Janet Sternburg: Sensuous Ethnography, Cultural Migrations, Inimitable Praxis

Depending on the city you live in, there are any number of ways to traverse the cityscape. If living in a major metropolis with sound infrastructure, there are numerous options: public transportation, overground and underground, ideal for longer trips without the hassle of parking, walking, or, if you so dare, unfold a trusty Brompton and cycle the congested streets. The crush of activity, the sensory overload, our determination to get from point to point, oftentimes override the time it takes to take a closer look at the very environment that supports the foundation of what we call culture. While organizational structures are invisible to retinal perception, ethnographic observation, for those who care to engage, is practiced, learned, and exhibited. Exhibiting perception may be construed as the domain of writers, artists, and academics. However, perception is shaped through complex filtration systems made up of marketers, entrepreneurs, and pundits. Everyone is exposed to the myriad ways information reaches us, how it’s processed is dependent on any number of personal variables.

The trouble with Janet Sternburg’s work is there’s nothing to see. Confoundedly so. And so we look again. The closer you look, the more the images dissipate. Depth of field is expansive and at once compressed. There’s the realization that it’s not about formal composition, or looking, or knowing, or acknowledging the image’s subjectivity, it’s recognizing our own perceptive near misses. Sternburg isn’t interested in verisimilitude because there is no such thing. It’s about placing the body in relation to fleeting glances, a mirage, reflective dissipations that occur often but are uniquely underscored by location and date stamp. A passer by who catches our eye, no matter how hard we try, within minutes their features dissipate, ephemeral glimpses of unknown objectives that mark the passage of time.

The strength of Sternburg’s work is that she never tries to be clever, cajole for the sake of reaction, or teach. Her images are like being simultaneously underwater, above ground, and looking back into the abyss without oxygen. They’re disconcerting, distracting, nebulous and at once painterly. A glimpse of life unfolding, caught in the memory of touch—redolent—and the remembrance of familiar sounds that place the body in specific historical contexts. The edges of objects are blurred, mercurial, inky. Photographs are taken with disposable cameras and iPhones. Point and shoot. Zero manipulation. Instant gratification, without fussing about over or under exposure, depth of field, or focus. A collection of lucky glimpses that we all have but few actually notice.

Overspilling World, is a monograph documenting Sternburg’s last two decades of work. As an accomplished writer, Sternburg first picked up the camera in 1998 while visiting San Miguel de Allende. Since that time, Sternburg reinforces Wittgenstein, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” When the limits of language limit the world in which the author can no longer express through words what may be better stated through images, she placed her body in the environment and into culture. The return of the body is not an exaltation of its sensuous functions, but rather the placement as documentarian within a world of fleeting moments.

When thinking about Sternburg’s work through an ethnographic lens, it is Dwight Conquergood who emphasized the importance of rigor, especially through length of time spent in the field and the “depth of commitment, and risks (bodily, physical, emotional) taken to acquire cultural understanding.” Fieldwork, as Conquergood states, is always “open air,” rather than “arm chair.” In other words, Sternburg’s documentation is always through the placement of herself within culture rather than researched cerebrally. What becomes evident, and differentiates her work from investment and placement in one particular location, is that her images are collected from many different cities throughout the world over a twenty year period. What is perhaps an unintentional observation is the timelessness of her imagery. Sternburg’s interest in old cars, their reflections in shop windows naturally superimposed on naked mannequins, becomes a guessing game as to when and where the images were taken. Sternburg’s participation is clear; her investment is measured both in volume, but perhaps more importantly, corporeal exposure over duration.

Arnold Van Praag at 90 | The Redfern Gallery, London

Timelessness in painting, poetry, performance, music, and playwriting is found in works that emphasize the human condition devoid of date–specific events and artifacts. When Pina Bausch raised her hand and touched her face while stumbling to collide with chairs in Café Müller, Bausch was inherently expressing what Edvard Munch composed statically in the thematic through line of his work—the inexpressible yet genetically encoded Erinnerungsfragmente, or fragments of memory.

When Van Gogh painted a self portrait, a sunflower or chair, he painted universal objects known to all and transcendent of time. The elements of figurative painting, painterly mannerisms — “brushmanship” — value, compositional expansiveness, unorthodox cropping, and memetic practices, are all indicators of date.

It can be argued that Odd Nerdrum paints like Rembrandt; Jenny Saville’s imposing canvases are looser versions of slightly more diminutive Lucian Freud’s, and while Cecily Brown doesn’t share the same palette as Catherine Goodman, both employ a disfiguration of form that is violent, disorienting, and disconcerting.

Born in 1926, Arnold Van Praag’s contemporaries include United Kingdom based Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, and the Ukrainian born and New York resident, Milton Resnick. Chaim Soutine, born just thirty three years before Van Praag entered the world, wrote of his own work, “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat…This cry, I always feel it there. When, as I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted a beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.”

Layer, upon layer, upon layer, Auerbach, Kossoff, Freud, Resnick, and their forebear, Soutine, labored. Toiling to express the ineffable. Later, on stage, Bausch exploded in movement extending her limbs in grotesque repetition while others sharing her space stood in silent repose. A shuffle, a twist, a slash, a mark erased, thwarting perfect utterances. Van Praag entered relatively unnoticed. Silent. Withdrawn. Ebullient, but only superficially—of color, that is—using fauvist vibrancy belying the dreary European palette that made up much of 19th and early 20th–century realism. He made his mark. Dangerously. A performance in paint. Fish writhe and seethe in disquieting piles one atop another in the appropriately named, “Fishmonger.” Cadmium red oozes front and center in, “Butcher: Rack of Birds.” There is a slash of sadism decoded from the upmost layers; paint applied later in life but with the vitality of a man at the height of his powers. Horizontal and vertical thrusts intersect adding structure to membranous skins that intertwine one into another while mocking the viewer’s sense of fixity.

Tradesman, butchers, and fishmongers predominate in Van Praag’s work. Then there’s “Susannah and The Elders,” painted not once, but repeated many times. A timeless story of lasciviousness, betrayal, damnation, and the triumph of truthful innocence. On some level Van Praag’s marks seem familiar, yet instantly recognizable as great. While his work is not as well known as some other art historical giants, his paintings hold their own with the best of them.

6 December, 2016, extended through February, 2017

The Redfern Gallery                                                                               London W1S 3HL