A Humbling: Jaron Childs’ “How To Make A World” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program.
Ten paintings, modestly sized, punctuate the white walls of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Jaron Childs’ “How To Make A World.” Based on photographs, the paintings initially appear as exquisitely crafted exercises in photorealism. But rather than perfecting painterly re-presentation, Childs translates his snapshots of family life and landscapes in order to get at something more elusive, something that frustrates the eye’s ambition for mastery. “How To Make a World” is a self-conscious construction, interested in its limitations and invested in the process of transformation, its inaccuracies, and the inevitable losses that happen along the way.
A child’s head of tousled blond hair, turned to look out a window at a road by a lake; a woman wearing a wide-brimmed black sun hat facing a swamp; a black dog with a white-tipped tail wading through shallow water; often, Childs’ paintings position us to look over others’ shoulders, as if to share their gaze for a moment. We watch them taking in a scene that is partly obstructed by their very presence. Thus each painting not only copies a photograph, unreliably, but also doubles a point of view, imperfectly. Do we, can we, ever share someone else’s gaze completely? Even when Childs positions us to meet his subject’s gaze, as in fence, he obscures the horse’s eyes with the drooping tape of electric fencing. The artist does not grant us the illusion of meeting someone’s gaze and effectively withholds the promise of objectivity.
The paintings bear witness to Childs’ process of lingering with moments captured on camera. Viewers, too, are invited to linger and treasure the ordinary scenes and landscapes, familiar to anyone who ever spent a summer in the Midwest: an old tree’s reflection on the still surface of a pond; a sandy beach, flanked by towering pines and just about hot enough to make the air shimmer and flicker as it rises. The paintings conjure experiences and, at the same time, keep them out of reach, most deliberately so in song: a man inhales right before blowing on a blade of grass, held in place between two thumbs. Time and medium conspire to suspend the moment, forever inaccessible, inaudible. Thus, quite contrary to their ostensible perfectionism, the paintings celebrate imperfection, flawed moments and altered memories.
The thresholds of perception play an equally prominent part in Childs’ landscapes. Often close to the picturesque, they are never unaware of art historical affinities and the discipline of the gaze, dutifully looking and over-looking, focusing on what matters and cropping what doesn’t. Rather than paint an Icelandic geyser as the epitome of the wild, Childs shows a tourist exploring the scene. Plumes of steam join morning mist and fog in other landscape paintings to allude to what the gaze cannot penetrate. Ever so gently, Childs defies the delusions and discipline of art history’s magisterial gaze and insists on finding beauty in the humble minutiae of everyday moments and memories.
How to make a world
BY CHRISTOPHER ATKINS
The exhibition title was inspired by this excerpt from The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy’s 1994 novel of a young man’s multiple attempts at heroism.
Memories dim with age. There is no repository for our images. The loved ones who visit us in dreams are strangers. To even see aright is effort. We seek some witness but the world will not provide one. This is the third history. It is the history that each man makes alone out of what is left to him. Bits of wreckage. Some bones. The words of the dead. How make a world of this? How live in that world once made?
As a painter, Childs knows all about the fragility of making a world, which for him is a combination of experiences and time, held together with other bituminous memories. Each of his paintings begins with a photograph. There is an affect, an inexpressible sensation in each snapshot, so how he decides which family event or place to paint is very intuitive. Describing this part of the process, he has said, “I don’t see the photograph as an objective record of reality. When I take a picture I’m stepping back from the world, putting myself between it and the viewer. I’m deciding what and how things can be seen.”
What is photography if not the framing and capturing of miniature bits and pieces of the world? It represents the photographer’s view of how the world should be seen. And one of the reasons for taking photographs is to convert an experience or place into an image, making it less disorienting and more understandable. This all means that photographs have become an invaluable record but also an insurance policy, guaranteeing that what has been photographed can be recalled.
His painting geyser captures the dramatic and ancient beauty of Iceland’s famous Great Geysir. A tourist lost in thought gingerly walks across wet, gently sloping rocks, parallel to a crepuscular background where other hikers are disappearing into the hazy landscape. A few people will catch the compositional quotes that Childs has borrowed from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris. But it’s impossible to miss just how precisely he has painted this and other works; it’s easy to get lost in the beautiful surfaces, textures and lighting of each image. The photorealistic effects he accomplishes are seductive enough to stand on their own, but the paintings work harder than that.
His paintings empty out the original photographs as he endlessly misremembers the information he sees. It sounds ironic to say this, since the paintings have enormous amounts of fine and subtle details, but each iteration loses more of what is real, leaving behind subjective features such as composition and framing. His painting that sun looks well enough reads like a slightly overexposed photograph, the waves of Lake Superior rippling quickly from the shore to infinity. The atmosphere in the painting is a fuzzy, soft white noise. As Childs continues to interpret through painting how his camera makes sense of light hitting the digital sensor, he describes this exploration as a leakage from photography into painting, and he embraces the loss of control over the final painting that this leakage implies. And yet there is intimacy, too. The breathing room between each of the 11 paintings in How to make a world serves to isolate and emphasize the intimate scale of his work, which can be seen in the specific moments he has captured and the labor poured into each painting.
When scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, it’s easy to say, “Yes, these things have happened.” The same cannot be said of Childs’s paintings. Experiencing nature is one thing. Photographing it is another. And painting it is something different again. Childs is a student of art history and sees such overlapping mediation of the landscape like this: “If we think of Nature as a lecture, as spoken word or text, then the photograph is a shorthand version of this text. Painting is the manual labor of piecing together the notes that, in some way, interprets the original text.” This bricolage is a succinct metaphor for the complex way that Childs fuses the fragments of his paintings, echoing the tenuousness of what Cormac McCarthy called a “third history.”
Copies of recorded conversations extend the life of what has been said. Copies of documents make information available to new people in new places and contexts. But no matter how realistic a copy, the process of copying is always one of transformation. So Childs insists he is painting an interpretation rather than capturing, exactly, each of his photographs. He argues, “This only proves just how symbolic painting actually is. Just like my eye, memory wanders and re-writes itself to our taste, flatters us, and looks to an improved narrative. Most of the time, I’m not seeing the photo but rather painting what I think I see. Painting the world as I know it to be.”