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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Crit: Frédérick Carnet, The promise of a better world?

I've written about M. Carnet's work in the past, right here, reviewing his project "The Last First Day" which I liked. But not as much as I like the work I'm looking at right now.

You can examine the promise of a better world? right here, and you ought to. I will reserve my comments to "below the jump" as they say, and remind you to go look at the work before you read my remarks again.

First, two fragments.

Joseph Cornell made boxes. Cornell boxes, to be exact. As far as I know, no other artist has taken a credible swing at this, so it's an art form with, really, a single practitioner. What he did was to arrange objects in an open box. Nothing more. Glue, wire, that sort of thing. Just stuff. The effect is sometimes pretty much nothing, but sometimes it's quite startling. He's really just giving you a structured arrangement of more or less ordinary objects, and, zowie, it creates some sort of intense impression.

Fragment #2. All representational art does this thing in which there is a duality in play between the thing represented, and the representation itself. Photography, with its precise optical tracing of the thing, takes this to a kind of pinnacle. If I want to show you a thing and it is inconvenient to actually pry it loose and carry it to you, I will inevitably take a photograph of the thing. It is the way we do that. "Look at this" we say. Some photographs function purely as a way of looking at something, the photograph itself vanishes or is at any rate irrelevant. Some photographs barely represent anything, and what we're supposed to perceive is the photograph itself. Most fall somewhere in between.

If you haven't yet, go ye and look at M. Carnet's pictures now! Look carefully. These pictures are rather densely connected to one another.

Ok, we're back. Right? Right. Onwards.

As I noted, this is a highly structured sequence of pictures. The connections from one picture to the next are strong, references back and forth across longer intervals are present. There are graphical connections, connections of idea, of subject. There are indications of a progressions. The whole thing is intensely structured. I will bet you that if you go back tomorrow, you'll find another completely new way these pictures relate to one another.

As a structured sequence (in Keith A. Smith's sense of a bunch of things with a mesh rather than a chain of interconnection, allusion, reference, etc.) this is nothing short of a virtuoso performance. In fact it is so structured that it's not clear to me how to display it other than in the standard issue (horrible) side scrolling online gallery. Some of the structure relies on one picture being placed right next to the previous one, and so on. A single row on a gallery wall, with prints not too large, would also work, or an accordian book. In a western codex, you'll lose stuff, unfortunately.

I honestly have no idea how M. Carnet did it. I would kill to be able to sequence like this. Well, not just anyone but there's a pretty good list of people I'd be willing to whack for this skill. Certainly most people putting together art books demonstrably cannot do it. This thing should be required reading for anyone doing a photobook class (Colberg, I know you read this blog, because you love me, so pay attention).

Well so what, it's very densely structured, but does it go anywhere?

Yes, of course it does, otherwise I wouldn't like it as much. The title gives it away of course, and perhaps primes us to see it. Still, I think the sequence absolutely cashes the check the title wrote, no question.

This work resembles, actually quite closely, the work in The Last First Day. The same visual tropes are there, with single subjects simply centered in the frame. Carnet is showing us objects, mostly, one at a time. Here is this thing. Here is this other thing. There is an air of melancholy over it all, but not that sense of terror, of disaster. Perhaps the titles of the two pieces simply set me up to see disaster in one, and mere melancholy in the other? I don't know, and I don't think it matters. Who cares whether it's the title or the pictures doing the work here, as long as the whole functions?

In this way, Carnet's pictures are functioning largely as "showing us objects." I can neither exactly put my finger on why, nor can I shake the distinct impression that, the whole is a lot like a Cornell box. The pictures are all basically mundane, almost stupid, or perhaps severe. Generally, a single more or less banal thing, sometimes vaguely pretty, sometimes vaguely sad, in the center of the frame.

But all together, there is melancholy, and the passage of time. Fall, passes into a kind of winter. Not the beautiful snowy winter of fables, but the damp chilly winter of reality, and then toward the end we see hints of spring, memories of the past summer and then, shockingly, the last two frames finally cash that check and promise us a better tomorrow.

And then, if we're attentive, we can look further and see that these pictures aren't just representations of things. They're also photographs in their own right, and the graphics and the forms interconnect as well, and support that sense that the whole is a made thing. I won't reveal all that I have noticed (or even very much at all) but I will say that it looks to me as if some or all of the pictures were cropped very very carefully.

I see on the artist's web site that this is a work in progress, but honestly it's not at all clear to me how to improve it at this point. While I could certainly say things like "beef up the winter theme" a bit or whatever, it's not at all obvious that the whole thing wouldn't fall apart if one tried that. There is, I think, a real risk of disturbing the delicate balance that has been achieved here in an effort to "improve" this bit or that bit.

Anyways. I love this thing unabashedly. This is the clearest example I have yet seen of the theory I have long held that a sequence of photographs can be much, much, more than the sum of the parts.


  1. Cool stuff. Quite a denouement at the end of the couple of series I looked through.

  2. The serie is no more in "work in progress" section ! ;-) I just added 3 more pictures and the serie won't be touch anymore. We can consider it as "completed". Or may be...it's the first part of a trilogy ? ;-)