memory and experience of place.
Using conventional abstract structures, Bordo's paintings examine the ways in which this complex history affects our contemporary experience and recollection of landscape. Like his earlier works, Bordo's recent canvases suggest that the process of remaking pictures in paint provides an appropriate model for the ways in which we archive and recall images. He configures groups of small tableaux drawn from postcards, photographs and painting reproductions against monochrome backgrounds of varying size. (One little square, for example, is simultaneously an abstract field of lines and a close-up of a zebra.)
Their vague, no-frills rendering evokes an artist struggling repeatedly to picture a familiar object or location and rarely succeeding. The resulting views have an endearing oddity about them, a strangeness that finds support in Bordo's vibrantly muted palette,
which is at turns seductive and coolly disaffecting.
Hung comfortably throughout the long gallery, the paintings are structured in ways that suggest (falsely, it seems) that one might be able to resolve the variety of images within each canvas into a coherent subject or site. In certain cases the little scenes are piled up in one area of the canvas, each one jostling with the others for primacy. All of them seem to lack an essential amount of description, and the viewer jumps between them seeking to fill in the gaps. The layering of the scenes, which privileges some of them, runs against one's efforts to discern some visual meaning. Are these all images of one place? Or perhaps different views from the same location? Could some be variations on the same image?
More often, though, the artist gives the scenes room to breathe. In Some Lost Days (2001) the glowing views are distributed across the space without an apparent hierarchy, offering little direction to the viewer. On the gallery's furthest wall the scenes in Cold Sea (2001) are snapped into a square grid in the middle of the colour field, while in Station Stop (2002) they are lined up across the canvas; in both cases their organization hints at some more cogent system. These formal strategies provide only the barest elements, offering up just enough structure or information to keep us looking. This fruitless search never frustrates, in part because the negative space around the vistas seems buoyant and full of light against the vagaries of each image. The colour field becomes a space of respite from the responsibilities of representation.
It is this undermining of representational depiction that makes clear Bordo's primary interest in the space and vocabulary of abstract painting - a position he has clearly articulated elsewhere. While the failure of each painting's vignettes fully to coalesce connects strongly to the workings of memory, the greater subject of this quiet show appears to be the confrontation - now well over a century old - between painting and photography over the presentation of sublime space. Leave the details to photography's calculated picturesque, seems to be the line, and let painting retreat into that foggy infinitude of Agnes Martin and Mark Rothko. After our postcards and snapshots have made it difficult to remember much else from those good times and nice trips, we can still wander through a bare field of colour, pretending it's all there before our eyes.
First published in Issue 68