“The simple things you see are all complicated.”
—Substitute, The Who, 1966.
The modern landscape is filled with strange configurations of materials:industrial detritus, litter, the ragged ends of technology, machines and cables, gaping wounds in the fabric of construction, their edges sealed with chemical puss. These are the details we seldom notice, but which catch our eye from time to time, their probable meanings mute. They have the fascination of exposed organic processes – the innards of the world, its leakages and cauterized cuts.
In Peter Fraser’s recent series of photographs, ‘Materials’, he brings these often hidden or unnoticed features to our particular attention, and, in doing so, performs a transformative gesture upon them through the process of his photography. Vast and glossy, vibrant and hypnotically detailed, his studies of modern matter – the materials, mechanics and substances of the world – represent his subjects on what seems an epic scale. But his purpose in doing so is neither ironic nor mock heroic. The closest relative to his particular form of scrutiny might be forensic science – that here are meticulous studies of some kind of evidence. Bolts encrusted with sweating oil, crocodile clips on a brightly coloured circuitry, ice furred metal. Throughout “Materials” the subjects seem as unctuous as tropical vegetation – it is as though the processes and fabrics of post-industrialism had taken on the qualities of deliquescent flora.
Thus the photography of Peter Fraser takes its place in the world as a sensory statement: a presentation of the quietly visceral – touch and colour, surface and edge, gloss and texture all become eloquent through his work. Or, rather, these qualities become amplified in his photography, until the viewer is engulfed in their representation. As such, Fraser is an artist who makes a periodic table of sensations from the stuff that the world is made of. This is best summarised in a communication from Fraser to the writer Jeremy Millar: “With each series of photographs I choose a different strategy to approach the same underlying preoccupation, which is, essentially, trying to understand what the world around me is made of through the act of photographing it.”
And then there’s always more: when you look, for instance, at one of Fraser’s recent photographs for the Citigroup Photography Prize 2004 – a plastic container, half filled with green liquid, or a polystyrene cup skewered all over with cocktail sticks – you are suddenly caught in the grasp of not simply an imagined sensory experience, but a moment of contemplation. The effect is reminiscent of W.H.Auden’s description of the momentary stupification caused by hot water: “Plunge your hands into the basin, plunge them in up to the wrist. Stare, stare at the mirror, and wonder what you’ve missed.” In other words, Fraser’s photographs seem to halt the mind with their mute questions: whatever narrative they might possess remains unknowable.
There is a quality to the photographs which is so tactile, so in tune with an empathy of touch, that the viewer feels drawn in to the very consciousness of the images. It is an experience which is by turns unsettling, pleasurable and somewhat dream-like. Johanna Burton, routes Fraser’s art through Beaudelaire’s identification of drunkenness, convalesence and childhood as being aspect’s of an artist’s creative state. And this is an astute perception, as it suggests how the world is seen from a somewhat altered state, in which the contours of our responses become rearranged.
In this much, Fraser’s examination of the world appears more an act of wonder than of pathology. His photography achieves a state of extravagant lucidity, the effects of which, in a further double-track of their being, share both the openness to empathy of heightened human perception, and the sheer precision of the coldly scientific. Where the necessary magic seems to enchant Fraser’s photography, is in the almost chemical combination of these two shared states – the mingling of compassionate, heightened human perception and laboratory-determined objectivity. It is rather as though, as you get caught in the mesmeric presence of Fraser’s photography, you are seeing the visual reports of a hugely sophisticated robot, the programmes of which have also the capacity to feel emotion.
Creativity so often abounds in the collision of opposites; as scientific precision abutts human empathy within a work of art, so the work enables what the painter Bridget Riley has identified in the phrase: ‘an artist is a person who has an inner text which they need to translate’. By this token, Fraser’s ‘inner text’ is his questioning of the world around him, and his act of translation is the need to try to understand this world. It would make sense for him to be an artist within the lineage of post-impressionism – in other words, absorbed within the complexities of seeing, then dismantling and reassembling his impressions, the better to express their innermost qualities.