Photographs by Arthur Tress, Essay by Kirsten Rian

Published on 02/27/ 2018

It could be said that the human experience is the Chaos Theory enacted. We are built of memories and the impressions of experiences that our bodies retain, then continually metamorphosed by reinterpretations and reconsiderations, over and over in an attempt perhaps to create a structure of some kind simply in order to cope.

We are living the same looping patterns that The Godfathers immortalized: Birth, School, Work, Death, and yet every single one of our experiences that fill this space between land and sky is unique, building on themselves to affect who we are, and in this way we are dynamic recursions of intellect and nature, things in our control, out of our control, habits, and patterns.

The little fluctuating spaces, solid but moving at the same time…residual ambiguity.

Arthur Tress started out as a landscape painter at Bard. He was drawn to artists like Cezanne, and noticed “the little fluctuating spaces, solid but moving at the same time…residual ambiguity.”

Those moving spaces were patterns, and he would go on to see them everywhere, to seek them out wherever he went, the repetitions, and sequences that say here, again, here, the same but different, but maybe in parts the same again. He tells me about the fluctuating movement of the fabric motifs of the sarongs when in Bali, of watching waves and stars throughout his life, that habit of looking up at sky or out across water in a way becoming its own sort of pattern.

We discuss Escher’s tessellations; the geometric sequences in the textiles of indigenous women in the Mexican highlands; his early, well-documented travels in the mid-1960s around the world, from India to Sweden, crisscrossing and gathering perceptions about the way we humans are the same but different, ideas about experience and living that change and melt with travel, and he began thinking about, “another way of describing reality, other than what we usually assign to photography.”

When he returned to the States documentary imagery led to turning his camera to New York environmental conditions, segueing to his noted Dream Collector series. But nestled between this era in Tress’s canon and his seminal Hospital series is an underrecognized body of work, Theoretical Models.

In the build up to discussing these images specifically, our conversation is a swirl of anecdotes that are actually map pins that hindsight provides, tracking the path from impulse and inspiration leading from project to project. Tress is an artist who intentionally and accidentally mines for content on whatever corner of earth he happens to be standing.

It’s the way he allows himself to be in the world. From wandering side streets in Egypt, to the rows and rows of junk shops on Canal street in New York in the 1970s and 80s, to a highly impacting Russian Constructivism exhibition at the Guggenheim, to considering how architect Louis Sullivan incorporated stenciling in his designs, to the lines and shapes of Tibetan prayer woodcuts and yantra drawings he saw in his travels, to inspiring conversations with his good friend Duane Michaels, to attending lectures on fractals, to pouring over pages of Scientific America and astronomy magazines—all of it and more made their way into our talk about these black and white abstractions, and all of it and more made their way into his images.

“The world exists on two levels: the archetypical and the ordinary. So I go to these neighborhoods and look at them with total wonder. I don’t know if that’s getting into the photos. That’s how I view these little pieces,” Tress reflects.

That’s what’s wonderful about photography: you just begin with a few little ideas, you’re playing around and one takes you away, and you have the courage to follow it.

Theoretical Models began with the practical task of trying to tone down the metallic glare of steel film developing reels. He took them to the sidewalk in front of his house and spray painted them a flat black.

“As I moved them around I looked down at the sidewalk and it was amazing, it left this wonderful pattern. So I moved them, the bright sunlight, the negatives and positives, and I said, this is a still life, right? That’s what’s wonderful about photography: you just begin with a few little ideas, you’re playing around and one takes you away, and you have the courage to follow it.”

As the project evolved he used black, white, and silver spray paint, always working to construct and layer found objects with shadows and reflected light. He would shoot on the snow, in the sand, using delivery crates, chalk, surplus plastic clothes rack dividers, berry baskets, working quickly, mirroring the process of traditional Japanese brush stroke he learned while in Kyoto in 1965.

Tress likes reading indexes of books. They’re like found poems, he says. He cut out the titles for his images from Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (1975), a book that explored combined principles of physics with Eastern mysticism. The small, 7 x 7” images he mounted on 11 x 14” archival board, and the body of work of about 15 abstract photos was shown at places like the National Academy of Science in D.C. and in its New York offices. In a way, they’re like fabric swatches. This collaging and combination of painting and light and object led to the Hospital series, manifesting all these concepts on a larger scale, blending the literal and symbolic, the implied and the evident, the composed and discovered.

The most important things in life are abstract. Love. The initial hit of feeling upon first opening the door or window shade after a week of gray and rain and finally blue and brightness. Grief. Strength. Confidence. They are just words, but they make themselves known by how we enact them physically. And they anchor us to every single thing that matters. Patterns are for holding onto at those times we need a tethering to order, and patterns are for breaking. They are for exploding into color and shape with the help of light, are for not knowing how or why things happen but accepting they do, they will. And sometimes it’s beautiful, and sometimes it’s so bright it blinds us, sometimes it hurts, other times it illuminates the dark parts of ourselves, sometimes it’s all we’ve got.

Between river and sky are fractals–never-ending patterns, infinite, recurring, similar at varying scales. They are created by repetition of a simple process—complex outcome from repetition of simplicity, feedback loops of imagery that manifest in pretty much everything, from our own replicating cells and neurons, to the branching of trees, snowflakes, lightening, river and erosion patterns, to galaxy formation, to spray painted discarded berry boxes on a sidewalk conversing with the day’s particular, peculiar light.

“So perhaps I want my photos to reach with a certain molecular cool surprise, to enter the mind of the viewer and pass through him—so he both loses and retains himself in the seeing until an eventual dissipation leaves him both changed and unchanged,” Tress writes me. “Perhaps this is a good key, as any, to interpreting this blissfully reassuring, but still deliriously unsettling, part of my lesser known work—.”