Beauty inside

Photograms made in Robert Rauschenberg’s swimming pool

Extract of
Excerpted from “Past Paper//Present Marks”, published by Radius Books. (Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Odette England)


For the past four months or so, I’ve been in a bit of a pickle. The brutal news cycle detailing global unrest and inner discord ate away any sense of tranquility I had. Everything seems pell-mell, upside down, insane.

I’m just starting to get out of funk. And one of the things that I’ve found extremely helpful is taking a break in beautiful things – or things that I can lose myself in, that take me into a feeling of daydreaming. The book “Paper passed // Marks present” (Radius, 2022) by artists Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Odette England is one of the books in which I found refuge.

The book itself is beautiful, which only adds to the pleasure you’ll have flipping through its pages. But the content (I hate that word!) borders on the sublime. This is a collection of photograms – or photographic images produced without a camera – made in legendary artist Robert Rauschenberg’s swimming pool at his home in Florida.

The images are experimental visions of wonder. Garza-Cuen and England made them in 2018 as part of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation residency in Captiva, Florida.

When the artists arrived at Rauschenberg, they introduced themselves to the studio manager and told him they were interested in collaborating on “process experiments.” The studio manager replied that they would have access to some of Rauschenberg’s old photographic papers in the darkroom.

After finding the paper nestled among old chemicals, processing trays and Rauschenberg’s enlarger, the two artists embark on their experimentation. They mixed together the old chemicals, took the expired paper, and began the process that would eventually lead to the works of “Past Paper // Present Marks”.

The resulting images are soft and dreamy. But of course there is more than that. Their provenance lends added weight, coming from remains left by one of the world’s most admired artists, or as Garza-Cuen and England put it: “Neglected materials with latent potential for experimentation”.

To quote Walt Whitman, this phrase “contains multitudes.” Garza-Cuen and England’s photograms were made after he folded, cut, pierced and lacerated Rauschenberg’s photographic paper, then threw it into his pool, where it marinated in water and sunlight.

I’m almost always interested in reading what the artists themselves say about the process they used to make a work, and it’s true here. Here is how England and Garza-Cuen describe the process that created these images:

“We fold sheets of paper / layer them and place them inside the envelopes / want them to transform // We cut / puncture / tear the cardboard envelopes and the light-proof bags / release them in the bob’s pool // Adrift / floating / sinking / dancing around the edges / exposed for hours in the sun / moon / gathering light roving swimming in salt water ///”

Well, as a former English student, I remember a poem – or, to go further, even life itself. After all, aren’t we all somehow cut and pierced and exposed to the elements, the sun and the moon too? Isn’t that one of the very ways our personalities are formed?

As we all know, life is unpredictable. To use another saying, “life is what happens while you’re making plans”, right? I find the work in “Past Paper // Present Marks” to be a beautiful meditation on the randomness of creativity and the very essence of life, which is wrapped up in so much personal history, knocks, scrapes , collisions. This is what makes us who we are; it’s how we create the things we leave behind that prove we exist.

It is a way of interpreting the work. Either way, diving into this book gave me some respite from the searing flames of a relentless news cycle. And maybe it can do the same for you. Or maybe you’ll take a completely different message from the pictures. That’s the beauty of art, isn’t it?

I would call these images “otherworldly”, but that’s not really true. They are firmly of this world. Indeed, what you see in them are the marks that the world makes. These are not only images but also poetry and music. Yes, they contain multitudes.

This idea is reinforced by the three essays included in the book, written by London-based curator and writer Susan Bright; David Campany, curator, writer and program director at the International Center of Photography in New York; and Nicholas Muellner, associate professor of photography and co-director of Image Text MFA at Ithaca College and ITI Press.

All three have their own interpretations and responses to the work of Garza-Cuen and England. Here are some of the nuggets I picked up from their testing:

Bright: “The viewer must allow the works to also draw them into a world of strangeness and beauty where things seem to be one thing and another at the same time.”

Campany: “So when Garza-Cuen and England tell us very clearly where and with what materials they made their photograms, we cannot conclude anything clear. It may be that the relationship of their work to Rauschenberg is similar to the relationship between photography and the photogram more generally. True but tenuous.

Muellner doesn’t even explicitly mention the work of Garza-Cuen and England. He mostly ruminates on Rauschenberg and thinks of how he experienced his work as being mostly about the surface. But that seems to be the connection – the photograms of “Past Paper // Present Marks” are, as photographic works, superficial. The relationship between the two becomes more apparent, though implicit, in a quote like this from Muellner’s essay:

“There is no need for the depths below, if all about one’s experience radiates to the surface of floating life. … If you dwell on the surface long enough, it still equals one life.

The essays show how the work can be interpreted in different ways, whether academic, contextual or personal. But that’s true of most works of art, and it’s one of the things that makes encountering works of art, like the ones in this book, such a rich experience.

You can read more about the book and buy it on the publisher’s website, here.