|John Wood is a prize-winning American poet and photographic critic. He has published twelve books of photographic criticism and history, including books on Luis Gonz‡lez Palma, Keith Carter, John Dugdale, and Wouter Deruytter. He curated the 1995 National Museum of American Art exhibition Secrets of the Dark Chamber and is the editor of 21st: The Journal of Contemporary Photography.
Per Fronth"s cargo by John Wood
In The Culture of Hope philosopher Frederick Turner offers a challenging artistic manifesto for our time. Here are just a few of its points:
I can think of few artists who better exemplify the tenets of this manifesto than Per Fronth does. His work is beautiful; it has a spiritual, healing quality; it speaks to large cultural and ecological issues central to humanity as a whole; and it bravely turns its back on the clichŽs of contemporary art and looks to the past to shape a radical vision, a vision that goes directly to the true roots of contemporary life.
This contemporary vision is one of the most immediately compelling qualities of his work. It is a vision of the ordinary stuff of life, those "things of this world," as poet Richard Wilbur put it, simple "things" that are, in truth, deeply spiritual for they are what fill our lives with meaning: the baby "Horizon II - (Julius Sleeping)", a recurrent image in Fronth, suggesting renewal and the on-going of life, but also the Christ-child, particularly in Fronth's various versions of it in swaddling clothes; sensuality and beauty "Tuesday"; the act of love "334.Ax7.JPG-Interior II"; the adoration of nature as presented in the holding of flowers and bowing to them, "Apology"; and finally, because without it the vision would be both incomplete and untrue, the recognition of the coming of death "Selfportrait - 9 desbrosses st." and the fact that eventually we will lie down in nature and become one with it, become compost for the flowers, knowing that life goes on in perpetual renewal.
One might call this a Romantic vision, but I prefer to call it a contemporary one. The sad, fractured, and horrific imagery of Modernism -of Wastelands, of bombed out Guernicas, and countless hearts of darkness-is not an accurate portrait of our time, even though many artists who delight in considering themselves visionary radicals still hold to these old visions as tenaciously as the Salon painters held to theirs at the advent of Impressionism. Fronth's work is the visual equivalent of the best of today's new music, that by Rautavaara, PŠrt, Tavener, Vasks, Liebermann, G—recki, and PelŽcis. Their music possesses a new sound that has also been called "romantic" but in truth is merely a return to melody, harmony, and form, those characteristics that had defined the nature of music for centuries, those characteristics we recognize in music as beauty.
Per Fronth's work is always unashamedly beautiful. Even when his subject may be quite ugly, our eyes are captivated by Fronth's beautiful colors and the dynamic forms of his figures, as, for example, in "Dragging the Head" from BLOODLINES (2000) Fig.III., an image of three men tugging on the severed head of a bull that is to be chopped up for foxhounds. Today's Salon artists, often with the backing of galleries, journals, and "critics," continue to attack beauty by making ugly work and arguing that calling something "beautiful" is merely a subjective judgment lacking any independent truth or cultural universality. They argue that beauty has no meaning except within the culture that produced an object and used that word to describe it, and that words like art, Nature, and good and bad as aesthetic judgments are only linguistic constructions with no objective reality. But the human imagination perceives form in Nature as beauty and translates its perception of that form into art. There may at times be slight cultural differences in the way that translation is made, but the human imagination is the universal grammar that unites them all and makes them mutually understandable. Few things could be more obvious than that beauty gives joy and together they add to the fullness and completeness of life--that in themselves they are healing, that in themselves they are miracles.
Again and again Per Fronth captures those miracles--particularly in his new work, as I already pointed out, but in his earlier work, as well. A particularly beautiful example appears in lifedreams (1999) Fig. II. and depicts two shadowy figures dancing or perhaps running along the top of a hill against a great golden sky. The title "Norwegian Wedding" clarifies the shadowed veils flying in the wind and a bouquet the first figure holds in front of her. But the image quickly brings to mind, as if it were its very antithesis, one of the most famous Scandinavian images of the past century, another picture of figures dancing at the top of hill, that closing scene of The Seventh Seal in which Death dances his captives into oblivion. But Fronth's shadow dancers are caught in the miraculous Dance of Life and new beginnings.
Fronth often depicts such cultural universals and touches on universal ecological issues, as well. His Xingu Chronicles (1998) Fig I., is a record of the lives of some of the indigenous peoples of the rapidly vanishing Brazilian rainforest. It is work that not only brings to mind what we sacrifice for greed, Western notions of progress, and our narrow view of civilization, but that also suggests with great poignancy that we are all alike, that we share a similar vision and experience of those simple "things of this world."
All of these characteristics we find in his work illustrate how Fronth lets "the past create the future by breaking the shackles of the present." Perhaps in some ways "Romantic" is a good description of his work because it conjures up both a past and a sense of humanity, a sense he has no fear of. We look at his work and can see its modernity but we can also feel its history. Much of his modernism lies in his technique. His paintings all begin as photographs, but it is often impossible to tell by looking at them. Many painters use photography in their work and many photographers use painting; however, no contemporary artist so blurs the distinctions between painter and photographer as does Per Fronth. It is, in fact, difficult to say if Fronth is a painter or a photographer. After Robert Hooke's 1694 paper to the Royal Society on the camera obscura, "An Instrument of use to take the Draught or Picture of anything," a great many artists took up its use, though the camera obscura had actually been known since the tenth century. Photography, which means writing with light, had been practiced by artists long before Daguerre and Fox Talbot discovered processes for chemically fixing and holding those images. Fronth's use of the camera to make paintings is but another example of how he turns to the past as a source of creative inspiration. Whether we call him a painter or a photographer, it is clear that he is unique and is doing something with the camera no other artist today is doing. Sidney Gilbert, writing in Artspeak (April 1993), said, "Of all photographers who have pushed the medium to its limits in recent years, Per Fronth is by far the most visionary. While others explore issues that are primarily formal, Fronth plumbs imaginative depths."
These unique, radical, and visionary imaginative depths also reverberate with the past. Fronth's work obviously has its roots in Norway, but his vision embraces the world. Nearly a century ago art historian and critic Andreas Aubert argued that if Norwegian art were to continue to develop "it was necessary to seek a new foundation . . . in the same original and fundamental psychological forces which from the very beginning have created mankind's pictorial art" ("Efter den norske kunstutstilling i Kj¿benhavn h¿sten 1906"). Aubert's age-old "psychological forces" are those very cultural and historical universals that Frederick Turner's manifesto called for; they are the very substance of the art of Per Fronth.