Memory, Moment, Camera, Action!

Ballroom series, I, II & III

Trudy Good professes that her ‘works are never narratives, merely moments.’ I’m going to suggest that there’s a paradox at work in this statement. But it’s an intentional and productive one; precisely the sort of contradiction that good art often reveals and explores. Her style and subject matter accordingly make for an interesting artistic proposition vis culture, technology, and aesthetics.

Good says that her ‘Ballroom Series’ was inspired by ‘memories of watching ‘Come Dancing’ as a child on [her] fourth-hand black and white portable television.’ She was ‘mesmerised by the amazingly glamourous couples…the way that they seemed to move so completely together, communicating only through body language and with such grace.’ It was only ‘many years later [however, that] my ballroom drawings were born on a Sunday afternoon when I was just playing around with some photographs that I had taken a year or so earlier.’

‘Ballroom Series, I’ depicts a finely dressed couple dancing—presumably the same couple shown in ‘Ballroom Series, II’ and ‘Ballroom Series, III’. Is this only an assumption? It suggests that each moment or artwork depends upon the series—i.e., the narrative—and so the catalogue reads: ‘Ballroom Series, I’, ‘II’, and ‘III’. The plainness of each title—each of which is more like a label—then accentuates each work’s being merely a moment. For each may be part of a narrative and thus moments if not narratives in themselves.

So why merely moments and not just moments? For despite their merely-ness; each is highly accomplished and lays claim to its own autonomy. But precisely because of this merely-ness; each work lays no claim to any of the others. For none of the artworks depicts a stumble becoming a trip before a fall and therefore a narrative. It’s a very elegant formulation of a central problem in aesthetics: the relation of the autonomous artwork to its wider heteronomous forces. The relation of the autonomous artwork to its historical milieu. The relation of ‘Ballroom Series, II’ to ‘Ballroom Series, I’ and ‘Ballroom Series, III’.

If this is an assumption—a narrative composed of moments yet with no narrative as such; then it is a necessary assumption but also a contradiction. Good’s ‘Ballroom Series’ explores this contradiction through its form (the opening quote and each artwork’s title) and the relation of the artwork to its milieu through its content (its subject matter). Each moment could even be described as a snapshot or frame of an imaginary motion picture—the real of the reel. Good’s memories of watching ‘Come Dancing’ certainly suggest the influence of the televisual and photographic modes of aesthetics. Interestingly, the monochrome of the charcoal is intended to pay homage to ‘the haunting quality of antique photographs.’ In this way, the subject matter, style, and practice interpenetrate one another to form the artworks and reflect upon the influences of technology of contemporary aesthetic practices.

  Eadweard Muybridge, A Couple Waltzing. 1893.

Eadweard Muybridge, A Couple Waltzing. 1893.

Good’s works may be described as thoroughly media-ted by this very dialectic. Eadward Muybridge’s stop-motion photography is an important moment in this broader narrative. His Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878) proved that a horse lifted all its hooves from the ground—that horses flew—when travelling at full speed. Peter Conrad’s article for The Observer on the eve of ‘Muybridge at the Tate Britain’ in 2010 put forward that the photographer’s ‘great achievement was conceptual: he made time visible in space. His studies of locomotion atomise duration into instants.’ What is certain is that Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878) and his earlier Animal Locomotion (1887) captured those moments, snapshots, frames, or hidden concatenations that together make the movement itself if the flow is newly understood and seen as sequential. It’s new modes of seeing such as this that permeate our own sight and, consequently, the vision, subject matter, style and practice displayed in Good’s ‘Ballroom Series

Good has spoken about her enduring admiration for the works of Francis Bacon. She likely knows that Bacon was influenced by Muybridge’s pioneering photography. David Campany has written of ‘precisely this unnerving strangeness’ of the flow thus sequentialised that attracted ‘Francis Bacon to Muybridge’s studies.’ But ‘Bacon was less struck by their sequential nature than the mesmeric power of just one, plucked and scrutinised.’ Melvyn Bragg famously asked Bacon whether he thought ‘there’s anything that exists apart from the moment?’ ‘No.’ Bacon somewhat drunkenly answered. There was only the sensation of the moment. Apart from that: ‘I believe in nothing.’ Good shares with Bacon the general genealogy of the artist’s statement devoid of any metaphysical questions if ‘works are never narratives, merely moments.’ Moreover, it’s impossible not to be struck by the similarity between Good’s ‘Ballroom Series’ and Muybridge’s phénakisticope of 1893. While the former is done through Good’s characteristic charcoal; the latter is shown by way of a spinning zoopraxiscopic disc. It’s easily apparent which depiction is more charmingly rendered: Good’s dancers are graceful and elegant; Muybridge’s are static and awkward…

 This criticism is a little unfair of course: Muybridge’s motivation is technical; Good’s artistic. It is noticeable however, that the ‘edges’ of the dancers in phénakisticope are ‘lines’ rather than ‘blurs’ as in the latter. David Hockney, whose work has explored, more than any living artist’s today, the interrelations between art, culture, society, technology, and photography, writes in his Secret Knowledge (2001) about the influences of the photography on the ‘lines’ and ‘edges’ of painting and drawing. Comparing Cézanne’s Cinq Baigneuses (1887) with Bougeureau’s academic style in La Vague (1896), Hockney argued that the style of the former has no doubt triumphed over that of the latter. ‘Bougeureau’s was finally dismissed as something silly.’ ‘But today,’ says Hockney, ‘what way of seeing and representing has really triumphed?’ It is, so he says, ‘[t]he photographic image! The Bouguereau painting…Look how the edges of the nymph have been softened to blend in with the sea. They are not crisp, sharp lines.’ Good’s artworks are influenced by precisely this aesthetic rather than that of Cinq Baigneuses.

Good’s dancers—unlike Muybridge’s—similarly have ‘blurred’ edges intimating movement whereas Muybridge uses several images to produce the single motion-image. Good’s are self-contained and separately framed, i.e., a series. The influence of the ‘photographic’ (the necessity of softening the line in the still) is therefore applied to the ‘televisual’ (the sequential series of stills of the couple dancing) through the ‘blurring’ and ‘softening’ of the edges and lines that imply the moment preceding and immediately after. This produces a more charmingly rendered image. The influence of the ‘televisual’ and ‘photographic’ then achieve this operation by effecting and affecting our memory: Good suggests that the ‘mostly monochrome palette gives them a sense of time passed just as I see those images in my memory.’ This may be read two ways: the monochrome is not only the ‘black and white’ of the original television but also the palette of our memory as mediated through the technologies of past times. Hence she sometimes uses the word ‘melancholy’ when describing her paintings or the ‘the haunting quality of antique photographs.’

In her most recent works, Good has used a camera to take photographs of models to work from in her studio. This is no longer a ‘secret knowledge’ pertaining to the camera obscura (a pin-hole image rendered by sunlight in a dark room) but rather a simple camera that allows her ‘to use really strong directional light which creates mood and drama.’ Again, the representation of the ‘dramatic’ has been secretly influenced by technology just as the ‘time passed’ has been influenced through the monochrome of the ‘black and white’ to produce the aura of melancholy. Good has written that in art, ‘[t]he sheer beauty of a single line, the way that light plays on her hair, the feelings conveyed by her body language in a single unguarded moment—these are the things that inspire me time and time again. Sometimes a sense of peace, sometimes melancholy, the million different emotions that make up human nature, every one interests and inspires me.’ In this analysis, it is not only the emotions that effect an affect like melancholy, but the technologies of the visual in the camera that in turn complicate what we think of as human experience. The ‘sheer beauty of a single line’ is not only ‘sheer beauty’ but an entire history intersecting the figure of the artist, her memory, her society, culture, technology, camera, and aesthetic. ‘Ballroom Series’ therefore makes for a unique and nostalgic moment in which the ‘moment’ itself is considered and its conditional technologies surveyed.

D.S. Graham