Peter Fraser may have made his ‘Material’ work in 2002 but I admit that I was not aware of it until seeing the terrific retrospective show of his photographs at Tate St Ives in 2013. That exhibition was one of those moments when you feel rather as though you are looking into a mirror. “This work”, you reflect, “could have been made by me.” Perhaps there appears to be a shared aesthetic. Perhaps an identification with a similar sense of purpose. The work falls on you like those “enormous yes”es that Larkin once wrote about.
And then you look closer. You reflect on the differences. Small, subtle, barely perceptible perhaps. And you realise that it’s not a mirror at all. You could not have made this work. You inhabit a lower plane.
This is okay though. A man’s got to know his limitations, as Callahan might have said.
So I felt I could/could not have made photographs like Peter Fraser. He makes it look so simple and yet therein lies the complexity. For it is only in stripping away and paring back to the essentials that you realise the difficulty there is in making simple photographs. The process requires belief and selfishness. Belief in an aesthetic purity, perhaps, and the selfishness to pursue that aesthetic. Such things are easy to write but difficult to put into practice.
Peter Fraser’s ‘Material’ work is certainly about the difference between looking and seeing; is the difference between taking and making a photograph. There is a lovely video accompanying the Tate exhibition where Fraser talks about making his photographs. He walks with his camera and looks at the world around him with an astonishingly careful eye. He talks about attaining a state of almost super-sensory awareness, of being somewhere on a higher plane perhaps. All very spiritual, but there is nothing wrong with that after all. Like meeting on Jonathan Richman’s Astral Plane, perhaps.
There is certainly something of a William Eggleston air about Frasers’ photographs and it is no surprise to learn that he spent several weeks working with Eggleston in 1984. Certainly there is a strong visual resonance between ‘Red Bolt Solder’ and Eggleston’s famous ‘red ceiling’ shot so beloved of Big Star fans. This resonance revolves of course around the poetic truth that might accompany the question “what is red?” yet it is also perhaps about the democracy of material, which is to say the democratic nature of our perception. Do the questions the photographs ask us about the relationship between inanimate objects and our hierarchical categorisation of them in terms of ‘importance’, ‘beauty’ and ‘value’ mirror the judgements we process about nature? About people? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Certainly there is something fascinating about seeing with newly opened eyes. The treasures we hide from ourselves in plain sight.
If Peter Fraser’s photography is about the difference between looking and seeing then perhaps the songs of The Clientele are a musical companion piece. For if any group’s collected output could be said to be truly cinematic and visually perceptive then it is that of The Clientele.
My friend Tim wrote about The Clientele for my Tangents website. In brief, evocative words he pulled together various threads in delicious manner, chief amongst them being the feeling that The Clientele do something in their words and in their melodies that worries away at ideas and words, continually re-working and re-defining meaning. This is a notion that connects to the process of repetition and of refinement in art. Of not continually seeking a new sound or a new direction. To reference the infamous Helsinki Bus Station Theory, it is about staying on the fucking bus.
It is probably true to say that The Clientele stayed on their particular bus throughout their career. Certainly one can line up their records and hear the supple development of a group carefully honing their aesthetic.
‘Emptily Through Holloway’ is as good an example of that aesthetic as any of their recorded moments. It is a languid and seductive song; sonically molten and chilled in the same moment; deliciously oppressive and yet simultaneously spacious and breathy. Whispered nothings beneath exhaust tinged foliage. Regret and passion mingling in averted eyes. All terribly English and nothing wrong with that after all. Assuming, of course, we are sharing the same reference sheet and connect for the same reasons. So there is E.E. Cummings and Christopher Isherwood, perhaps. Margery Allingham and Ianthe Jerrold. Shena Mackay, again, and Jane Gardam. Some things the same but different; some things real but unreal.
The surreal has always been a thread in the sounds of The Clientele and there is certainly something of that to celebrate in ‘Emptily Through Holloway’. Yet it is far from the brazen (far from) strangeness of, say, Dali’s melting clocks, but rather the subtle juxtapositions of Joseph Cornell’s assemblages. And yes, of course The Clientele made this connection concrete with their song titled after the American artist, but really there are few more appropriate visual metaphors. For ‘Emptily Through Holloway’ does suggest daydreams of museum display cases housing tangentially connected memories. A paper bird here. There a map of the territory. Somewhere else a doll’s head with unblinking plastic eyes that see everything.
It is all in your head. All in my mind. Sounds, words, moments connecting and diverging. The treasures we hide from ourselves in plain sight.