Reviews


58º North

Iain Stewart & Keith Berry

Each of us has a special place, a library where our fondest memories reside. This brief, but enchanting, DVD documents minimalist photographer Iain Stewart's special spot, as he revisits the wild and remote landscapes of the north west Scottish coastline, a site he describes as "peaceful and spiritually replenishing".

As the series of slow motion images unfurl - sea at dusk and dawn, the belly of a rain-drenched cavern, sky at night – they successfully communicate the genius loci of each geographical space, providing their audience with a meditative focus, a conduit through which to visit their own idylls. By lingering on the same subtly shifting scene, each materialising without explanation and without the context of a surrounding environment, it is as if Stewart is encouraging pantheist or Buddhist thought, attempting to dislodge the individual from their selfish concerns, placing them at the heart of the whole of creation. This he successfully does with an easy artistry, using such powerful images as sky and sea to tap into our collective unconscious.

Keith Berry's minimalist sound sculptures form the perfect accompaniment to these visual paeans to natural beauty, barely moving and yet full of the textural richness and complexity that is to be found within these stunning images. His music, reminiscent of Thomas Köner's glacial drifts and Steve Roden's tidal figurations, is so evocative and cinematic it lends itself perfectly to the film. The muffled rumbles and shadow reverberations constitute their own auditory weather system that, when taken in tandem with Stewart's visuals, create still further images, metaphors and avenues of thought.

© Spencer Grady 2008

Wire Magazine



SEA CHANGE

International Center of Photography

1130 Fifth Avenue, at 94th Street, New York

Though these seascapes by 19 contemporary photographers range from the serenely formalist to the purely abstract, memory conflates them into one refreshing splash. That's no slight on this show's considerable intellectual underpinning, but expanses of nothing but water invite extended contemplation right about now, and "Sea Change" rewards that close attention.

Stuart Klipper, Michael O'Brien and Liz Deschenes plunge us into the ocean as it heaves against the sky, while the others step back to record its glassy mutability or primal allure. When Iain Stewart turns his impressionistic sequences of sea and sky into pale blue Rothkos, you want to take a long, cool dip.

The Village Voice

New York City

July 20 1999



THIN AIR

The New York Times

"Thin Air" presents seven photographers with Minimalist tendencies. This kind of Photography can be thin in the wrong way: too narrowly focused on pure form or on the nature of photography. But as this show proves, Minimalist photography, like Minimalist painting, can be paradoxically rich, too.

Most of the artists engage in close, defamiliarzing scrutiny of isolated things. With quiet wit Stephen Frailey’s concentrated colour prints discover sensuous beauty in neat, flat arrangements of mundane things like leaf stems on an old corduroy sofa cushion or a green brick on a rubber welcome mat. Bing Wright shoots water drops on window panes to mysteriously transformative effect, and Tim Davis catches reflections in a spilled water puddle or a tiny fluorescent light fixture. In one of Orit Raff’s mostly white pictures, what looks like an arctic landscape turns out to be the wrinkled skin of boiled milk. And Iain Stewart’s distant shots of deep blue skies fading to orange or white wed the formal and the celestial.

Two artists stand like bookends to the show, favouring conceptualism on the one hand and formalism on the other. In photographs of flake-strewn drapery by James Welling, the interest is less in seeing than in thinking about what’s left if you eliminate subject matter from photography. And Randy West’s pictures of subtly coloured fabric parallel the pretty emptiness of Colour Field painting. Although elegant, the works of Mr. Welling and Mr. West can make you long for a more expansively imaginative photographic embrace of the world.


Ken Johnson

The New York Times

Friday, August 6, 1999



Ocean Music: On Iain Stewart

Ian Tromp

In an ode to his master, Shams of Tabriz, the Persian poet Rumi spoke of "ocean music, / not the sad edge of surf, but the sound of no shore." This is the sound of Iain Stewart's seascapes. It is a melody playing through the landscapes and the boundless skies, through the littoral images on an edge between sea and land and sky ('Footsteps to Infinity',1992), and it is a background theme in the early series of photographs, Love's Rhythms and Sorrows. The eyes of an old woman in a picture from this 1989 series, 'Grandmother and Child', hold as much distance as the seas that would follow; and the placid sky behind her, the softened focus of the middle-ground, rhyme, too, with the serenity and grace of the landscapes and seas. Several writers have focused on what they describe as the minimalism of Stewart's photography, but his de-emphasizing overt signification is better read in light of the work of Abstract Expressionist painters such as Rothko and Clifford Still. Still could feel precisely where to place a stroke of red in order to introduce strong emotion in a painting, and Stewart similarly manages to hold within his pictures tremendous tenderness and mystery. Roland Barthes refers to the punctum of a photograph, "that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)", a point of visual or affective focus, which particularly holds the viewer's attention, around which the picture's feeling, its poignancy, coheres. Stewart, photographing the sea near midnight, at high summer on the Scottish west coast ('Sounding i’ 2000), records a moment of intense blue, and within the blue a distant radiance gives the image an optimistic, yearning edge. Quite how Barthes' idea of the punctum translates into such vast, decentred images as Stewart's is an interesting question. Works such as 'Harmony' (2000) and 'Veil' (1999) demonstrate a quality of diffuse attention that holds as equally important every element of the image, every millimetre of its surface, enlivening the entire photograph, charging it with visual and emotional energy. 'Sounding', also, with its sliver of distant light that brings a note of longing to the image, is animated with great variations in texture and colour, which give the eye a surface to cross and read and rediscover. As Rumi observes, "In the ocean are many bright strands / and many dark strands like veins that are seen / when a wing is lifted up"

The drama of the blue-black clouds of 'Eclipse' (1999) counterpoint the encompassing blankness of 'Veil'. The sun is a powerful visualisation of immanence, and the manner in which Stewart represents it in these two pictures - obscured in the one by weather, which cancels the seen to white, and in the other by planetary interference, with its attendant weird light effects - could stand for opposed views of the world.

Both pictures seem just out of reach - the eye cannot rest peacefully within the bright centre of either, but skits around it, like looking at the sun itself rather than a made image of the sun.

Stewart has described 'Sonnet' (2001) as his "attempt at a 'love song' [...] a celebratory verse, lyrical, musical." A simple theme and variations, the three images have a languid music, recording the ending of a day. They are at once momentary and monumental, as photographs must be, registering a particular instant, then holding it outside time. In a sense, this is the music of the series, the momently passing light played around the apparently (but not really) more permanent dark body of the clouds.

There is a quality of questing to Iain Stewart's photography, a reflective,

ruminative engagement with the world through recording its images. A text accompanying a 1992 photograph ('The Traveller') reads: "I travelled the world in search of ... something. I knew I would never find it. But it was a nice journey." The photographs mark stages in the 'nice journey.' There is progress from the early documentary pictures of his father with his medical patients to the landscapes, seas, and skies. And there is continuity: the vast space in the pale, upturned eyes of the woman holding her grandchild is the same distance presiding over the seascapes, skies and landscapes, the same secret folded within 'Veil'. And within all these kinds of picture there is a faint music, "not the sad edge of surf, but the sound of no shore."

© Ian Tromp 2002

reproduced by kind permission of the author and Portfolio magazine



Footsteps to Infinity: On Iain Stewart

Ian Tromp

There is a quality of questing to Iain Stewart’s photography, a reflective, meditative engagement with the world through recording its images. A text accompanying a 1992 photograph (The Traveller) reads: " ... I travelled the world in search of ... something. I knew I would never find it. But it was a nice journey." His photographs mark stages in that nice journey: beginning, middle, and end.

Beginning

Whether or not it seeks overtly to represent them, photography is always held within, and holds, specific places. As a form that records and represents particular appearances, it refers to a ‘here,’ whether or not that 'here' is its primary signification. But when a path is introduced, the image becomes about ‘not-here,’ too; it becomes resonant with ‘elsewhere,’ the possibility and the promise of passage.

Many of Iain Stewart’s Land images depict paths: there is a suggestion of an overgrown track in Backtrack, wheelmarks across the frosted turf of Trace, distinct pathways in Track (1998) and Path (1995). A significant path appears in Footsteps to Infinity (1992), a photograph of a coastal walkway, looking out towards cliffs and the sea, with a hand-lettered sign affixed to a white-topped post in centre-frame: ‘Path.’ The sign points out of the picture's frame, beyond the visible - like the majority of Stewart's pathways, it leads or disappears into emptiness.

The path's end is indeterminate: these photographs are not about precise ‘elsewheres,’ as they are not about precise ‘heres.’ We know no more about where we stand - where the photographic viewpoint locates the viewer - than we do about the distance we look over and towards. Stewart's photographs are about the journey, about the movement from ‘here’ to ‘not-here,’ and they point towards the journey’s end without designating it, without characterising it or giving it a name. They are invitations to a journey, not to arrival. As he says in his notes elsewhere in these volumes, 'go on a journey, it doesn't matter where.'

It doesn't matter where to, and it doesn't matter where from. Other images tell less about the journey: they present thresholds. Unlike the pathways, which invite beginning and offer a route into the visible world, and by implication beyond its horizon, thresholds keep us at a distance. Among the Land works, images such as Eve (1995), Nocturne, and Still are threshold images. We cannot distinguish a path into the picture plane, so the journey is obscured, while the goal is glowingly visible: the end, the ‘elsewhere,’ is more vividly apparent than what lies between. Such works insinuate a feeling of longing and aspiration - without knowing where we stand, without knowing what we wish for, the photographs locate us in a position not simply of looking, but of lack: we are fundamentally removed from the world, there is something beyond our reach.

Middle

Iain Stewart's Sea photographs often represent thresholds, holding the viewer at a distance while projecting a distant horizon. Where many of the Land thresholds erase or cancel the journey, the distance from 'here' to 'there,' Stewart's seas are detailed, their surfaces delicately articulated. In an ode to his spiritual master, Shams of Tabriz, the Sufi poet Jallaludin Rumi said ‘In the ocean are many bright strands / and many dark strands like veins that are seen / when a wing is lifted up.’ We see these feathery strands in Stewart’s seas, recording the passage of time and wind and water. Rumi's image of the upraised wing is significant: it suggests that the sea itself might fly. The sea is figured as a form and a path of transcendence, much more than simply the distance and the stuff that keeps us from the farther shore.

As photographs always imply a ‘here,’ so they necessarily reflect a ‘now,’ a particular moment (the immediacy and record of reportage), or time’s passing. For Sounding, Stewart held the shutter open for longer than five minutes, so what we see is the sea now, and now, and now for five particular minutes at a certain time of evening on a certain day at the height of summer in 2000. Stewart says, 'for me a photograph has [a] magical relationship with time & place; it hovers in some curious indefinable space' - a single still image that carries the weight of passing time. Each moment is layered over the moment immediately preceding, so the image becomes a palimpsest of time’s passing.

In the poem mentioned before, Rumi spoke of ‘ocean music, / not the sad edge of surf, but the sound of no shore.’ The sound of no shore is the song of vastness, of a world infinitely larger than our attempts to encapsulate it, whether visually, verbally, or conceptually. When we view Stewart’s seas, we are held within vastness, suspended amid ‘the sound of no shore.’ For where is our foothold, where is here’ in these boundless images? They are unlike the pathways, where a ‘here’ is implied if not shown. It is not that there is no ‘here,’ but it is impossible to place, and the viewer - spatially as well as temporally - hangs in exactly that ‘curious and indefinable space’ Stewart remarks upon. As in certain meditation practices, in the seascapes we are situated in emptiness, looking over emptiness, towards emptiness.

End

The Sea triptych, Return, reduced the visible to 'a blanket of light.' Stewart says, 'I had reached the point where I had removed everything - first figures/points of reference, now even the colour and form went.'The comforting image of a 'blanket of light' is telling: the dissolution of Stewart's photographs is a fade-to-white, a gentle, encompassing absorption.

Though there are images of great drama - the weird light effects of Eclipse, the roiling clouds of Hand of God - it is in their stillness, their inarticulacy, that Stewart's Sky photographs are most confronting. The steady withdrawal of pinkish light from the darkening sky of Passage touches us intensely - the waning light is met and encompassed by the encroaching darkness; the image, and the world, seems to be withdrawing. The passage it recalls is as much from life to death as it is from day to night.

Though it is possible to derive such felt-narratives from some of the Sky images, it is usually their stillness and mystery that are their most characteristic, and their most confronting, qualities. Take, for instance, Veil: like Return, the picture plane is distilled to a field of whiteness, but where, in that image, the slightest traces of sea remain visible, legible at the picture's lower edge, here we can make nothing of the vastness, except to allow our eyes to skit around the brightness at its centre. The poet W.S. Merwin wrote a poem to mark the anniversary of his own death, which, he says, 'Every year without knowing it / I have passed'iii. On the day of his death, Merwin writes, ' the silence will set out /Tireless traveller / Like the beam of a lightless star'. An image of absolute stillness: a lightless star, darkness suspended in darkness - Veil is its opposite, light surrounded by light. Merwin closes his poem with a description of 'bowing not knowing to what' - a supplication to mystery, to every mystery, to his own death, to silence and not knowing. (No punctuation marks the poem's end, so underscoring that, though the voice returns to silence, the act of obeisance, bowing to mystery, continues.)

This is a kind of ending. The resonant, singing, brightness at the centre of Veil is a version, an envisioning, of the vastness at the end of the journey begun in Track and Path. It is a strange and mysterious 'elsewhere' to arrive at - it surely is a 'here,' since otherwise the photographer could not have made his image, but it is very hard to designate, difficult to encapsulate. Of all Stewart's work, the Sky photographs are the hardest to speak of. They deliver us to the same conclusion with which Wittgenstein closed his Tractatus: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof there must be silence.'




Copyright © 2017 Iain Stewart