Despite Hollis Frampton’s prolific career as a filmmaker, educator, and essayist, and his position as a mainstay of the avant-garde film movement, he is only now having his first solo exhibition in New York City. Room East has brought 14 of Frampton’s photographs — his last major set of works, completed two years prior to his death from cancer in 1984 — to light in a quiet but striking posthumous solo debut. The series, entitled ADSVMVS ABSVMVS, has journeyed downstate following a Frampton retrospective earlier this year at the CEPA Gallery in Buffalo.
Frampton’s photographs are installed on the upper level of the two-story gallery. In each image, dried-out plants and animal carcasses are cast against stark black backgrounds. Some of the subjects seem plucked from the corridors of a natural history museum — there is a four-leaf clover, a rose skewered with taxidermy pins, and a half-mummified bird poised for flight — while others are not immediately identifiable. One image shows what vaguely resembles a crusty yellow rag neatly folded into a rectangle.
But despite the occasional ambiguity of his photographed forms, Frampton insists on regaling viewers with an origin story for each subject. Every object is identified in the photo’s title along with its scientific Latin name in parentheses. Additionally, Room East supplies visitors with a pamphlet, which Frampton designed and intended to accompany the photographs, that documents his acquisition of each object. Upon referencing my pamphlet, I learned that what I thought to be a deformed yellow rag was in fact dried jellyfish bladder from an Asian trading store. A dash of seemingly irreverent details is also included; in the caption for “Garden Toad (Bufo americanus)” (1982), Frampton notes, “Constantin Brancusi maintained that toads are more handsome than Michelangelo’s statues.”
The gallery’s lower level includes Frampton’s original funding proposal for the exhibition, submitted to the nonprofit LightWork in Syracuse. Each page is methodically sandwiched between plexiglass, and details the exhibition’s gestation. On the images he planned to shoot, Frampton wrote:
One general, public assumption about photographs is that the process of photographic representation amounts to a preservation or embalming process. The lost presence of the photographed thing, person, situation is invoked through a mummified echo, reduced to a husk of the light that once revealed it. The photographic likeness bears a distant, partial, decolorized or muted resemblance to its subject; at the same time, it has unique qualities of its own, which are entirely independent of what it depicts.
All 14 objects Frampton chose to photograph for ADSVMVS ABSVMVS are formerly living organisms or plants mummified, dried, decayed, and disintegrated by the force of time and natural processes. Frampton termed these objects “autographic likenesses,” referring to their remote resemblances to their living forms. The transformation of each object — through loss of moisture, mass, form, and life — was a process “metaphorically reminiscent of the photographic image.”
Some “autographic likenesses” Frampton collected, including ephemera culled from his estate, are included in the gallery’s lower level. Dried flowers and leaves, collected and preserved by the artist, are laid in a glass-topped display case and stored in transparent beige sleeves. A rose from the funeral of Frampton’s father, pictured in more vivid color in a photograph upstairs, is laid next to a smaller test print of it — “autographic” and “photographic likenesses” side by side. While the photo of the rose remains nearly pristine, unchanged from when Frampton developed it 33 years ago, the actual rose is now brittle, its once bright green and pink hues turned to sepia. As its petals and leaves waste away, the temporal gap and the physical contrast between the formerly living flower and its image only increase. Frampton mused in the series’ introductory text:
If we understand but poorly our own notion of likeness between paired entities, we understand even less the manner in which entities are like, or unlike, or may come to be like, or unlike, themselves. This indisposition depends from a temporary defect: that we have not yet evolved to comfort in the domain of time, our supreme fiction, that parses sets of spaces in favor of successiveness.
In one sense, Frampton’s exhibition is, as he wrote to a friend, “a serious parody of a nineteenth-century scientific treatise of a certain kind.” The rigor and formality with which Frampton carries out his project — precisely classifying each object as if it is a specimen — pokes fun at the purportedly objective practices of the scientific discipline by rendering them meaningless and absurd. The Latin title of his show lends his entire artistic exercise a quasi-scientific spirit. Yet, Frampton’s photographs are underscored by a darker strain in which his “autographic likenesses” function as memento mori.
If a photograph promises immortality, revealing how light particles momentarily interact with an object, Frampton’s photographs also do the opposite. Capturing desiccated and deformed objects, his photos zero in on the processes of death and decay that evacuate the life from an object, making mortality the primary meditation of ADSVMVS ABSVMVS. By pairing Frampton’s photographs with the original artifacts depicted, Room East gives further resonance to the name of his show; loosely translated from Latin, the mysterious title reads: “Here, Apart.”
ADSVMVS ABSVMVS continues at Room East (41 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 10.