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The Realization of a Possibility:
The Urban Asia Photographs of Kirk Pedersen

By Jeff Brouws
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The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.1
-Susan Sontag, On Photography


We will call 'Moment' the attempt to achieve the total realization of a possibility. Possibility offers itself; and it reveals itself. It is determined and consequently it is limited and partial. Therefore to wish to live it as a totality is to exhaust it as well as to fulfill it. The moment wants to be freely total: it exhausts itself in the act of being lived.2
-Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 2


As I coax these few first words onto my computer screen, the artist Kirk Pedersen is high over the ocean; a 12hour transpacific flight will alter his time - space continuum just enough to set the tone, and act as a prelude to, further dramatic cultural and attitudinal shifts that await him when he lands in Tokyo. The twelve pilgrimages, made over the last four years, take him out of his "everyday" life as a professor of painting and transport him into the unknown. With a whimsical, Buddhist - like attitude, Pedersen drops into unfamiliar territory, and without prejudice democratically embraces everything in his purview as he walks the streets of Asian cities, his cadenced meandering reminiscent of Baudelaire's flaneur, part participant, part observer, looking for visual sustenance for his camera.3

His hungry eye captures all the collisions of culture found within the built environment in places like Shanghai and Phnom Penh; his curiosity and lust for what social theorist Walter Benjamin termed erfahrung4 (a new, more meaningful form of lived experience), manifest themselves in the choices he makes about where he goes and what he frames photographically. Pedersen sees the camerawork he does (on this self - generated project, whose beginning can be traced back to 1985 when he began working on a series of urban paintings), as playing a key role in helping him understand his deep penetration of, participation in, and portrayal of the cities he roams. A synergy integrates his thought and action. While this detached - yet engaged dialectic could have sociological or anthropological meaning, in the main Pedersen sees himself more a "botanist of the sidewalk" - to coin another descriptive phrase from Baudelaire - as he shifts through and records the transitions and "everyday" life there, the "as-is" - ness, of present time Asia. This all before major economic forces forever reshape and reweave the urban fabric found within the spatial schema of these cityscapes.

He's motivated to go to these places because he's attracted to a certain kind of heterogeneity that doesn't replicate in American culture; he wishes to escape from our nationalized homogeneity. To drop into the far Pacific, as he potently reminded me during a recent interview, "is to move from American spaces characterized by uptight uniformity and ritualization, to urban space that still embraces randomness, chance, and unmediated moments of recklessness." This manifests as a sensation of psychological expansiveness, of life being living in unfettered and unpredictable modalities - qualities he can no longer locate back in the United States.

* * * *

His viewpoint is that of the traveler not the tourist: he shies away from any culturally sanctioned sites that might be found in guide books or copies ofNational Geographic, and instead seeks out those neighborhoods that are areas the culture - tourist industry routinely edits into non - existence. The local inhabitants often laugh at what Pedersen shoots: "why would anyone take a picture of that?" (see p. 22) their broad smiles of simultaneous indifference and understanding seem to say. Thus engaged with this "choreography of the street" - as found in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Shinjuku and Shenyang - Pedersen doesn't wait for permission or the "decisive" moment; he takes a photo despite sometimes being confronted by a local chagrin, and strolls on (see p. 57). He steps into the flow of life with attuned observational ease and extracts snippets from that current, figuring that whatever is "presenting" before his camera is worthy of contemplation.

These are the unmediated, gritty urban spaces where anything can happen and does. Pedersen relates a humorous story of seeing a collision between two motorcyclists one day at a crowded intersection (don't think of our American notion of "crowded"; think instead of the busiest midtown Manhattan intersection and ratchet that up to the tenth power). Anyway: two motorcyclists collide, fall to the pavement. There are bruises; there are scraps; a few fenders bent; there might even be a minor injury. Instead of a brouhaha boiling up as you might expect - where police arrive and the flashing lights of rushing emergency vehicles converge on the scene - the two accident participants pick their scooters up, dust themselves off, decide not much has happened, assume a personal responsibility, and resume their journeys. Pedersen stood dumb - founded, marveling at how the spectacle lapsed into non - spectacle, becoming instead (to the observer) just another theatricality glimpsed from the streaming "everyday" of Phnom Penh.5 Such prosaic, yet - not - prosaic transactions are the allure of these places for Pedersen and represent the visual possibilities he mines in the moments passing before his lens.

* * * *

Pedersen was born in the Sand Hills of Nebraska in the town of Broken Bow in 1959, an isolated yet expansive terrain of high prairie situated in north - central Nebraska. One wonders what affect this desolate landscape had upon his developing aesthetic sensibilities. He started painting at age 9 and photographing at age 11. The first subjects to arrest his attention were abandoned farm buildings that were tending toward entropy; fragments of a prairie culture eroding away. These he rendered as representational paintings. Whether these physical remnants in the landscape suggested transition, or were structures that simply pique his aesthetic curiosity - we can't know for sure. His lifetime involvement with abstraction, the discontinuous, and the random patterning of everyday life might favor the latter supposition; but as all photographs (or all art objects for that matter) are polysemic sign vehicles, both notions could be simultaneously true. He saw the dilapidated buildings as signifiers of cultural change (not loss - an important distinction); this fascinated him too, but probably wasn't a conscious part of the art making at the beginning of his career. The major aesthetic thrust of the work going forward would focus on these kinds of transitional spaces, hovering in that arena where the idea of "flux" presents itself most clearly.

He has chosen to spend much of his career excavating these zones. They represent sites of struggle and contestation - struggles that comprise and infiltrate all aspects of living - from his own artistic production ("to render meaning in the face of the unknown" as he has said6), to the blunt realities, when looking at the Asia photographs, urban dwellers face as they engage and try to understand the technological and environmental transitions occurring. Clearly, he makes these images, in the past and present, as visual explorations that certify these belief systems.

* * * *

During a stint at a small liberal arts college near Omaha, he began moving away from a painterly - realism style to one evidencing a tighter photo - realist control, and started making large paintings of ice cubes. He took up the challenge of photo - realism (which was already a decade into its ascendancy in American art), and found inspiration in the work of Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle and Ralph Goings.

Three years into his studies, he moved to Tempe to complete his undergraduate work at Arizona State University; at this stage he also became enthralled with the work of California painter Joseph Raffael, who did natural subjects like water lilies and ponds. Kirk started painting palm fronds, and close up details of plants and other vegetation, because of this exposure to Raffael.

From Arizona he ventured to Hawaii in 1982, stayed about a year, continuing to paint tropical subjects. However, island fever set in; he needed to see the mainland, feel a continent beneath, a landmass horizon stretching before him. He moved to San Francisco to attend graduate school in 1983, where a two - year immersive experience with the painter, Robert Bechtle at San Francisco State University paved the way for his present path. At S.F.S.U. he was still doing tropical subjects, but Bechtle - a pivotal influence in his development - suggested he look at the work of contemporary painters, explore the expressiveness of New York graffiti and perhaps start thinking about everyday elements as possible subject matter. Under the sway of his mentor and these myriad influences, Pedersen's style loosened up in an intellectual and emotional way; the physicality with which he approached and attacked the canvas shifted as well.

Taking Bechtle's advice about the banal to heart, he began utilizing his observational skills. Ever the wanderer and watcher, Pedersen started examining the commonplace directly before him in literal fashion. A palm plant, growing in a concrete planter near the street curb outside the entrance to his apartment, arrested his attention. He liked the juxtaposition of the gray pavement, sand - colored curb, blue shadow, and green foliage. Acting on an intuitive whim and recognizing that he had been living in the city for sometime, he began a series of breakthrough paintings. The first canvas contained all the elements listed above; the next one eliminated the plant, the next one the shadow, with the final canvas a fully formed rendering of just the curb. This important group of paintings - in some sense a series about negation that evolved into (personal) liberation - would redirect his art - making endeavors forever. Now the stripping away of natural elements to reveal the man - made underpinnings of our constructed world would be where he aimed his focus. With his course delineated and principle subject matter defined, he set about the task over the next twenty years of bringing his vision into a clarifying maturity. The eighty images in this present monograph ring with an authority that proves he has succeeded admirably.

* * * *

The wall gives its voice to that part of man which, without it, would be condemned to silence... the remainder of a primitive existence of which the wall might be of the most faithful mirrors.7 Brassai


In 2004 he went to Thailand and Cambodia, a trip unrelated to his art career. While walking idly about one day he found himself in front of wall. An epiphany occurred: he would do a project on urban environments in Asia. The visual complexity was so much greater here than other places he'd been - the population and architectural density, the juxtaposition of disparate elements (see p. 53), the overlapping and overlaying of history and advertising. All of it, as expressed on walls and street corners, acted as palimpsests representing hidden cultural machinations: on - going struggle; new against old; ancient vs. modern; and stasis vs. transition (see p. 35). These disparate elements collided in a way that awakened his artistic impulse. He had to act and in a new way: instead of making photographs that would later be converted to paintings in the studio (as he had done in the past), this new body of work would rely solely on photographic means.

While his latest Urban Asia work had its genesis in the camera, the images ironically are grounded in a deep connection to the abstract expressionist tradition and reference painters like Franz Kline (see p. 4). They're also connected to the compositional and formal concerns of Richard Diebenkorn (see p. 5), not to mention the surface spaces of Wilhelm De Kooning. While the history of photography has never figured heavily into his practice - only lately has Pedersen started looking at the work of other photographers with any serious intentionality - he does mention Aaron Siskind (see pp. 43, 45, 52) and Walker Evans as early visual touchstones. The images contained in Urban Asia are classically organized and reflect this lineage of influence; the structure and formalism inherent in Pedersen's work predominates (a nod to Kline and Diebenkorn), with the frame and the actual space of the image, a secondary but no less important consideration (De Kooning). The wall is a constant subject (as it was for Siskind); the frontal gaze, often employed by Evans, the most utilized formal strategy (see pp. 17, 24, 29 and 38). All these attributes reveal an allegiance to the surface and the two - dimensionality of the canvas (or photograph). It's not surprising, then, that Pedersen is an artist that uses photography and painting, but doesn't classify himself as either: instead he defines himself as an artist that uses these mediums to explore the world. Evans and Siskind would have also donned this postmodern appellation (artists that use photography as oppose to being just photographers) had this phraseology been part of the lingua franca of their times.

* * * *

Relying on chance and circumstance (see p. 54) he photographs on the streets for eight to ten hours every day - a disciplined modus operandi despite its unplanned nature. This simple, yet brave methodology represents for Pedersen (and helps facilitate) an ultimate encounter with the now. An art process that ties his passions for travel and photography seamlessly together, it also reflects a life philosophy integral to his way of working.

No other artist - photographer is doing exactly what he's doing. With this fluid approach, traveling from city to city with no grand theme in mind, his work is distinctly different from his contemporaries. Michael Wolf shoots exclusively in Hong Kong and China; Edward Burtynsky's extensive coverage of the Three Gorges Dam Project and other industrial sites has happened often within the territorial limits of China; and Sze Tsung Leong "history images" - scenes of rampant development and architectural spectacle - are confined to Shanghai. While they all might share continents and countries they don't share viewpoints.

Pedersen's eclectic stance creates a different photographic yield - he reclaims the commonplace and the fragmentary in these spaces/places (perhaps influenced as well by artists like Frank Thiele, see p. 31; or Chris Jordon, see pp. 6, 32 and 46) instead of recording the epic and monumental (like Burtynsky, Leong or Wolf). In fact, Pedersen isn't trying to represent the totality of any one location: this fragmentary approach, reflecting back on painterly and art - historical concerns, is more aligned to how the Surrealists chose to represent modernity - as a pastiche of symbols and signs that coalesce, often in unexpected ways.

And that's what Pedersen wants us to see: the unexpected. This is one of the simple beauties revealed to us by his endeavor and by the imagery created from that effort. With this practice he also flies in the face of contemporary photographic art - production methods that dictate artists stick to defined styles and create very homogenized bodies of work, where many images look remarkably similar. Pedersen dares to overturn and cast aside those strategies for something organic; his visual course is individualized, personal and defies categorization. This can't be bad. In a world where structural systems seem to be gaining dominance in all areas of life - locally and globally, stifling and suppressing the unique - Pedersen's photographic style rails against this standardization while he simultaneously documents urban spaces where humanity is resisting modernity as a political act; in his images action and content merge. Living, witnessing and photographing in this ontological fashion - where no separation remains for Pedersen between his art practice and existence - he asks us to step into the unexpected flow and be astonished by what can be seen. It's an invitation we should hasten to accept.


Notes
1) Susan Sontag. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1973. p. 55.
2) Henri Lefebvre. The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 2. London, New York: Verso 2002). p. 348.
3) Phone interviews conducted with Kirk Pedersen, June 11 and 12, 2008.
4) Ben Highmore. Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London, New York: Routledge 2002. See pp. 60-74, (Benjamin's Trash Aesthetics) for a complete discussion of Benjamin's concepts of erlebnis and erfahrung, as two forms that articulate "the everyday."
5) Phone interviews conducted with Kirk Pedersen, June 11 and 12, 2008.
6) Ibid.
7) The Language of the Wall: Parisian Graffiti Photographed By Brassai.
London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1958.



Copyright, Jeff Brouws, Stanfordville, New York, July 2008 Back to essays
ŠKirk Pedersen 2015