James Coleman’s art is literally histrionic: in other words, attuned to the mechanics and meaning of staged presence, a matter of theatrical projection and perspective on the part of actor and audience alike. More precisely, his films, videos and complex slide projections feint constantly with the question of who is looking and from what vantage. On the evidence of his first prominent retrospective in his native Ireland – the exhibition was ambitiously mounted at three of Dublin’s major art institutions – Coleman, whose work famously essays a rigorous critique of the photographic image (if not of representation in general) is also apparently not above a certain sly self-mythification. If his art has long asked us to be skeptical of the visible as such, the most enigmatic works in this retrospective seemed to perform their own dramatic withdrawal from the stage.
The most mysterious piece in this regard was Untitled (1998–2002), a small black and white video projection depicting some grey and fractured substance or surface at sea in a darker medium. The image appeared at once topographical and microscopic. Reviewing the same work in these pages in 2008, Jonathan Griffin opted for the former: he seemed to be seeing splintered ice floes in a cold black ocean. To this writer, the forms looked infinitesimal: I could have been looking at crystals captured in such detail that they seemed organically irregular, even vegetal, or at the carapace of a tiny insect rendered so intimately it appeared mineral. More troublingly, the image seemed almost imperceptibly to shift from time to time, as though, tantalizingly, its fabric and setting might soon become clear. They did not; in fact, enquiries at the Project Arts Centre revealed that Coleman had disallowed all reference to the subject matter of Untitled, and the sole online hint at its origins had, so I was told, recently disappeared.
This mode of insistent reserve was pursued in Connemara Landscape (1980): a small and cursively schematic rendering, in white lines on a dark ground, of a cottage and lake, presumably in the west of Ireland. Stripped of the paraphernalia of national myth that is usually appended to such a scene – picturesque locals, performing for artist or tourist their ostensibly age-old customs – the projected image was also stretched and skewed so that it seemed its anamorphic arrangement ought to cohere from a single point in the large grey gallery space at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Again, the expectation was frustrated, though in this case the work’s optical reticence came with extra philosophical baggage. One was reminded of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s two sojourns in Connemara, in 1934 and 1948, and his reflection, in a fragment later collected in Zettel (Notes, 1967), concerning the visually amphibious phenomenon of the duck-rabbit: ‘I want to ask: what constitutes seeing the figure now like this, now another way? Do I really see something different every time? Or do I merely interpret what I see in a different way? I am inclined to say the first. But why?’
Because, Coleman might counter, seeing is a form of projection. His Charon (MIT Project) (1989) – also shown at the RHA – is perhaps the artist’s most explicit commentary on the photograph as fable and the framing of an image as portal to ideological fantasy. A measured voiceover to the work’s procession of slides recounts incidents in the career of a photographer who seems time and again to be faced with the lack of fit (or is it too easy and secure a fit?) between image and reality: a crime witness who insists the photographer has failed to grasp the truth of his gaze, ‘dream homes’ photographed for an interiors magazine. These latter (so the narrator informs us) are similar to, but not identical with, those shown on the slides. In the final slide sequence, the protagonist retreats, ‘unobserved’, to ‘the spare room’, which is filled with luxurious kitsch, and fondly ‘imagines the next day’s pictures of dream homes’. The viewer never sees what the photographer sees, and is instead forced into the position of frustrated fantasist.
Where Charon (MIT Project) comically disallows the viewer’s urge to give in to the ravishments of the image, Coleman’s exquisitely realized photo-novel Seeing for Oneself (1987–8) is more visually inviting but ultimately no less disconcerting. It’s a Gothic fiction of sorts: the tale of a young woman poisoned by her stepmother’s lover and almost eviscerated as she lies fully conscious but paralyzed on the autopsy table. Coleman borrows from the Gothic not merely the absurd scenography of castle, laboratory and crazed men in frock coats, but a set of framing narrative conventions – notably the discreet servant from whose perspective much of the action unfolds – that situate the whole somewhere between Victorian stage melodrama and classic Hollywood. Except to say that the static slides entrap the narrative in absurd tableaux: the minimal cinematic element of shot and reaction shot is frozen at an emblematic level: one character speaking, the other responding in horror in the same image. Seeing for Oneself is both an ingenious resetting of Gothic conventions and a reflection on the lures and platitudes of several media at once.
Something of the same flattening process takes place in So Different … And Yet (1980), an imposing video work in which Coleman’s frequent collaborator Olwen Fouéré is outlined by a blue-screen background and responds to the promptings of an unseen man. The milieu seems to be refined, decadent, perhaps early 20th-century, but the narrative is unclear. As spectacle in the central courtyard at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, So Different … And Yet was nonetheless an unabashedly engaging counter to the rigours of Box (ahhareturnabout) (1977) back at the Project: the latter a violently intermittent and claustrophobic take on the flicker films of the late 1960s. In certain visceral ways Coleman’s most uncompromising work to date, Box... also seems to condense into one thrumming and pulsing space the complex terms of his broader investigation of image, medium and bodily performance.
First published in Issue 125