The Tumult of Vision

The terrain we bodily inhabit stretches out before us, a multidimensional field pulsing with vaguely sensed elements that steadily vie with one another for our attentions. As we move through the land, our senses are drawn to first one, then another thing, and yet another. We shift our focus among various aspects of the visual field — a broken fence, a far-off cliff, a crow swerving onto a near branch — and in this manner the scape lures us out of ourselves, each of us weaving our awareness into the terrain in a unique way. But when someone’s camera has already done all the focusing for us, flattening the ambiguous allurement of the distances and the immediacy of nearby objects onto a single, static plane, then our sensing and sentient bodies no longer have much choice in how to insinuate themselves within the scene. Our senses withdraw; we become spectators. In a culture inundated by photographs, nature readily becomes scenery — a pretty something we look at, rather than an enveloping and dangerous mystery we peer into, trying to fathom what waits just beyond the near hill.

Painters have long experimented with ways to invite the corporeal participation of the viewer. The vehement brushstrokes left on the canvas, the dabs of pigment awaiting organization by the viewer’s eye, the cubist distortions of a face or a landscape, all provoke an active engagement with the image. I had thought, however, that such an invitation to participate, perceptually, in the life of the thing imaged was simply impossible for photography, precluded by the precision of the camera’s shutter-blink and the mechanical nature of the medium. It is a prejudice that was abruptly wrecked by my encounter with the photographs of Matthew Chase-Daniel.

Each of Chase-Daniel’s landscapes opens a world — but not a world one can simply look at. His creations contain multiple foci that beckon our gaze, and we viscerally feel the manifold tension of their divergent summons whenever we meet one of these large works face to face (two feet by three feet is a typical size). Inevitably our eyes are drawn down into some particular center, or frame, within the overall image: a lichen-encrusted stone, a sea cucumber, a standing wave. Yet whichever center draws our focus refuses to settle into a stable or static quiescence, for it’s held open (and hence alive) by the vague allurement of the other centers arrayed on its periphery. It is not only that these other frames threaten to steal our focus away from the one that currently grips us, but also that this very center we’re now pondering impels us, by various lines of association, toward other frames throughout the image. For although these are photomontages (or as Chase-Daniel calls them, photo-assemblages) they are made up of precisely glimpsed images from the same earthly locale, gathered on the same day and often within moments of one another, usually from a similar vantage. And for this reason alone, each intimately focused element alludes to every other element within the assemblage (each inhabitant of the ecosystem tacitly entangled with all the other constituents of the place).

It is we, the viewers, who enact this dynamic composition of elements into a living whole. The imaged landscape comes alive only as our focus slides from one center to another, and then leaps to yet another — swooping up from the foreground seaweed to a far-off wave or a tumult of cloud, then diving back, drawn by the way the water gushing out of a sea anemone invokes the swirl of those clouds, or the way the reticulated white crust on a pink starfish echoes the pale lattice of foam on the ocean’s surface. As we weave our own attention, spiderlike, into the complex of images, the whole assemblage quietly begins to breathe. We find ourselves no longer outside the frame, but carnally enfolded within a seascape that heaves and hisses all around us, or standing knee-deep in a river surging toward us out of the thickets — cottonwood and willow leaves bumping into our legs and floating past. Each leaf, each urchin or clumped stone tugs upon the periphery of our awareness, and each rewards our answered scrutiny by climbing into crisp focus, compelling our absorption even as the other creaturely centers slip back into the surge or quietude of the big assemblage we call nature.

The active seeing vigorously provoked by these works sometimes drags other senses into the encounter; we may feel our ears assailed by the gurgle of water, our nostrils tweaked by the dusky scent of forest mushrooms. Sometimes Chase-Daniel offers us an anchor, a still point in the churning world whereon to rest our gaze: a naked child sits, wave-washed, in the central frame, around which the ocean crashes and whirls through nineteen studies of turbulence in water and rock. In another work, the intricately cracked clay of a parched desert valley has been transformed into a celestial mirror by fresh rain, and as the clouds part to reveal the clarified blue, a solitary stone, blood red, rests among leopard-spot patterns in the mud.

Other works, however, enact a simple equivalence among the frames, evoking a collector’s cabinet of curiosities or a naturalist’s specimen-box, filled here with an array of wild mushrooms or there with a beach’s calm offerings. Even in such works, where the isolating frame around each element seems to provide a kind of repose, we’re still compelled to participate, to make our own way through the whimsy and weirdness of a world that includes us, yet always exceeds us. The multiple and heterogeneous foci of Chase-Daniel’s montages force our gaze to dance and delve among them, shaking our eyes free from their slumber, tempting our senses back into the proliferating thickets of the real.

David Abram is an American philosopher, cultural ecologist, and performance artist, best known for his work bridging the philosophical tradition of phenomenology with environmental and ecological issues. He is the author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010) and The Spell of Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (1996), for which he received, among other prizes, the international Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction. Abram is founder and creative director of the Alliance of Wild Ethics (AWE); his essays on the cultural causes and consequences of ecological disarray have appeared often in such journals as OrionEnvironmental Ethics, ParabolaTikkun, and The Ecologist, as well as numerous anthologies.