Corcoran Curators Statement
The possibilities of Polaroid photography in the hands of artists have been quickly grasped and quite exhaustively explored. Many photographers whose command of the photographic medium relies on traditional shooting and developing techniques have used SX-70 to great advantage, sometimes as a kind of toy, occasionally with real seriousness and authority. But few artists-photographers or painters or whatever have so independently and single-mindedly pursued one of the SX-70's many uses, that of quick serial outdoor recorder, as has Frank Gillette. Beginning as early as 1971, Gillette has used the Polaroid camera as an adjunct to his other primary medium, the video camera. He has proceeded to ignore the commands of "pure photography"; he has even bypassed the "material manipulation" (à la Les Krims), and invented a powerfully original mode of expression with the SX-70 medium as a kind of encapsulator of nature in tiny increments, or to put it somewhat differently, as a facilitator for his long project of creating an aesthetic grounded primarily in taxonomy.
Gillette literally allows pattern in nature to dictate the patterns of his art. But he sometimes goes beyond observation to achieve syntheses, and of course it is in his synthetic abilities that one truly defines him as an artist rather than "researcher." As does the researcher, Gillette first selects a site, or a geographic problem, and then observes it, systematically and patiently; he then undergoes another process of selection on the basis of schematized sequential patterns, and at an even later stage, in the studio, he makes his final selections in deciding how to order the numbered images. He has devised several methods of ordering, from the most strictly schematized to a relatively fluid and "arbitrary" approach. The latter is exemplified in what the artist refers to as the "random walk" pieces, in which the units are ordered not according to the order in which they were shot on location, but upon an order determined in the studio and based on the artist's sense of how they relate visually to each other on the grid. It is not as though Gillette shuffles the deck, but the "random walk" pieces are ordered by virtue of sensibility rather than observational logic.
We are perhaps baffled by the simultaneous lack of logic, and the sense of underlying unity, of the "random walk" pieces. But some of them are extraordinarily successful if only in a kind of tonal lyricism and overal relational complexity. On the other hand, in the carefully "strategized" works such as Mecox Tideline, we are immediately aware that some sort of genuinely chronological occurrence is in evidence, though we cannot necessarily reconstitute its structural method on the basis of visual clues alone. Here is what occurred in the creation of Mecox Tideline: the artist walked along a two-hundred yard strip of tidal sand on Long Island's Mecox Bay, stopping to photograph straight down with each forward step; the resulting images were numbered, and then mounted on the 6 by 13 grid in a linear progression starting at upper left and proceeding downward to the bottom of the six-image row, then moving up from bottom to top in the next row, then down and up and so on. We thus travel through a particular geographic sequence, and we trace the changes in light and its variations of opacity and tonality with the progression in time. The odd milkiness accumulating in the central region of the progression is generated by the sun's angle in relation to the subject.
The selection of the observant mind combines with the tooI—Polaroid SX-70—to create a microcosmic evocation of the natural World. But as Gillette acknowledges, the tool even when used relatively artlessly, doesn't really evoke systems in nature directly so much as it provides a kind of metanomic image of certain natural processes. We are not, for example, shown or reminded of "naturalistic" perspective. Photography in general tends to operate in an area that shifts continually between illusory deep space and literal flatness. Small-scale Polaroid photos in particular tend to emphasize their own objectness, and therefore often their flatness. Gillette would seem to reinforce this quality of SX-70 by arranging his images in grids. But in fact he often engages the factor of illusionistic recessive space, by contrasting various kinds of light and shade and tonality and density and all sorts of other "dualities" of pictorially frozen details of the world. The fragments of landscape-sky or earth or object-on-ground—work contrapuntally and harmonically among themselves, establishing a kind of serial/statistical logic, tempered by the control gained through artistic license. The evoked ambivalence of illusory space in nature, through observation in fragments and reconstitution in a combined spirit of taxonomic order and aesthetic freedom--this oddly confusing and yet legible quality is distinctive to Gillette's work, both still photographs and video.
Gillette has firmly disavowed any interest in conceptual art or narrative concerns, in video or photography. He says he is as involved as the scientist is with empirical observation, but in the service not of objective truth but of a cultivation of sensibility. So we establish the artist in a realm which is not truly allied with recent post-minimalism, nor with the photographic camp. Gillette's notion of sense instead of either "information' or "aesthetics" is crucial to the aim and result of these apparently rigorous and even classical Works. The contradictions inherent in the use of a simple and universally available commercial medium, a medium literally devoid of any aesthetic history when Gillette began to experiment with it in 1971, is not lost on the artist. He has said, "I am reacting against an effete and redundant aestheticization of the visual arts. My reaction is simply to re-embrace the world, to go back to it's sources and concretize. What I actively resist is what I consider is decorative abstractionism, or counter-empirical works. I prefer to toil within the domain of the realist."
Of course all photography has an element of the concrete, in that it seems by definition reliant on the immediately perceived external world. But Gillette does in fact proceed in a manner which acknowledges the unedited natural world to a much greater degree than most art photography. For we are shown sites in subtly varying conditions across time. It is not just the directness, the unprocessed or rather the non-darkroom-mediated character of the Polaroid medium, but another fact which makes Gillette's photographs so strikingly concrete, and so dramatically different from most other art photography: Gillette works cerebrally, literally deductively, and in a spirit of intellection and frankness both, which impart to his work a powerfully demanding aura of the strictly observational. He gives us precious little "artistic editorializing," and even less narrative content. It is the literalness of Gillette's art which makes it function so concretely; but this directness and empiricism is tempered by an underlying intellectual complexity and, even more important, by an inveterate temperamental romanticism. Gillette is a self-proclaimed "primitive involved with deep traditions," and makes no secret of the fact that for all his rigorous observational techniques, he finally works intuitively, and with a tendency to adjust his pre-conceived methodology according to whim or taste, as he goes along.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art Washington, D.C. / 1980
Mecox / 1979
Caravaggio in Valletta / 1978