TIME SHARE The Photographs of Leah Oates

The power of the photographic image has always been to stop time—to create instant artifacts. But these days, since digital media has overwhelmed the processes by which photographs are made, this original logic seems to have been turned upon its ear. How do we judge a static reality when images are considered as mere samples of perception rather than documents of beauty commingled with truth? It is equally a matter of the photographic image, the objective it depicts, and our approach to it. The photograph, if taken in consideration of static and transitory elements, can be said to share time with reality, because as a document it represents both the actual and the symbolic.

The photographs of Leah Oates are meant as documents not of an object frozen in time, but animated by it. Hers is a visual register similar to the literary trope called “stream of consciousness” in which the perspective of the writer--in this case the artist or viewer—creates a fluidic narrative that affects the way the text is recognized as a metaphor for actuality. It is not filled with symbols but is symbolically actualized.

Transitory Space, Prospect Park 11, Color photograph. Copyright Leah Oates 2011

In her recent series of photographs, Leah Oates deals with physical areas in Newfoundland, Beijing, China, and in several public parks in of New York City including Pelham Bay, Jamaica Bay and Prospect Park. What unifies all these areas is that they share once wild or cultivated natural areas with post-industrial, post-residential ones.  She creates fantastic vistas that, despite not being attached to the same static environments of her previous collections—that dealt with consumer detritus in an urban sphere of lost space—Oates is dealing with nature as a by-product of Bourgeois appetites for conspicuous consumption, an idea that was birthed in the late 19th century with the advent of cities built around industrial habits. So called “civilized people” were attempting to maintain the rituals of court society in a post-imperial world. These manicured and landscaped environments created a doppelganger to the grounds of great castles like Versailles or Vaux-Le-Vicompte, or city parks such as the Luxembourg Gardens. Over the interval of progressing eras, these parks shifted in the use value and their reference to the urban areas surrounding them.

Transitory Space, Prospect Park 9, Color photograph. Copyright Leah Oates, 2011

In the 1970’s, in her famous book about urbanism and urban blight, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs talks about how neighborhoods that are organized around a public park invariably lose their focus as communities, and become centerless. This is because they do not resemble court society, but a more complex version of Main Street America, in which services and residences take up different areas not always en face with one another. The community that develops in an urban community is interior and is unified by ethnicity and nationalism and their shared commonality, not by imposed class-based values. Parks in cities changed as the 20th century progressed, because they suffered the same fate as the streets ringing them. They became places that nobody went, for not only were they in disrepair, they were a loss of ideals, a degradation of a glorious past, a ruined purity. Yet today many of the parks have been returned to a version of their glory, in some case s completely re-landscaped so as to hew to the original wishes of their historical builders and preservers. In Oates’s images they take on a wildness that is both diffuse and sublime, like entering a glade in a place we’ve never visited before. Oates reaffirms the primal character of nature by allowing the eye to meander and vibrate among optical perspectives enlivened by the rigor of the transitory.  

Transitory Space, Prospect Park 13, Color photograph. Copyright Leah Oates 2011
Alternatively, the images of hers originating in faraway places such as Newfoundland and Beijing tend to reference abandoned residences around which nature is slowly creeping and taking over, turning them into mordant relics; or she focuses specifically upon objects such as electric and telephone wire towers, silently connecting human communities while creating an industrial periphery in uninhabited areas that are otherwise entirely natural. They are metal and energy totems representing the value system of human will with only the sky, wind, and clouds to symbolize and lay bare the alternately implied and emphasized manifest destiny that utility structures and the system of organic interactions that is nature itself, mean to one another.

Transitory Space, Jamaica Bay 1, Color photograph, Copyright Leah Oates 2011
Leah Oates brings our impressions of both worlds into one frame. Who could look upon any of her scenes and not agree that she had transformed our trained esthetic expectations into a manifestation of reality that creates beauty in its path, not because it makes the image more precious, but because they make us feel more alive. Like people who share a single space but never at the same time, always looking out the same window but perhaps seeing completely different things, we are given the chance to share moments of transcendent fragility that approach the originality of the empirical.      



Pink Sky~North Shore c. 2050 (The Lessons of Rapa Nui), 45 x 56 in., Oil on Panel, 2007

If the need is pressing and the world is not forthcoming, then vision will dictate how the object of desire can be created (James Elkins, The Object Stares Back, pp 30-1).

A picture is not only a view onto the world, or onto someone’s imagination: it is a peculiar kind of object that sets us thinking about desire…. Looking immediately activates desire, possession, violence, displeasure, pain, force, ambition, power, obligation, gratitude, longing…there seems to be no end to what seeing is, to how it is tangled with living and acting (Ibid).

It’s long been said, and much to the detriment of true understanding, that artists live outside of society; what artist really desire is to understand society. Once they have expressed this understanding in their work, they can begin to make their place in it. The recent paintings of Thomas Frontini are proof of this. They present a version of the world that is Edenic, devoid of societal complication, yet metaphorically redolent. Each one is an allegory of the elements that construct artistic vision and its role in delegating levels of pictorial and social meaning.
     When we look at a picture, we want to be convinced that it is saying something about the nature of human experience. How we define the scale of perspective, the scale of human drama, is by a comprehension of the degree of intimacy. In film we have the pull-back and the close-up, we have a certain degree of staging, of mis-en-scene. This translates easily into painting depending upon the size of the scene, its number of objects or persons, the complexity of its background, and the scale that it gives to the actions. In Frontini’s recent oeuvre, scale is everything. His stage is the world, but the world with everything slightly askew; or with vital parts missing; or his subject focused upon so intently that it excludes everyday contexts.
     The term mis-en-scene means, literally, putting things in place, preparing the scene. Frontini presents us with scenes that might confuse us if we were to understand them fully. He gives us details in the order of reckoning: from the near to the far, and back again. And this is why the horizon functions so actively in his paintings. We look to the horizon to give meaning to our lives, but for just as much as is present in the distance, there are details within intimate space that cannot be ignored. Frontini seems to want us to enter a dialogue between the present and the future.
     In many of Frontini’s paintings he presents us with a scene that pretends to be a narrative but is in fact a pastiche of complex allegories on themes such as existence, youthful vitality, nature, civilization, myth, and the passage of time. Spatial arrangements of recognizable objects, persons, places, as well as mysterious and oblique ones—symbolic embellishments if you will—present us with experiences that are only to be had in paintings.  What Frontini is in fact involved with is the act of cultural transference.
     The agenda of the set-up that Frontini borrows from film can never operate exactly the same way since the assumed reality of a filmic scene, replete with perspectival gestures on the part of the cinematographer and our own aptitude for details, do not succeed when the scene is depicted in a painterly fashion. This is where reality and artifice diverge.
      The scaling of experience possible in painting succeeds because the talent of the painter allows us to view everything at once, from the merest speck in the distance, to emergent details on the very edge of conscious understanding, and at every level of attention to noticeable events, objects, and persons right up to our very noses.  

Last of its Kind (Empire, Forgotten Monument), 39 x 45 inches, Oil on Panel, 2006  
If Frontini’s paintings are puzzles, then his titles are clues. Since most of his titles have symbolic portent and are immediately reinforced by parenthetical asides, we can only assume that he means not one thing by them, but many. Take for instance Last of Its Kind (Empire, Forgotten Monument), which includes a young woman holding a small white dog in her lap, by the sea-shore, with an ominous and vaguely anthropomorphic mountainous island behind her, mounted with a flag upon its crest; and beside her, a bowl with a large bird’s egg in it. Clearly our attention is at first drawn to the girl with the dog, since we are apt to assume that since she is the only person there that the painting must be about her. But she provides only a presence, a quality of humanness to an otherwise alien environment, and presence in Frontini‘s paintings is not always the same as agency. She may activate the painting but she does nothing else. Next we are drawn to the island behind her: it is unremarkable except that it resembles a monolithic head of some forgotten god. Like a shrine, it sits in self-evidence, undisturbed only by a portal that has been carved in the lower end of the rock face and a flag that has been planted at its crest. We can only assume that if it is not currently inhabited, that it was at one time, or its inhabitants have preferred to remain anonymous. The face of the god stares impassively out into some unknown distance, over all our heads. Nearer to us is the bowl with the egg, and of this we can say at least something. Maybe this is what he means by the main part of his title, the Last of Its Kind? Not even hatched and already it is on our minds. It will consume our curiosity and distract us from all other issues at hand. For potential life and the advent of birth, are much more joyous and filled with portent than facts we may already know or may never know. Prehistory and human agency are a glass half-empty and new life is a glass half-full.   
      Frontini deals not only with myths connecting cultures, but more often than not he turns his pictorial imagination to scenes in which the main character is an artist, a collector, or some other role within the contemporary art world that resonates at a pre-cultural level. Who knows when the first artist emerged from his social peers, but Frontini hints at how the structures of social organization that created the need for them have always been around. Two of his current works, Documentation of Youth/Art Star and Painter At the Easel/Young Monster are good examples of this agenda.

Documentation of Youth (Art Star), 16 x 20 inches, Oil on Panel, 2007   

The first concerns a young girl who is ready, as they say in Hollywood, for her close-up: the paparazzi shot that brings her face into the news. Except that Frontini’s parable is meant to fall flat. She stands in front of a large ornately gilded mirror and is aimed at by several old fashioned yet unmanned cameras. She is alone, even a birdcage that hangs above her is empty and desolate. In the distance behind her a parachute falls to earth, evidence that there are other, perhaps more important events at hand. But youth holds sway over our attention, and the fact that the girl is an ‘art star’ seems similarly devoid of specialness. The mirror behind her reflects only the cameras that, without direction, take no pictures. How do we know she is a star? Or an artist? We only know that she is young, and that youth is prize. Is the mirror behind her a stand-in for an easel, the picture that can never be painted because time is always ticking away? We are tempted to ditch this scene and find out where the parachutist has landed.  

Painter at the Easel (Young Monster), 16 x 26 inches, Oil on Panel, 2007   

In the second painting we have his Young Monster who is at the beach making a painting. We know nothing of his character or even his sex as he is covered from head to toe in fine brown fur. He stands far away from his easel, which is easily twice his height, the tool of an adult monster. His posture is one of intense focus and even agitation, and his presence there, as both an artist and a monster is in stark contrast to the summary background details of a sailboat and a lighthouse. In this painting Frontini pokes fun at the concept of the artist-maudit, or madman; perhaps there is a pun in the word monster, referring to the ideal of artistic mastery. One can never be more masterly, only more monsterly. The better monster is a better artist, always at odds with his surroundings, but also growing closer to his craft and its results.  

Dream of the Great Collector, 39 x 45 inches, Oil on Panel, 2009  

A third painting explores the essential role of art to inspire connoisseurs who are attracted to art but whose instinct for it alone cannot make them artists. Dream of the Great Collector enacts a scene in which an older man sits to one side and observes as a work of art, in this case a sculpture that we would call a relic, releases a spirit into the air, who was perhaps trapped inside of it. He is not surprised and only seems to be blithely pleased, either because his hopes have been realized, or because he did not suspect but knew of this event before it happened. What he is witnessing may be the emergence of a muse, or the essence of artistic vision itself in disembodied form. This intimate event is powerful because it is limited to his experience, and through Frontini’s imagination, to our attention as well. As an event in history it is not verifiable, but it remains true.   
      Frontini’s desire to bring philosophical importance back to the role of the painter has led him in divergent directions which share a symbolic unity: animals or birds as familiars and spirits, and architectural structures of a symbolic character, real or imagined. Several recent paintings take birds as their central figure, but really the bird is meant to distract us from other elements of the composition that become clearer once we look past it. In both For Him Monuments Will Be Built/ Great Balladeer and Red Parrot with Hermit/ Silent Landscape there is the foregrounding of the bird, made epically larger by its proximity to the viewer, and narrative details that inhabit the scene which are made more miniscule by contrast. The great balladeer in the first work is in fact a tiny man who stands before a real white cockatoo over a Palladian garden, singing to him. We can hardly see him he is so small, and perhaps his what Frontini wants us to think, that his acts of artifice are less important than the animal before him, who is muse, companion, and spirit all rolled into one, and connects us more immediately to the natural world where myths and stories begin. In the second painting the bird is again a more imposing figure than the man who stands behind him, involved in a series of prayers or exercises, while a rural background verging on being a desolate wasteland, imposes a moodiness on all but the bird himself, whose plumage and jaunty expression are enough to give the painting life. 

For Him Monuments will be Made (Great Balladeer), 45 x 33 inches, Oil on Linen, 2008

Red Parrot with Hermit (Silent Landscape), 28 x 24 inches, Oil on Linen, 2008  

Likewise, Frontini is attracted to forms of symbolic architecture, which imply a strong regard for historical accomplishments, and alternately the imposition of dead values. Eternal Temple (Before the New Empire) and Orange Temple both present us with parables, one of glory and the other of waste. In the first work, two mermaids hold strings to support a temple structure, with ornate walls and single round window, floating amid a swirl of water vapors upon the very surf itself, while a vast and current empire spreads off in the distance shrouded by a veil of red dust. Of course, they cannot be holding up a building, this is only a vision offered up to the initiated, a last glimpse of lost glory that is waiting for us, like Atlantis or Avalon, in a separate dimension. The second work is a more direct image of a building that is minimal to the point of spiritual impoverishment. Standing alone except for two bedraggled trees, fashioned from simple bricks, with none of the ritualized design characteristic of most temples, it is a sacred structure in name only: the name we give to it. Temples are the historical precursors to modern-day churches, and what they represent, more than which deity they were built for, is the moment when man first moved his acts of worship inside a structure he made himself, separating himself simultaneously from nature and from the values of other men. It is at this point that belief became scripture, when an interior reality made art necessary.

Eternal Temple, Before The New Empire, 48 x 39 inches, Oil on Panel, 2010   

Orange Temple - Offering, 28 x 24 inches, Oil on Panel, 2010
Frontini fulfills the promise of the artist in his new work: to address the big issues, ones older and long-unanswered, that are left to him. He takes us into scenes where every detail focuses on the character of meaning, in which the very landscape is used to imply the variety of symbolism available to us. His horizon frames the immediacy of experience, bringing us into contact with objects as well as ideas, and making every destination, many of them within us, a line to be crossed for no other reason than we know it is there.


David Gibson is a writer and curator native-born and bred in New York City, the New York Art World, and the greater world extending in all directions. He and Jennifer Junkermeier recently curated the exhibition “Beauty’s Burden” at The Ernest Rubenstein Gallery of the Educational Alliance. He is availlable to write essays for artist and gallery websites and catalogues.