Afterimage: Visual Studies Workshop, vol 8, #5, 12/80

Mocking Objects: Lisa Bloomfield, Gillian Brown, Diane Buckler -- James Hugunin

Bloomfield's background includes a BA in anthropology and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.  Her experiences in both disciplines inform her artworks.  A body of her work is concerned with maps and ruins and the addition of "felt" signs (her own markings) onto the cartographer's standard signs.  Simultaneously, Bloomfield produced a number of sequential works that move from a traditional narrative structure using photographs and captions to a less "directional" form of sequence, similar in part to Alain Robbe-Grillet's notions of the new novel.  In these narratives, Bloomfield shows great skill in staging and photographing events to achieve specific moods and subject distance.

Since an anthropologist is a seeker of clues to humanity's past and present, it is no surprise that Bloomfield's first narrative piece, Passionate Crime (1978-80), is a detective-like story unfolding within the sentimentalities of the typical Victorian novel.  The series consists of 31 photographs enlarged to 8x8 inches on 11x14 Ektalure paper, the warm tone of this paper being ideal to set the sentimental tone of the story.  The narrative develops in chapters; each is introduced by a written title.  The first five photographs set the mood and locale; the photographs move from the terrain around a house to the house itself and then into a specific area in the house.  The photographs are shot either at dusk or by artificial lamp light to enhance the sense of the forebodying.  The narrative develops from clues: a letter, a basket of crocheting, a cup of tea.  It becomes apparent that a woman is pining for the lover who rejected her.  The letter hints at a growing sense of paranoia in the protagonist.  Photogrphs 12-19 illustrate the character's decision to act, photograph 18 being a distance shot of her destination, her lover's inn.  Her unnoticed entrance and subsequent murder of her lover unfold in photographs 20-23.  The last images describe the woman's departure and her return home to a vacuous existence of needlework, locked behind the sterile walls of psychological retreat.  Estrangement has led to a violent act, a passionate crime.

Estrangement is again the theme in Beach Narrative (1979), but there the viewer senses a less overt alienation:  there is no letter, no journey, no confrontation, and no violence.  Beach Narrative produces a feeling of mystery and psychological tension between the "actors" more effectively than Passionate Crime, and does so with less resort to the standard narrative form.  Passionate Crime remains more literal -- each photograph refers back to preceding images and forward to others --  but Beach Narrative neutralizes this teleology in much the same way that the tone row in music has eliminated the "directionality" of the traditional Western octave.  Beach Narrative can start and end almost anywhere. The only linear direction implied is a day passing; within that day events unfold as discrete units, clearly observed.  There is no simple plot.  The narrative includes 17 images, each shot from a fairly close distance, then printed slightly higher than normal contrast (a formal equivalent to the abbreviated compositions).

Bloomfield's captions provide both description and allusion:  "The warmth was always pleasant," or, "Their lines were amusing."  These  double-edged descriptions suggest an estrangement between the couple (who are never seen together as whole people, only fragments) sitting on a beach in some exotic locale, and upset the traditonal theme of lovers on a tropical isle.  The photographs are as double-edged as the sentences --  simultaneously declarative and allusive.  What is neither directly shown in the photographs, nor stated in the captions, becomes the real subject of the series.

This is similar to Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy (1957) where the painstaking description of objects and events maintains a neutral front against the husband's rising jealousy toward his wife.  Both Jealousy and Beach Narrative are set in a tropical environment,  and use the exotic as a counterpoint to the mundane descriptions. In both, the chronology of events is jumbled, differing perspectives of the same event occur,  and consequently, a sense of linear time is eroded.  The sense of stasis thus produced heightens the psychological tension alluded to in Bloomfield's captions and performs a similar task in Robbe-Grillet's novels.  In Jealousy, the banal event of the smashing of a centipede, described over and over again from various perspectives,  reiterates the growing jealousy of the husband. The dispassionate recording of fact in Beach Narrative suggests a similar psychological alienation.  Bloomfield has used form not merely as a container for content, but as an equivalent to content.  Her tendency in Passionate Crime to use visual rhetoric to set the mood has matured into a less ornamental technique.

Bloomfield furthers this growing detachment in Apartment (1980), a series in which visual fragments are made to stand for the whole.  Her description of a locale is executed with a Robbe-Grillet-like neutrality, as if one's casual glances about this apartment were instantly fixed into 14 images.  In an unpublished statement Bloomfield has commented:

Apartment is the  most  loosely structured narrative piece.  The first three images as well as the last appear in their prescribed sequence.  The ordering of the central images is not fixed; however, the structure is assumed once the pieces are presented.  The narrative line itself is not strictly delineated, though the above elements suggest interpretations.

The dark tonality of the photographs in this series becomes a formal signifier for mystery, a continuation of the concern for mood demonstrated in Passionate Crime. Objects are shown as if recently used, furthering the sense of an event already past.  Precisely because no one is shown where one might expect to see someone, the photographs, for all  their objectively recorded detail, hint at something missing --  hence the mystery.  The only clues are objects and the spaces between them; consequently, relationships between mundane objects take on an importance they would not ordinarily assume.  Any object or gesture defeats entrapment in a descriptive or interpretive system; at best, we can make endless lists of detail or synoptic descriptions in the form of metaphor or similar.  Robbe-Grillet and Bloomfield, as well as Brown and Buckler, are aware of this problem.  Robbe-Grillet has attempted to empty his fictional world of the anthropomorphic.  Bloomfield does not go that far:  despite the emphasis on surface in her later work, she is still attached to revealing a psychology behind the photographs.  Apartment, however, comes closest to realizing a journey through objects alone, reducing the psychological space considerably in comparison to the earlier narratives. and bringing the objects photographed closest to those "mocking objects" mentioned by Robbe-Grillet.

"Vagueness, ambiguity, fugacity of reference, are traits of verbal forms and do not extend to the objects referred to."  Bloomfield proves Willard Quine's statement by showing how rhetorical devices, either verbal or visual, can be applied to objects,  though her work moved from a surplus of such rhetoric to a more restrained use of it.