ISBN 13: 9780964834064

Donald Kuspit on Per Fronth´s Xingu Chronicles

Donald Kuspit is professor of art history and philosophy at State University of New York at Stony Brook, and professor-at-large at Cornell University. He is the editor of Art Criticism as well as author of a variety of books on art history and important twentieth-century artists including Arman, Chihuly and Karel Appel. Donald Kuspit is currently assiciate editor of ArtForum Magazine

For me, the important thing about Per Fronth's photoengravings and paintings is their exquisite beauty and Old Master resonance, which subsumes their subject matter - the peoples of Xingu in Brazil - even as it idealizes them. Is that neo-colonialism - esthetic colonialism? I don't think so. It is admiration for integrity, and spirituality. Indeed, people of Xingu maintain, in their daily lives, a sense of sacred that has all but disappeared in our secular world. Fronth respect the Xingu peoples because they embody an attitude that has become alian to us. It is his ambition to make images that convey this precious attitude in every nuance of their surface and structure - to make images that seem naturally spiritual as the Xingu. I think Fronth has succeeded: his images have a numinous, poetic quality - an inherent sublimity - even as they describe the everyday events of Xingu life. Xingu figures all but dematerialize in the chiaroscuro atmosphere of his photoengravings and paintings, where they seem like mirages in a dream. Fronth estethics slows time, and in doing so creates an affect of eternity, without sacrificing precise observation of the prose of daily reality.

The complexity of Fronth's work has to do with the complexity of his response to the Xingu, among whom he has lived for various lenghts of time. The xingu Indians are people kept alive - artificially, one might say - in a park the size of New Jersey, or perhaps Norway, the country of Fronth's origin. They live in protective custody on a kind of reservation established and maintained by the society they nedd protection from. No doubt the proverbial fascination of the sober, snowy North for the expressive, tropical South - the attraction of industrial and exotic opposites, of cold and warm peoples - informs Fronth's interest in the Xingu, but it is much more subtle than that.

Gaugin also went to what he thought would be a primitive paradise, where he could brathe easily and freely, far from the horrors of modernity. But he found that the place had, in its own fasion, become civilized, and its inhabitants had lost their innocence, however naive they remained. Colonized, they had become contaminated; however hard he tried, gaugin could not really find the cure he sought among them. Nonetheless, he continued to celebrate, through his art, his emotional investment in their imagined naturalness and the "mystery" of their difference. Fronth is also in search for a lost paradise, but when he finds it, and realizes that it is not as untouched as he expected, he adapts. Unlike Gaugin images, Fronth do not edit the modern world out of Xingu life, but rather show how the Xingu people use aspects of it for their own spiritual purposes - how they adapt to what is mysterious to them, reconciling it to their own sense of the mystery of existence.

Pnanasonic is a key work, a kind of signature piece, for it demonstrated Fronth's dialectical conciousness- his sense of the contradictions of Xingu life - and shows the camera which is the instrument of his craft. The subtle chiaroscuro of the image also signals Fronth's grand ambition: the integration of photography and painting. Supposedly opposites and enemies, they must unite forces to sustain spiritual vision in a world alien to it. The entire image is an audacious demonstration of conte4nding ideas, each holding its own while working in unison. Thus, with brilliant economy of means, Fronth declares the contradiction in terms - the ironical mix of cultures, of the primitive and the sophisticated - which the Xingu figure i: the sash that goes from left shoulder to left hip signifies his appropriation of modern technology. The contradiction between the primitive, handcarved longboat behind him and the compact, massproduced camera resting on his right shoulder, reiterates the paradox of his existence.

The boat is a means of travel, but so is the camera. I requires great effort to row the boat. but little effort to use the camera. In a sense, the camera travels further in the world than the boat, and faster. Indeed, the camera is capable of taking in the whole world - a somewhat larger world than the river. It semms significant that the Xingu man turns his back to the water , and uses the camera to film the land. He seems to acknowledge that the moving camera offers a better view of his environment than he could have from moving the boat. He also seems to acknowledge that it is a means of insight, for in making him conscious of the world he inhabits it makes him conscious of himself. Without the meditation of the camera, direct vision i naive, and peculiarly blind. Thus, the new means of vision becomes a bridge between inner and outer worlds - a way of recording the world, and of realizing that one is doing so from a certain point of view. The camera is thus a means of reflexivity - even the dawn of self-knowledge - for the Xingu man.

Panasonic is of course no accident. Fronth is a prizewinning documentary photographer, and the prize he won was for a picture of a Xingu chief. The camera is a self-object, to use Heinz Kohut's terms - an extention of himself, a declaration of identity - and the Xingu man is using the camera to photograph Fronth, who in turn photographs him. This completes the circuit of idenfication between himself and the Xingu man. Gaugin would no doubt fin a primitive man with a modern camera an obscenity, but for Fronth they form an intimate scene. For the camera is a means of establishing an inner relationship with someone who would otherwise be alian. Sharing the camera, they become brothers - emotional equals. Young Cameraman makes the point succinctly; without the facial markings Fronth could be making a self-portrait, for the Young Cameraman is his spiritual double.

But Fronth " supplements" his picture, as the Xingu man does not: Fronth engraves the photograph, explicitly turning it into art. This makes him spiritual equal tof the Xingu, for whom art is a normal part of the daily business of life. indeed, a natural expression of selfhood, as the feather in the ear of the figure in The Feather Silence and the feather headdress worn by Xingu Chief indicate. The expressive geometrical patterns tattooed on the face of the Young Cameraman and woven into into the woman of Spinning Cotton show that art is an integral part of their being. It is a way of essentializing their existence: art does simply adorn but it confirms its sanctity. The Xingu people cannot separate living from making art, as we seem to be able to do. This especially evident in Xingu dances, which are a daily, communal, sacred event. As though to join the primitiveLinedance-Suya, Fronth adds his own eternal geometry - the grid pattern, a symbol of modernism - to his depiction of it. The emphasis Fronth gives to various geometrical details of the grid - the way, in many paintings, a rectangle of square is vividly colored(usually red), turning it into a perceptual epiphany, and in effect spritualizing it, so that it stands out of the twilight atmosphere like a marker of eternity - is his way of announcing his modern identity. It is his tattoo, added to the skin of his paintings to affirm spiritual commonality with the Xingu.

Fronth's paintings begins with his photographs, and at once modernize and deepens them. Rendered in oil, the chiaroscuro atmosphere becomes even more magical, mysterious, and poignant, and the contrasts of light and dark that constitute it more extreme and thus intense, as in Underwatergirls. Light and dark become irreconcilable, even as Fronth invests more emotion in his subject matter.

Again and again he brings the faces of the Xingu close up, making them all but confrontational, as is not the case in his photographs, which for all their intimacy have certain detached quality. We stare into the eyes of one of the Underwatergirls, and are face to face with the Winged Woman, the Young Mother and the Young Cameraman, whose painted portraits become sacred icons. The triptych character of the first, the red plane that underscores the second, and the diptych character of the third suggest as much.

Fronth is constantly on the lookout for continuities between Western culture and Xingu culture, and nowhere does he find a better one than in Burnig Bush, which reminds on of the burning bush of the Bible. A bush becomes suddenly aflame with spirit - becomes extraordinary and supernatural, even while remaining ordinary and natural. It is this kind of miracle and revelation, and the faith that makes it possible, that Fronth finds in everyday Xingu life. The people of Xingu have solved the problem of integrating life and art, and of understanding the role of art in life: to reveal the miracle of its givenness. Art is spontaneously religious among the Xingu people, and Fronth has created, with more labor, a religious art. His reconciliation of documentary photography and oil painting is his way of making a sacred art, and of reconciling life and art.

It is his way of reconciling object and subject - his objective perception of the peoples of Xingu and his empathy for them. The postmodern recognition that there is no privileged medium of artmaking, and that all have become equally historical - the realization that traditional painting's power of subjective evocation and modern photography's ability to convince us that what it shows is objectively the case are equally necessary - has given Fronth the opportunity to make his consummate works of art. He demonstrates that ripeness is all, and that ripeness results from the union of what apparently in commensurate with each other. This involves not only painting and photography, but primitive and modern societies, which are after all equally human, and can learn from each other. Fronth has shown us a viable way of engaging people who seem utterly alien - of seriously relating to human beings
we are reluctant to take seriously, except as a curiosity and novelty, that is, a kind of sideshow - but in fact who show us that what we ourselves once were still makes emotional and spiritual sense. Fronth has returned to the origins, and shown that they still have profound consequence for art and life.




Press Release

Dillon Gallery New York 2008

Per Fronth: Carbon Compositions / Dillon Gallery / New York