In Wayne Kostenbaum’s book, Notes on a Glaze, he discusses how‘glaze refers to the patina of the photographs themselves, to the gazes of the captured subjects, and to the roundaboutness of my procedure [of writing]’ but he also talks about how ‘glaze may give the impression of being in hot pursuit of knowledge, yet glaze is actually a heightened, delirious state of unknowing.’
To me these multiple ideas about glaze – as a process, subject and as effect – give us alternative, possibly concurrent ways to view James Pfaff’s Alex and Me. This is a work that is a book of photographs – a photo-essay, if you will – that includes a high degree of editorial attention and is conveyed to us non-chronologically and includes Pfaff’s paint-interventions. When read together with his blog, the book also digs down into the process of making of the work (a process that was slow, intricate, and full of dialogic partnership with Francesca Seravalle, his curator). The resulting work includes unresolved ideas of love and breakup as explored via autobiographical narratives that build a conversation with the bound images. When read together, the images, interventions and text have the potential to agitate something in us as readers.
If we lift our eyes and look to other art forms and other practices, we know that these types of interventions and editorial decisions are not unique, nor are Pfaff’s and Seravalle’s decisions particularly radical when looked at from a multi-modal, multi-disciplinary perspective (many artists, writers and thinkers use variations on image/text/memoir/intervention to produce their work). However, in Pfaff’s and Seravalle’s hands these choices are compelling and create a beautifully produced, curiosity-inducing work. Something does not have to be radical to be impactful.
The non-linear ordering of the photographs allows for a large amount of play around story and ‘character’, especially of Alex, an ex-girlfriend of Pfaff’s who is the main subject of many of the photographs. The layout disrupts our expectations and makes us look differently, look again. There’s the satisfying transformation of Elvis Presley’s Sun Studios into Sin Studios because of how the spine breaks the word, which might be unintentional, but emerges from an intentional playfulness with the formatting. Or there’s the challenge of Alex who stands in her dungarees beside a Topless GoGo Girls neon-sign. I am not this thing, she asserts through the photograph, her face a glaze, but she is no less on display, beneath our gaze. Red permeates the book as an abstracted lampshade or the red line of paint James imposes again and again, and this red is something familiar, a slash of blood, of emotion, and yet, it is not easy to pin down. I like that it is not read/red in a singular way.
Pfaff’s writing is sparse, and he has spoken about how slowly he writes, how the words are hard-fought for. His text can be plain and direct, occasionally clichéd, and yet produces moments of a higher pitched possibility that show the potential in James’ future writing and projects.
Overall, the quality of the photographs and of the publication itself should not be contested – they are beautifully rendered and the book has been organized, designed and printed with incredible talent, care and attention. Add to this the showmanship of the painting (James has painted the books live at bookfairs) and the reveal of the blog posts, and James Pfaff with his first artist’s book, Alex and Me, has produced a visually powerful and intimately disruptive work.Read More