New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 41 October 23 to 29, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

The Axis of Time
John Houck
A History of Graph Paper

Photo by John Houck . Source: John Houck, "Peg and John" 2013

Who knew that graph paper had a history? John Houck calls his photographs "A History of Graph Paper," at On Stellar Rays through October 27, but he does not label the horizontal axis as time.

The bare grid identifies his sheets of graph paper with formalist painting, from back when "anecdotal" was the worst insult that one could bring. With torn envelopes, it is the distinct lining of each that must serve to describe its sender and addressee. Yet they tell of their own coming together as a photograph, a process begun well before Houck snapped the shutter. For Houck, paper serves as its own data point.

Photo by John Houck . Source: John Houck, "Stamp -X, Stamp -Y" 2013

One may not think of process painting when it comes to still-life. There objects of desire are depicted to fool the senses, on the way to a moral or a work of art. From the details of this world, painters from as long ago as Jan van Eyck offered a glimpse of something more lasting. For Jan Vermeer or Jean-Siméon Chardin, drips would be out of place. For Paul Cézanne or Pablo Picasso, a tabletop comes with its own traces, alternatives, and corrections, but to trip up the illusion of a moment in time.

As for photography, Houck does not seem on the surface to be doctoring things. He composes with graph paper as with everything else—up against the picture plane. A sheet rests in its own envelope on the wall, with no need for Photoshop to suspend it above the ground. It belongs naturally in a studio, if more for a draftsman than a photographer. But, Houck devotes an entire photograph to compasses, protractors, and pencils. Oh, and batteries, for his work also involves software and an ink-jet printer.

He speaks of "aggregate photographs," a process of repetition and aggregation. He saves things, from those weathered tools of Euclidean geometry to the elements of geometric abstraction, to a life. Houck also creates images from nothing, on the computer, and combines them as he sees fit.

Photo by John Houck . Source: John Houck, "Pointing Device" 2013

Euclid's elements depend on "one thing after another," in a logical sequence, quite as much as the elements of Minimalism do for Sol LeWitt. These photographs are models of reality, reflections of their surroundings, and extensions of who is looking. They also hint at the private life that they refuse to display. The business cards, I presume, belong to his wife. In the process, they bury the traces of their own production, but that, too, speaks to the Houck's obsessions. The press release identifies repetition and inquiry with psychotherapy, and I assume that he keeps his studio clean and well-organized. Somebody is sure to disrupt it with further traces all the same.

The show could easily become a lecture in Post-Structuralism — a good ten years after it has lost its vigor. (Not that ideas have to depend on fashion.) It helps that Houck really does invoke still-life and trompe l'oeil, all while undermining the claim of photography to a science. He may even, for those who like Postmodernism's mind games, fool the eye into seeing photographs as paintings that fool the eye. And he does it without losing the enigma of the personal or, conversely, the clarity of late Modernism. I could use one to solve the other, but then I would need a pencil, an eraser, and some graph paper.

John Houck
A History of Graph Paper

On Stellar Rays
1 Rivington St.
Lower Manhattan - East         Map

212 598 3012

Sunday, September 8 to
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Hours: Wed - Sat, 11 to 6; Sun, 12 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat