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Stivers's photographs are monumental and elemental, like Rothko paintings, or Henry Moore sculptures. They are monochromatic, generally sepia or even close to gold, but sometimes just untinted whites and grays. All the pictures seem slightly out-of-focus; many are of heads, mostly those of living people, but some of the most effective are of statues. The heads tend to look like statues anyway, or possibly of ghosts. Other pictures are of buildings, or cityscapes. Nearly all of the images feel anonymous, without context or particularity.
It's the kind of art that tends to attract ridicule -- "he can't even focus the camera!," or "I could do better than that." The introduction by John Stauffer of Harvard University doesn't help much to explain the work, and may make matters worse by lapsing into pompous cliché: "The images here offer the fullest expression of self-transformation and the quest for transcendence in Stivers's oeuvre--and possibly among contemporary photographers as a whole." Stauffer comes closer to offering a plausible interpretation of the art when he writes, "these images offer an antidote to the loss of faith in transcendence and to the over-rehearsed axioms that God is dead and that there is no autonomous self." Also there's mention of a curious fact, that many of the pictures are reworkings of some of Stivers's first photographic negatives.
Stivers seems to be dealing with abstract ideas: while in fact his photographs have mundane names such as "Wooden head, 1997," one could easily imagine them conceptual names: Anxiety, Death, Loss, Grief, Quiet, Pain, Vengeance, Solitude, Beauty, Despair, Absurdity, and so on. Indeed, his photographs would make wonderful album covers for music by gloomy goths or electronic ambient artists. If I ever publish any of the books I'm thinking of writing, I'd be pleased to have a picture by Stivers used on the book jacket--it would give a book a sense of class and portent.
While I am no expert on the printing process, it looks as if the original negatives probably were in focus, and the fuzziness and distortion of these images was introduced in the production process. He has erased the identity of the people, statues, and buildings he photographed. This is most obvious in "Woman with face covered, 1999." Probably her face was not covered when her picture was taken, but rather Stivers covered it after. Similarly, in "Bust of woman (R), 2000" is looks like he has photographically gouged out her eyes, so to speak, leaving dark holes in her head. There are no seeing eyes here, and no speaking mouths. Few of the faces have any clear emotional expression -- in one of the few where the features of the face are visible, "BIF ( female nude, M), 1999," a woman sits on a chair with her head tilted back, mouth open, and her limbs hanging loosely as if she was really a lifeless doll, although the beauty and healthiness of her body jump out at the viewer to contradict any visual suggestion of death. That cannot be an oversight or mistake: Stivers seems to love beauty, despite his fascination with the themes of existentialist despair: the only ugly image is of the wooden head, which looks like a dead decaying baby or an alien from a bad horror movie.
In short, this work by Stivers does express a combination of life and death: sensual pleasure corrupted by a dread of the horror of life, and a struggle to find meaning in the void of experience. Although, even now in my thirties, I feel the philosophical pressure of the fragility of the meaning of life as keenly now as I did as a depressed adolescent, it nevertheless seems tired and pointless to express this form of angst these days, especially since it has been done so much already. Stivers comes close to falling into a trap of boring angst, but he manages to save himself through the mixture of emotions in his images. What makes this work by Stivers interesting and even satisfying is his ability to create tension and mutual dependence between serenity and despair.
All images © Copyright 2000 Arena Editions. From Robert Stivers: Listening to Cement
Text © 2000 Christian Perring, First Serial Rights.
Robert Stivers' website.