Featured Post

Pinned Post, A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Process Reveals Itself

The process doesn't always reveal itself, but sometimes it does. Sometimes, that's all there is.

Consider Mirjana Vrbaški, recently reviewed by all the Better Critics. She's spend more than a decade working on one of the "let's photograph a whole bunch of women the same way" projects, although mercifully they're not nudes. You can examine the results here, and here, and finally here.

If you then go read the "About" page, you find this graf:

In Verses of Emptiness (2009-ongoing), [ ... ] Vrbaški and her model isolate themselves in the photo studio, working in silence and concentration so as to ’peel away’ the model’s surface layers. Placing her sitter against a neutral, contextless backdrop and consequently ’sculpting’ her inward, she reduces her portraits to a minimum of visual elements until a more essential and strangely unsettling layer is exposed.

and if you're me you say "yep, that's pretty much what I would have guessed."

The artist has developed a process and a theory. The process is pretty definite, and the theory is essentially a variation on the standard theme of: if I just do the same thing over and over for long enough, surely something will emerge.

In a way, something has emerged. The trouble is that what's emerged is just the process itself. These pictures look exactly like what they are. A bored, and possibly over-serious model, sitting silently in a studio with a very much over-serious artist, working on a sort of ham-fisted modern interpretation of a Dutch Master portrait.

They certainly are unsettling photos, because the sheer awkwardness in the studio is palpable. You might think at first that these women are all combat veterans with PTSD or something, but it just goes on and on and they're all the same, and you realize that it's just direction. I've seen the veterans show, and it's different.

I think that this is, International Art English posturing aside, exactly what is intended. The Art is supposed to reveal the process, and the seriousness of the Artist, and not much else. It's not really Art about the Artist, it's Art about how Serious The Artist Is. It's not even as interesting as the novel about the novelist, or the short story about the peppy young woman navigating the vagaries of the publishing industry in NYC, written by a slightly less peppy young woman navigating the vagaries of the publishing industry in NYC. At least those people are telling us about their crashingly boring lives, the Serious Artist isn't even doing that.

Look at my process: I bore the model into oblivion! Look, I photograph only women, which surely counts for something! Look at my art-historical references! Vrbaški has pared away everything except these elements, and has done so evidently on purpose. At this point, this is literally what her photos are about.

They are, in essence, simply saying loudly "I AM A VERY SERIOUS ARTIST" in hopes someone agrees.

It isn't even Art about Art.

What it is, is it's pretty common. Photographers love this shit. I will photograph this fencepost every day. I will photograph my lunch every day. I will photograph a bunch of people in such-and-such a demographic in the most coldly impersonal way I can devise.

What makes me interested in it today is that sometimes it works. Noah Kalina has been taking a self portrait every day for more than 20 years. The result has been presented in various video forms, and also as a big grid of stills. Kalina has stayed on target, working his process, for decades, and something has by-god emerged. It's something about the passage of time, about aging, about mortality.

There are others. Arguably Robert Frank's trip around the USA was a process of sorts, doggedly adhered to through thick and thin, that produced 83 keepers that actually make some cogent remarks on the USA.

This does raise a problem. How are you to know when your process will produce something? I dare say Vrbaški got going on her project at some point, thinking something along these lines. She made a few pictures, decided maybe it was a thing to doggedly stick to, and has stuck with it. If, at some point, it occurred to her that nothing was emerging, well, she had a problem, didn't she?

This is her Thing. Assuming this thought occurred to her, by that time she'd probably gotten a few minor mentions, maybe a gallery show or two, and had committed herself to the IAE gobbling about layers of meaning emerging. What's she gonna do, pitch the idea and start from scratch just because it's not working and is obviously never going to work? Or is she more likely to double down, and try to persuade a few more critics that, no, truly, something ineffable and incapable of being articulated really has emerged?

Obviously, the latter, unless she's remarkably dim, which does not seem to be the case at all.

It kind of sells itself, too. The portraits are so neutral, so blank, that you can project anything you like onto them. If you're some dopey critic you can stare at them for a while and allow some vague sensation that there's something ineffable there. Then you write that down, and you've got your column for the week!

Drinks all around!


  1. Interesting. A long time ago (2009) I was more or less randomly chosen as a subject in a similar student's project to photograph people who had spent 15 minutes in an anechoic chamber. I blogged about it here:


    It's curious that anyone should still believe, in that pop psychological way, that there are "layers" to be peeled away to reveal some truer "essence" beneath, much less that these layers and that essence are visual.


  2. All works of art, good ones anyway, are vehicles of audience projection. There are signs to be read; if and how you read them is on you. Skepticism regarding provenance and other surrounding hype can interfere with or even block one's ability to obtain some insight from a given art work or oeuvre -- that's also on you.

    Bad art, which frequently equates to popular art, wears its signs on its sleeve (political alignment being au courant).

    Audience projection, inference, imagination, any intellectual effort really, are superfluous, the meaning is a kind of soothing, culturally agreeable pablum.

    1. Two points:

      1) If you really create a genuine tabula rasa, then, sure, that's a thing. It become purely subjective, though, being entirely a reflection of the viewer. I happen to think that Art derives much of its value from its intersubjective nature, from the shared experience of it, from the shared meaning. Which, sure, can go too far, but where the line falls is a matter of taste.

      2) If you make a blank slate, but insist that it is nevertheless rife with subtle meaning, I am going to point and laugh at you. Not for making a blank slate, but for pretending that's it not blank.

    2. I think we may be talking at cross-purposes as usual :-) ... I don't have any truck with tabula rasas (rasi?) either as a philosophical construct, or an approach to visual art.

  3. Why would she be dim if after some time she decided the thing isn't going anywhere, and just abandon it? Yes, it's a sunk cost, but maybe (this happened to me) a messed up project has a core that can become something better. I think that ditching something that's not working completely rather than try to patch it is a rather good decision.

    1. My assumption, possibly poorly stated, was that not only is there sunk cost, but there is real traction in the Art World as well.

      If you've made some real headway with a project that you, for whatever reason, no longer wish to pursue, what do you do? It's a problem.

  4. I remember attending a lecture by Peter Fraser on his book Mathematics. He said "I asked them to imagine infinity, and then photographed them". I asked whether he made note of this anywhere. I looked at the pictures. I looked at the portraits. It seemed like a good example of a project where you could swap out the pictures with any others and conceptually speaking they would do most of the original work's leg work qua the stated intention.

    Fwiw, I make "process work" sometimes, and at least looking at people I like who also do so, what I want isn't "do the same shit over and over again", but more like "show your working". Much of it doesn't really have an end point or a concluding statement, but it creates an atmosphere or is even just visually quite nice and makes the eye dance a little. Yokota's Matter/Burnout being a good example for me personally.

    I just don't see the above criteria meeting 99% of these "picture of a person in a studio" works.