Photograms from the swimming pool by Robert Rauschenberg

From Past Paper//Present Marks, published by Radius Books.  (Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Odette England)
From Past Paper//Present Marks, published by Radius Books. (Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Odette England)

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I’ve been pretty upset for the past four months. The brutal news cycle of global turmoil and domestic discord has eroded any sense of calm I had. Everything seems confused, turned upside down, nonsensical.

I’m just starting to look out of the funk. And one of the things I’ve found extremely helpful is taking a break in beautiful things — or things to lose myself in, that take me into a sense of daydreaming. The book Past Paper // Present Marks (Radius, 2022) by artists Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Odette England is one of the books I have taken refuge in.

The book itself is beautiful, which only adds to the pleasure you will have while flipping through the pages. But the content (I hate that word!) borders on the sublime. It’s a collection of photograms—or photographic images produced without a camera—taken at legendary artist Robert Rauschenberg’s swimming pool at his Florida home.

The pictures are experimental visions of amazement. Garza-Cuen and England made them in 2018 as part of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation residency in Captiva, Florida.

When the artists arrived at Rauschenberg, they introduced themselves to the studio manager and told him they were interested in collaborating on some “process experiments”. The studio manager replied that they would be given access to some of Rauschenberg’s old photographic papers in the darkroom.

After finding the paper among Rauschenberg’s old chemicals, processing bowls, and enlarger, the two artists set about their experiments. They mixed the old chemicals, took the expired paper, and began the process that would eventually produce the work in Past Paper // Present Marks.

The resulting images are soft and dreamy. But of course there is more to it than that. Its provenance lends additional weight, coming from remains left by one of the world’s most admired artists, or as Garza-Cuen and England say, “overlooked materials with latent experimental potential”.

To quote Walt Whitman, this phrase “includes multitude.” The Garza-Cuen and England photograms were made after folding, cutting, piercing and slashing Rauschenberg’s photographic paper and then tossing it into his swimming pool, where it marinated in the water and sun.

I’m almost always interested in reading what artists themselves say about the process they used to make a work, and that’s true here. This is how England and Garza-Cuen describe the process of creating these pictures:

“We fold sheets of paper / layer and put them in the envelopes / let them transform // We cut / pierce / cut up the cardboard envelopes and lightproof bags / release them into Bob’s pool // float / swim / sink / dance on the edges / exposed to the sun / moon for hours / accumulating migrating light swimming through salt water ///”

Well, as a former English studies student, I am reminded of a poem – or, if I take it one step further, even of life itself. Aren’t we all somehow circumcised and pierced and exposed to the elements, sun and moon too? Isn’t that one of the ways in which our personalities are formed?

As we all know, life is unpredictable. To borrow another saying, “Life is what happens while you’re making plans,” right? I find the work in Past Paper // Present Marks to be a beautiful meditation on the randomness of creativity and the essence of life wrapped in so much personal history, dents, scrapes and collisions. This is what makes us what we are; This is how we create the things we leave behind that prove we existed.

That’s one way of interpreting the work. Anyway, immersing myself in this book gave me a break from the scorching flames of an unrelenting news cycle. And maybe it can do the same for you. Or maybe you get a completely different message from the pictures. That’s the beauty of art, isn’t it?

I would describe these images as “beyond” but that’s not really true. You are firmly of this world. What you see in them are in fact the marks left by the world. They are not only images, but also poetry and music. Yes, they contain a variety.

This idea is supported by the three essays included in the book, written by Susan Bright, a London-based curator and writer; David Campany, curator, writer and program director at the International Center of Photography in New York; and Nicholas Muellner, associate professor of photography and co-director of the Image Text MFA at Ithaca College and ITI Press.

All three have their own interpretations and responses to the work of Garza-Cuen and England. Here are some of the nuggets I pulled from their essays:

Bright: “The viewer must also let the works lead him into a world of strangeness and beauty, in which things seem to be one and the other at the same time.”

Campany: “Well, if Garza-Cuen and England tell us very clearly where and with what materials they made their photograms, we can’t conclude anything definite from that. It may be that her work’s relationship to Rauschenberg is similar to the relationship between photography and the photogram in general. True but tenuous.”

Müllner does not speak explicitly at all about the work of Garza-Cuen and England. He muses most of the time on Rauschenberg and reflects on how he found his work to be mostly superficial. But that seems to be the connection – the photograms in “Past Paper // Present Marks” are surface as photographic works. The relationship between the two is made clearer, albeit implicitly, in a quote like this from Mullner’s essay:

“One does not need the depths below when all of one’s experience is radiating over the surface of a floating life. … If you stay on the surface long enough, it still comes down to life.”

The essays show how the work can be interpreted in different ways, be it academic, contextual or personal. But that’s true of most artistic work, and it’s one of the things that makes encountering artworks like the ones in this book a very rich experience.

You can read more about the book and buy it from the publisher’s website here.

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