All spreads courtesy of MACK
There is no doubt that the relationship between an artwork and its audience changes over time; as perceptions shift, along with the context in which the work is situated, so too does our understanding of it. The same is surely true of an artist’s relationship to their own past work, which occupies a particular place in their creative development to the extent that it may outline, though perhaps in some unresolved form, the very concerns that will drive all their subsequent work. Ron Jude’s Nausea (MACK, 2017) is a project he worked on between 1991 and 1992, but that is only now being released in book-form. Aside from the fact that it is a significant accomplishment in its own right, the project also raises intriguing questions about the relationship an artist might have to their own past and to the themes that continue to sustain them, along with those that have been abandoned. If nothing else, the book stands as a sort of collaboration between the Ron Jude, who initially made the pictures, and the artist who has created this ‘finished’ work; an artist, after all, with two decades of further experience to draw on.
But the younger Jude was no slouch either, and the pictures, made in a number of elementary schools across several Southern states, reveal a probing, if at times decidedly off-kilter visual intelligence. This strangeness is, of course, a deliberate strategy, one that resonates with the title of the work, which doesn’t (necessarily) refer to the physical sensation of nausea, but to an experiential instability, marking the instant when we realise that the world is always relative to our encounter with it. The sense of estrangement that accompanies this realisation is one of the qualities that the work has in common with the existentialist novel of the same name by Jean-Paul Sartre, and comes in fact from a kind of heightened awareness, its intensity raised to the point where familiar scenes and objects become almost unrecognisable. This is communicated in the very structure of the pictures themselves, by incorporating this sensation of intensity into the work, giving it a form that can be experienced, by looking. Jude’s interest in these spaces suggest a kind of thought that must be felt.
Thankfully though, he avoids the solipsism that Sartre’s novel implies. Perhaps this is because photography is tied to the real in ways that fiction is not obliged to be, so that the ugly and ultimately nihilistic conception of individual freedom that underlies the book can be dispensed with here. With photography, the visible world can’t really be left out of the equation. What remains is a vertiginous sense of unease, the feeling that our certainty about what seems to be right in front of us is not nearly so well founded as we would like to believe – need to believe, even. Despite the self-consciously adult concerns of the work, then, there is still something rather apt in the way Jude pitches his (and our) point of view very low relative to what he is photographing; almost everything seems to loom, as if perceived from the height of a child. Objects don’t occupy a ‘normal’ pictorial distance, but intrude into the space of the frame, upsetting the illusory coherence of our view. Given where the pictures were made there is something very fitting about having to assume this child-like viewpoint, but more than that we are also being reminded it’s only a matter of where you stand – and where you choose to look – that lets the world around us seem like it makes sense.
It could well be that children are closer to what we call reality because they haven’t yet acquired adult habits and adult defences against it. School is, of course, one of the places where these are learned, along with addition, subtraction and the year Columbus ‘discovered’ America. Besides this de-centred perspective, there is a sense that the strategies of ordering pictorial space are being tested as well, because of how they incarnate a world-view ordered in a particular way – that this ‘testing’ should be sited as it is cannot be an accident, then. But the (relative) distortion in how we expect pictures to function has a somewhat paradoxical effect; it seems that instead of just undercutting the conventional realism of the photographic frame, Jude deploys it in new, often quite unexpected ways, so that the images convey not only what something looks like, its visible reality, but also a tangible sense of its realness, how it exists in the world. At the same time, we are obliged to accept this ‘reality’ as something provisional, unstable – real only as an experience, an image. Jude makes the complex balance that results from this insight seem inevitable, if not exactly reassuring.
A good, though perhaps not entirely typical example of this tendency is an image that shows what looks like the roof of a concrete structure, supported by pillars. The framing is such that the plane of the roof occupies most of what we can see, blurred into indistinctness the closer it gets to the lens. This places the viewer in a specific relation to its subject, one that is expressed by the form of the picture itself. By disregarding what might be called standard photographic framing as Jude does with this image – and repeatedly throughout the work – he brings us back to the experience of the world as an unstable association of impressions, usually concealed by the ‘natural’ viewpoints of pictorial space, but uncovered in this instance by a deliberate flouting of those conventions. The picture evokes a considerable sense of unease – and that’s even before we notice the word “anxiety” chalked in angular lettering on one of the pillars. So, it both names and articulates visually the dominant mood of the work, in a way that might have potentially been obvious, but that here has a distinct and hard-earned sophistication, precisely because of how that ‘naming’ relates to the formal qualities of the image.
Just how much of that sophistication comes from Jude the mature artist completing the book now and how much was present in the original work is an interesting question. Obviously, the original work is the basis for the book and everything else depends on that, but at the same time Jude has twenty plus years of subsequent development, and the experience of working on several major projects, to draw on in creating this book, so that is bound to have reshaped the original in profound ways. And yet, there is no doubt that the blueprint for much of his later work is to be found here, all more or less realised. A number of familiar motifs even make an appearance, such as the spiders that show up later in Lago, joined here by several images of wasps, the communal structure of their nests perhaps a reflection of the school structure itself. Primarily though it is the difficulty of communicating the lived experience of a place, a reality, that drives these pictures, and is also the thread connecting Nausea to his later work. The chance to see him come full circle, using the knowledge gained by working through these problems and returning to where he started is certainly gratifying.
Place is also a key concern in Jude’s work, but with this book, as with most of them, he is creating a kind of imagined, composite place, mapped on to the real locations that he has photographed. The ‘place’ that is being shown in the work, then, is a summary of what Jude’s own encounter with it suggests. As such, it functions as the evocation of a social and psychological terrain, as well as an actual one. There are no people to be seen in these pictures either, so the viewer becomes the protagonist around whom the narrative revolves; it is the viewer who experiences the disturbed – and disturbing – reality of the scenes that are being depicted. Jude’s skill with this form, where the association of images matters more than any single picture, has been honed over a number of years. In this instance, the narrative movement of the work depends on forming – and progressively modifying – a mood that extends the impression created by the individual pictures, building up a resonance between them. With this work, it is the formal strategies in the pictures and how these manifest a (literal) instability in our visual field that binds the narrative together, something Jude would make further, and arguably more elaborate use of later on.
While the work itself is perhaps a bit too restrained to justify calling the book anything like sumptuous, there is still a distinctive unity to the production and design that makes use of all its different elements in just the right way to enhance the pictures. The dust-jacket is plain black paper, coarse to the touch, a tactile reminder of the disjunctions that characterise the work inside. It is stencilled with an abstracted motif taken from one of the pictures, which, appropriately enough, looks like a tear or some kind of rending in the surface of the paper. However, this is also a technique that Mack have used in another recent book, so it might eventually become a case of diminishing returns, despite how well it works here. Beneath the jacket the boards of the cover are plain grey card, with the title stamped in white. This revealing contrast of inner and other aspects in terms of presentation is very much in keeping with the organic relation between the work and the design of the book that characterises the whole project. It also introduces a largely unresolved formal tension that can’t help but reflect the mood of the pictures.
In the work itself there is a palpable sense of someone finding – and testing the limits of – their voice as an artist, which would be further refined in successive projects; certainly, how Jude ‘interrupts’ the pictures here is not so foregrounded later on and its deployment is much more subtle. Perhaps he came to feel that this sense of instability in our encounter with the world around us could be insinuated in other, more complex ways, most especially in the relationship between images, and in the composite notion of place that these later works also articulate. This is not to say that the images in Nausea lack depth, just that they represent a particular stage in Jude’s development as an artist and, because we can see how he continued to build on the strength of this relatively early work, what he left behind in the course of that development will inevitably stand out to us now. Aside from that though, the very considered realisation of the work in its current form is a substantial achievement in its own right, not least because of how it can still speak to the fundamental uncertainties – and anxieties – of our own time. These too must be felt.