For this edition of Fan Mail, Jason Gowans of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada has been selected from our worthy reader submissions. Two artists are featured each month—the next one could be you! If you would like to be considered, please submit your website link to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Fan Mail’ in the subject line.
Vancouver-bases artist, Jason Gowans currently serves as the Director of Gallery 295 and is a founding member of The Everything Co. art collective. He received a BFA in photography at Concordia University in Montreal.
Celie Dailey: Regarding your series titled 5 Landscape Modes, what do you mean by the word ‘modes’ exactly?
Jason Gowans: I like the word ‘mode’ because it sounds like modus operandi. A mode is sort of a way of being. Representation of landscape reveals it’s structure. I also like the word ‘mode’ because it makes reference to art history’s two rectangles: portrait and landscape. To make this series, I built my maquettes and then photographed them with a 4×5 camera in multiple exposures. I literally rotated my model to photograph it from different perspectives. This rotation was significant and when thinking about a name for the work I liked the idea of people with smartphones cameras, rotating them portrait mode to landscape mode.
CD: The standard 35mm format of a photograph dramatically diminishes the immense scale of an exterior space. Shooting in medium format, you enlarge beyond the model’s size, but I don’t think your interest is to display the awe of landscape. Rather, you combine a variety of materials to talk about the constructed space of landscape (evidenced in the visible plywood).
JG: The format of film is a funny thing in my work. I shoot all the models with large format 4×5 inch film and thus there is a hyper realism to the models. The plywood is crisp and detailed even when printing large scale. However, my source material is often 35mm images from the 60’s and 70’s. This is not something you can tell from web reproductions but the different formats of film act a bit like plains of focus. Some areas are very sharp, some very soft, and this is meant to talk about how the camera views things as opposed to our eyes.
CD: It seems that these works are about the photograph, what it does to space, and how editing can abstract the landscape. You refer to Robert Smithson’s Provisional Theory of Non-sites, a confusing little essay, but I get a sense of your influence when he says “Between the actual site in the Pine Barrens and The Non-Site itself exists a space of metaphoric significance…. The Non-Site…is a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site in N.J. (The Pine Barrens Plains)…. A logical intuition can develop in an entirely ‘new sense of metaphor’ free of natural or realistic expressive content.”
JG: Smithson describes Sites being the location and experience of the actual landscape (actually being immersed in the space) and non-sites are everything else we can take away or map from the site. A photograph of a site (taken without artistic intent) would therefore be a non-site. The artwork is in between site and non-site.
CD: You reference western movie sets–in the idea of spacial facades– by your framing of the mountainscape. I see the appeal of the orange/sienna palette with Le Region Centrale, the 1971 movie by Michael Snow. Watching part of the film on Youtube, long slow moving camera shots and no dialogue make this film a meditative experience, an homage to the landscape while the viewer sits inside. A hum in the background feels like the camera itself or perhaps the sound of the “motorized tripod” and the intermittent synth sound is like a bug coming up in the ear. The shadow of the camera pans along, over the field of vision.
JG: I’ve mentioned Robert Smithson and Michael Snow but I probably could have listed a number more artists who, throughout the 60’s and 70’s, began to atomize the structure and theory of landscape art. Michael Snow claimed he wanted to make a gigantic landscape film equal in terms of film to the great landscape paintings of Cezanne, Poussin, Corot, Monet, Matisse, and in Canada, The Group of Seven. See also Joyce Wieland’s work 109 views.
Works like Le Region Centrale expose the tropes and construction of the landscape genre. Upon a repeat viewing I had forgotten how slow the camera moves and how saturated the film stock is. I have a memory of it where the camera is moving faster and much of the time the image on screen is devoid of any horizon line. It was not the romantic imagery I was interested in but how he mechanically dissected every angle and possibility of the space.
CD: A Youtube user comments “Is this better than going outside?” which gets at the conundrum of photography or artistic representations of reality in general, especially of the natural world–is a representation ever as good? As Lucy Lippard says, talking about the spiritual element of being in the landscape, “For those who have literally “seen the light,” no painting or photograph comes close to the power of the experience itself.”
JG: I work as a photography technician in Vancouver Canada, a city on the edge of a beautiful wilderness. Vancouver is not without a lot of amateur landscape photographers. It’s a genre that’s quite prominent in this city and the more I see it the more I am aware that a tradition of composing a landscape has carried out through western art. William Gilpin wrote some general rules of how the picturesque landscape should be composed, these same rules are carried out today in the images from hoards of nature enthusiasts with digital SLRs.
I am also interested in the failure of a landscape image. Landscape and the camera are fundamentally at odds with one another. The photographer goes out into the wilderness has a harrowing aesthetic experience within the landscape and photographs the overwhelming sense of beauty that they experienced. This is problematized when their experience falls flat in the image. The photograph conveys none of the beauty and sublime that the actual landscape did. However, the photographer often feels a deep connection to the photograph whether it is failed or not, much like Barthes talked about the punctum in the image of his mother.
In a sense, I’m guilty of this as well. I did my education in Montreal, on the east coast. Landscape was not part of my vernacular while I was living there. As soon as I came back to Vancouver I immediately started taking photos outdoors. I am a bit of a poser as a landscape photographer because my dedication to being outside is pretty low. Most of my imagery comes from finding negatives in second hand shops, images from the internet, and scans from books. When I’m missing pieces of a composition, that’s when I’ll go out and photograph. Photographing, for me, is just finding a piece of a puzzle to complete the image.
CD: It is funny that you have little interest in being in the landscape but choose it as your subject.
JG: I really do like being outdoors but as a photographer I’m not interested in taking my camera everywhere or waiting for the right shot. Jeff Wall talks about starting to make an image by “not photographing.” He’ll see something happen in the street and decide to recreate it in the studio. I think this is similar to my approach on landscape. I’m not interested in the constant waiting, timing, and paying attention to weather, that comes with photographing landscapes. I would rather my relationship to the outdoors be a casual one where I can use the time to think and look.
CD: The young jagged mountains of the West that you portray are very different from the East’s. Upon seeing the Rocky mountains, the journals of Meriwether Lewis say “While I view these mountains, I felt a secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri, but when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowy barrier would most certainly throw in my way to the Pacific, it in some measure counterbalanced the joy I’d felt in the first moments which I gazed on them.” He expresses a true awe, seeing both fear and beauty in the landscape, and disappointment of the failure to find a water passage to the Pacific Ocean.
JG: I like that when settlers first came that there was a (justifiable) fear of the landscape. The western mountains were deemed ugly because they had little to do with the English countryside that was considered a proper landscape to experience nature. Now we approach nature with a sort of groomed sublime. The west is now like the English garden, still vast but structured, no longer a terrible beauty.