Duane Michaels

Pottering around in my little study, looking through some items I haven’t looked at for a while. I say study, it is really a long, narrow boxroom which I made into a study, two walls covered from floor to (high Victorian) ceiling with bookshelves, the third wall is my Movie Wall, covered in cinematic prints and portraits while strings of coloured lights hang over head between shelves. Everyone needs a quiet space to retreat to and although everywhere in my flat is technically my space this little jammed study really feels like mine. There is something very comfortable to me in having books shelved so high I need ladders for the top rows, towering over me, castle walls made of literature for my little space. I’m sure a therapist would make a lot out of that; personally if they did I would just hit them with a hardback. More therapists need that sort of brusque therapy I think.

Tons of SF as you can imagine but also history, myth (you might be surprised how often Myth and History interact and intertwine, one an attempt to create a narrative of who we are and how we come to be, the other a more emotional but no less true description of why we are. I find they work best together) science, travel, reference, art, architecture, classics, graphic novels and, of course, poetry. Sherlock Holmes once remarked that a man should keep so much useful information for day to day use in his brain and for the rest he should keep a well stocked library. I think I’ve followed that all of my reading life (which goes back to before I began school, I just can’t stop reading, be it a Beano annual or a history of the Spanish conquest of the Incas).

I also have several volumes of photography; it probably isn’t any great surprise to learn someone who loves literature and cinema is also fascinated by the ‘pencil of nature’. The use of nothing more than light, shadows and chemical reactions (or today digital processing) to create images frozen in time into which we can read so much, creating entire little narratives around a single still image. I’m not sure I always agree that a picture is worth a thousand words, mind you – it depends very much on the writer or the photographer or painter. Squeezed between two hardback photography collections (one a Magnum collection, the other American Memorial Photography – that’s pictures of the dead to most of us) I found a small catalogue from an exhibition I saw years ago at the old Portfolio gallery in Edinburgh.

I had heard the name of the artist, Duane Michals, before and had come across a few of his pictures in magazines and books, but only a few. In I wandered not knowing really what to expect and found a delightful range of single images, series and prints with poetry – in some cases Duane gives both a picture and words, a mixed media of senses overlapping, the eyes drinking in imagery, the brain processing it with one section while another decodes language and that indefinable part of the brain we call imagination combines them and creates that wonderful sense of emotion that good art always rouses in us, an inanimate object becomes the interface between artist and viewer, connecting them without ever meeting, exchanging emotions, memories, ideas…

Art is always interactive, never passive; we have to engage with it on different levels of emotion and intellect and memory and experience otherwise all we are doing is looking at an object and then we know our imagination has atrophied which is the first symptom of the decay of the soul. Oh dear, here I was ready to simply mention Duane Michals and show a couple of images I scanned in from this old exhibition catalogue and instead here I am talking about books, imagery, poetry and the way our memories and emotions filter and shape those works (and vice verse?). Oh well, it is my blog and if I feel like rambling on why shouldn’t I?

The exhibition had a number of works, some singular, some part of series, which I later found is a recurring theme with Duane – in one series he had persuaded Richard Gere to pose as a 40s style gumshoe for some Noir-esque images in a series around the walls which were like looking at individual movie frames. You know frames, those little rectangles of still images which flicker past a projector lens so fast we believe we are seeing true movement. Walking past them on a wall I could follow a genre tale but I was also aware very much of how that tale is constructed and how we view that construction as I looked. The Madame Schrodinger’s Cat image from below is part of a longer sequence which mixes humour with scientific philosophy and also manages to feature a cute cat.

Other images were on their own or sometimes Duane had combined his love of poetry and philosophy with the image; I wondered sometimes which came first, the photograph and then the lines or did some lines in his imagination spark the idea for the image? So I scanned in a couple to put on here; I do like the dream imagery of this one with the rather lovely poem while the one above with the crucifix ‘gun’ is an image which once I saw it years ago has stuck in my imagination ever since; simple but effective and one which invites the viewer’s mind to conjure up all sorts of little narratives around it. I hope you like them.