Within Nathan Vass’ show Present Perfect at Gallery 110, extraordinary images of approximations of memories and places line the gallery’s walls. Through many of Vass’ prints, certain details and artifacts evince analogue photography, a medium associated with transience, representations of the world, and the human touch. Although the images feature specific locales, Vass’ photos underline visceral experiences and memories rather than reproductions of the landscape itself. Present Perfect invites viewers to interrogate the past that continues to impact our present and the emotive potency of the ephemera.
Kevin Pham: What do you want visitors to understand from your pieces in Present Perfect?
Nathan Vass: Facetiously, I try to make pictures people will look at for longer than 5 seconds! More truthfully, I hope that visitors have an emotional rather than an intellectual response, that the works collectively invite them to slow down, to look and feel with greater attention than usual. Krzysztof Kieslowski, who strove to make films for viewers “sensitive to emotion,” says such people are not limited to age or social groups but “can be found among the intelligentsia, among workers, among the unemployed, among students.” In other words, everybody.
The images seek to meet the boundary of the known and the unknown, to reach beyond the quantifiable, and touch the mystery we know life contains. If art is the only profession that explores what it means to live, art does so by asking questions. I hope the viewer is confronted with questions they don’t normally ask, questions that transcend language. As Milan Kundera writes, “Only the most naïve of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers.”
KP: Could you talk more about the subject matter in the show?
NV: Without realizing it, the spaces I chose to depict here are all places where I’ve had intense lived experiences —proximity to a terrorist attack; finding beauty during a desperate situation in my life; the site of a difficult personal milestone before I knew it would be such; or something simpler but no less potent when first experienced, like completing an important journey or finding one’s own connection to a familiar space. I’m trying to immerse myself in the size and totality of the present moment, and capture it on film.
The images are frequently of far-flung cities, because I find the act of experiencing new countries alone to be intensely immersive, the closest we can get to the overwhelming sense stimuli of early childhood, and interacting with my surroundings in such moments with only the camera, without language, feels appropriate.
KP: What attracted you to this specific technique of cross processing?
NV: The human eye is drawn to the point of highest contrast, and cross-processing is the method which generates the most contrasty images in existence. Cross-processing refers to developing positive (that is, slide) film in chemistry intended for negative film. It’s a volatile, unpredictable process that results in high contrast and unusual colors, many of which are well outside the digital color gamut. In terms of both method and result, cross-processing is as analog as analog film can get. I like using film to achieve what only film can do, or do best, and cross-processing is one of the techniques representing this for me. Multiple exposure is another — on film it attains a painterly quality only achievable in that medium.
KP: What is your general philosophy towards artmaking?
NV: Creativity requires boredom, stillness, to exist. We can’t generate creatively if we’re always inundating ourselves with stimuli. I take time to feel a place before photographing it, and wait until I have something to say before making a film. I find myself endlessly confounded by existence, and am almost constantly involved in making art around this theme. There is so much in life to wonder and marvel at, and it’s all presented to us without meaning.
We humans seek desperately to understand things, to ask why. Why does there appear to be order in the universe sometimes but not other times? All religions and philosophies are attempts to answer this question, and I would argue it’s the primary focus of the best art as well. Art, unlike religion and philosophy, is liberated in not having to provide answers; it can simply engage, ask questions, and bear witness, which is often all we can do ourselves. Victor Hugo writes the following about travel, which is how I feel about art: “Such scenes are sometimes sufficient for the soul, and almost do away with thought. To see a thousand objects for the first and for the last time; what can be deeper and more melancholy? To travel is to be born and die at every instant.”
Gertrude Stein writes about how the artist has a responsibility to offer hope, not despair — people can find despair all by themselves. Hope requires more effort. Life sometimes appears to be primarily a series of struggles. I try to make art that envelopes this truth with additional perspectives, something closer to hope.
Nathan Vass’ show Present Perfect is currently on view through Saturday, July 29th (7/29) at Gallery 110, located at 110 3rd Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104. The show will have its closing reception on July 29th (7/29) from 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM. And feel free to purchase a copy of Nathan’s book, The Lines at Make Us (2019 WA State Book Award Finalist) at any book retailer online or in-store.