Arthur Ou: A Day of Times @Brennan & Griffin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 black and white photographs, framed in gray and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are hand tinted gelatin silver prints, made in 2016 and printed in 2017. Each is sized 60×50 and is unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Arthur Ou’s contemplative new seascapes take a fixed scene and use it to iteratively explore the subtleties of photographic time. In a series of pictures made in a single day overlooking the coastline at Point Reyes in California, he documents the movements of the shimmering water as it interacts with a rocky outcropping below, each image meticulously time stamped down to the exact minute. As the morning passes (the works on view have been selected from roughly 7:45AM to 8:30AM), the surface of the water continues to change, the in and out movement of the waves and the shifting light conditions making each image meaningfully different from even its closest relatives taken minutes before or after.

While photographic studies of the play of light across the surface of water go back to the mid 19th century, more conceptual approaches to thinking about the complex interaction of water and time have emerged repeatedly in recent decades. From Hiroshi Sugimoto’s rigidly bisected seascapes to Roni Horn’s up close images of the Thames, photographers have tried to grapple with the two extremes of timelessness and exacting specificity, using series, sequences, and repetitions to bring attention to minute differences and details that seem to embody the restless mystery of moving water.

Ou’s approach isn’t cinematic in its thinking, but more akin to the stuttering frames of stop motion animation. Visual time is sliced into discrete units that are strung together or deliberately jumbled, upending the idea of time flowing in one straight line direction. We can never be sure if the waves and ripples are moving “in” or “out” or both or just roiling around the rocks in tempestuous intersecting chaos, making it effectively impossible to determine which pictures should come “before” or “after”. The dappled light continually changes, catching the surface of the water with shifting shines and shadows, the textures becoming almost gestural, like the bumps of pounded tin.

Ou then goes one step farther, hand tinting each black and white image with a unique wash of waxed pigment. The effect is understated but it confuses the matter of time even further, as there is no correlation between time and color – blue is not necessarily morning, nor is pinky orange akin to afternoon. Each image has its own combination of gradations, the painterly colors drifting across the surface of the picture almost like wispy clouds or the symbolic representation of emotional moods, wandering into areas of stronger or softer intensity or evolving into adjacent colors. The images have been hung in loose groups of color affinities, which therefore further skews the underlying chronology. So like the tidal flows, time seems to circulate, without either an obvious beginning or end or even a dominant direction.

In the end, each work has two layers of oscillation, the transparency of the color tint interlocking it with the subtle motion in the water underneath. In some pictures, this generates quiet dissonance; in others, the two work together in more meditative harmony. Hung together in a single room, the fragments of time seem to merge together into one swirling continuum, the implied momentum of both the waves and the color washes creating a notion of experiential time that bends back on itself. Discrete time dissolves, mixing and remixing in an endless cycle of regeneration.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $12000 each. Ou’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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