Inch by Inch, Bold Ghost
Transom believes his written work often stalls when trying to find the right method for puncturing his thought. He is in the middle of writing yet his mind flits back to the time he spent standing before the painting, comfortable with the notion of it being one of those occasions where there is nothing to be done except to maintain one’s position before an object of contemplation, allowing intensities of recognition to come and then quietly depart. From his position in the gallery he had acknowledged that the painting was wildly familiar – why did you put it like that? thinks Transom as he writes – even if the nature of that familiarity was to remain obscure. Until this point, no term of common measurement had allowed him to fully write out his response.
There were certainly different orders of recognition at work, Transom writes. Standing before the painting, he had anticipated that it would take sustained labour to put all the strands of his connective associations in touch with what empowered them, or to reconcile the components of his thought that were always ready to spiral away from him and each other. Yet the ‘wildness’ of the familiarity, Transom says to himself (then writes), came from its vibrancy – an attribute that to him is both matter-of-fact, as crisp as the work’s execution, and otherworldly. The landscape, painted by John William Inchbold in 1885, has been visited a number of times, looked at again and again, in an attempt to come to terms with its tensions of familiarity and obscurity. From the distance of his writing desk Transom feels that it is not exactly the painting that he is concerned with, nor the specific details of its maker. It is rather the manner of the image’s persistence in his mind. This continues to motivate his thoughts, as if the resources of the implied uncertainty were physically pressing against his back, forcing him to work.
Transom addresses the painting once more, thinking back to the exhibition and glancing at a postcard reproduction on his desk. His general acquaintance with the image is such that his awareness skims over it in clusters, as if scanning for further information. The painting shows a muddy slope rising from a stand of oak trees, a blue sky shining from behind a bare canopy, and a segment of forest slanting off to the side. The composition is asymmetrical, as if capturing a moment prior to a vortex drawing all things up from the surface of the earth. Transom focuses on the tumescent trunk dominating the scene – an oafish and anomalous index of the resinous light. He considers how this tree immediately disturbs him once again, as if its appearance suggested that an affliction could be imparted through hardened paint. But the fattened oak concerns him mainly in its banality. It is not obviously oversized but remains obscurely monstrous even in its fidelity to scale. In the gallery, as he had leant close to the canvas, Transom had noted bloody leaves in the foreground branches and mistook petals of primrose and harebell for metallic shards of litter. Now, as he writes, it is clear that Inchbold’s meticulous observation and technical detail have assumed an uncertain presence in Transom’s mind. For all its clarity, the image resists him. Transom remembers imagining hearing a camera shutter resounding in air more open than that of the gallery, as if trying telling him that the image had to have been produced mechanically – a tinted daguerreotype. Either that or it was a palpepral design pressed into the underside of a skin lid.
Yet even if it had not echoed a photographic mode, Transom would insist that he knows the painting’s specific slant of light – that exact form of sunburst pushing its way from a cloudbank like a tongue exiting closed lips. He knows the movement of that flare as it fizzes into firm edges and then fades. Moreover, Transom’s knowledge is both contained across the entire painting and isolated within it. It is there in the colour of the sky, hi possession of the sensation objectified in its deployment of intensity. After a few moments thought, Transom rejects the correlation with a memory of Polaroid pigments enclosed in cloudy plastics, the chemicals vibrant with their ability to weaken. Neither is it simply vague nostalgia, he asserts, even if the lit landscape did tap into images formed in his youth. Transom’s conviction is that the scene has already been experienced by him in every specific detail or, rather, in a configuration now precisely encoded within the materiality of Inchbold’s canvas. No memory is triggered by what he sees but an abstracted experience is materially provided for him.
Struggling to understand, Transom begins to consider the sunburst in temporal terms. He thinks of it as an opening presented as motion – a line of shadow burning into the earth for a moment, having been preserved and given to him without residue or exception yet inaccessible to his comprehension. Transom closes his eyes to cut out most of the light in the room. In darkness he wonders to what degree the accuracy of Inchbold’s technique supports the painting’s persistence. Something about its conceit of realism supports and undercuts the recognition of his experience as ‘real’ and not recollected, yet he cannot go any further. The familiarity of the painting is not that of seeing an old friend across a room, but recognition that remains buried. The wildness of its familiarity, in all its alien features, will not come freely to his consciousness. Rather than providing any flash of recall, the painting forces him to stare into obscurity, forever attempting to penetrate darkness. Transom associates this persistence on the edge of recognition with being haunted. It is as if the painting had become a figure of indeterminate presence for him. Every time he sees it, it is like seeing a ghost. But of what – a remnant of his fleeting possession of the image or a trace of all images’ resistance to being used as a fixed resource? Was it an anticipation of images still to come?
Breaking his line of thought, Transom considers how the gallery assigned two titles to the painting: In Early Spring and A Study, in March. As he read them, Transom had felt that the oddly segmented appearance of the latter suggested a disruption of contemplation by an invading force. He now reflects that although Inchbold may have drawn inspiration from William Wordsworth’s ‘The Excursion’: “When the primrose flower peeped forth to give an earnest of the spring”, ‘earnest’s sense of promise is also accompanied by the German Ernst, suggesting ‘struggle’ and ‘combat’. Just for a moment Transom feels he is on the cusp of penetrating his thoughts about the painting. He sees that he never really wanted to come to terms with the banal resistance of the image, or to populate its expertly embodied vacancy. Its presentation of a world without human figures was always a latent announcement of their upcoming labour, including obvious implications of agriculture, farming or enclosure. The invisibility of this labour contains the nature of the painting’s withdrawal. Even if the emptiness of the painting were what kept Transom returning to it – waiting for it to fill – he realizes that this banality should be attacked. The scene, in all its detailed precision, is without anchor or disruptive point. It has no life beyond its surface. Moreover, writes Transom, if no position of conflict exists within the painting, if no scene of struggle is possible even over the lip of the slope, it would be foolish not to impose one upon it. Failing that, it would be necessary to read the painting’s vacancy precisely as a technical idiocy that demands action. At this moment Transom despises the fact that he has responded to the image at all. He regrets having moved in its ghostly light. He must compose himself.
Published in Paperweight: A Newspaper of Visual and Material Culture. Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring / Summer 2011, London: Polygraphia.