Linda Salerno: the Seductive Games of Photography

Klaus Honnef

One of art’s secrets is the art of seduction. Everything else will turn up. Once attention has been aroused, it is all about tying up the eye. Success decides whether seduction will last beyond the ephemeral moment of the first lure.  The longer and more intense the seduction, the more likely that the object of seduction will cross the threshold into art – independent of changeable ideas of what a certain era and society may consider as art.  Art differs from non-art, from advertising and spectacle in that seduction proves lasting and finds fulfillment in contemplation.

When looking for the first time at Linda Salerno’s group of works  “Black Mirror” – which have not been publicly shown until now – one feels an irresistible draw, without being instantly able to explain why. They exude an unearthly power, and this power awakens the desire to penetrate the images’ surface; to dive into the world obviously unfolding behind it.

Like all artists of note, Linda Salerno seduces.  She is, of course, a female artist. But – paraphrasing a much-quoted sentence by the painter Ad Reinhardt – art is art, no matter its author’s gender, and everything else is everything else. On the other hand, with her images Salerno demonstrates convincingly that art – according to a less frequently quoted sentence by Joseph Kosuth – doesn’t exclusively define itself as art in a kind of self-insemination process. Works of art are – depending on the cultural environment – sometimes more, sometimes less self-oriented and follow a logic that creates its building blocks from within.   Works of art, however, also have repercussions on the outside. They don’t only affect other images but also the image that people make of their world.

Even though such a proposition contradicts modern theories, art might be, in fact, a variation of magic  –  at least in the sense that the great ethnologist Marcel Mauss understood the phenomenon of magic as an “idea of pure effectiveness, which is simultaneously a material, localizable, yet also spiritual substance, working through distance but also  through direct connection, if not through touch; mobile and moving, without movement, impersonal while clothed in personal forms, divisible and continuous.”

Pure reality  – simultaneously material, local, and spiritual, working through distance even as it is as close as a touch – is the most fitting way to describe the world that Linda Salerno realizes in her pictures. In the act of continuous perception seeming contradictions dissolve.  And what sounds complicated is a complex matter, after all.

With the pictorial technique challenges arise.  Seemingly based on photography, they are not, however, photographic images. The technical medium just supplies a comparatively minor contribution –  paint in her pictures has  more weight, factually and conceptually.  Unfinished paintings have entered into her pictures, sometimes drawings, too, like those culled from natural science books and the 19th-century fashion journal Le moniteur de la mode.  But her pictures are not paintings, just as they are not photographs: the element of performance, represented as images of dance, should not be forgotten — the element of movement. Found things mingle with those of her making. Glimpses of fabrics, a dress, a scarf, a skirt, and in the end these pictures technically owe their existence to the means of light projection as well as the most advanced printing processes.

Mixed media would therefore be the most suitable term for apostrophizing her pictorial technique. Montage is the dominating artistic principle:  the method of layering into the depth of the picture plane. Transparent picture skins melt into partly opaque ones. The quality of something that has been made (physically created) crosses over the illusionary. But these terms only refer to the material substance. Especially enlightening they are not.  At least not in a way that detailed knowledge about the individual steps of the technical process could open a plausible path to Linda Salerno’s pictures. Because the artist doesn’t even care about the significant aspects of the respective techniques. On the contrary. Instead she combines the most different techniques and methods to such a degree that she in fact cancels out their respective technical identities. Painterly streaks appear as photographic rain drops while photographed leaves and flowers seem like painted impressions; the drawn illustrations of animals materialize like mysterious messengers from horror movies; foreground and background constantly switch positions and undermine the constructive lack of ambiguity of conventional photographic images. The space pulsates. No sooner is one able to optically fixate something than it blurs again – approaching by way of technique rather obstructs than opens the path.

Only visual perception leads us further. Required, however, is a kind of optical perception that has preserved  a sensitivity for tactile qualities; a feeling for the different textures of skin, fabrics, hair, leaves, flowers, stones, dust, butterfly wings and fish scales — a feeling that dissolves into the process of seeing. A kind of perception furthermore, that unconditionally submits to the adventure of seeing and while seeing constantly strives to free itself from the involuntary habits of sight. That requires the viewer’s willingness to take risks as well as to mount resistance against the unrelenting temptation to force what can only be experienced sensually into the Prokrustes bed of rational understanding. Once again: Linda Salerno seduces. Her pictures refrain from provocation and shock. Still, they are subversive: they neither serve the clichés of contemporary art nor those of popular images.

To the degree that the eye glides into Linda Salerno’s visual universe it will get lost, almost imperceptibly, as soon as one has succumbed to the first impulse of seduction. The eye wanders around, feeling its way like a diver from apparition to apparition.  It seems as if one had entered an enchanted realm, strange and foreign, but still familiar. And the most significant thing about this universe is its almost protean changeability. Even while we look what we see seems to be changing. The swinging skirt of a dress unexpectedly turns into an outspread butterfly wing, or a departing figure disappears in a sphere of light, colors and spots. Occasionally color only crystallizes into color during the process of seeing.

It is as if one looked into a transparent river and the eyes could neither behold its depth nor fixate on its place nor on the things romping between the flowing surface and the riverbed. The material substance of the pictures becomes transparent, opening toward the dimension of time. In reality, though, the pictures are static, firmly placed within the confines of the frame. But the frame also emphasizes and intensifies the dynamic simulation, forming the lines along which the viewer’s imagination unfurls and rolls up the movement. That is why their format is a decisive factor for the pictures’ suggestive effect; their size averages 30 by 40 inches, or approximately into 76 by 101 centimeters. Not coincidentally, their format is oblong, with just one exception. Falling short of that size, the magic that results from the moment of incomprehensibility, diminishes. The eye suddenly discovers structures that lead it to believe in the possibility of order and orientation but these structures don’t keep their promise.

This open, multi-focal, and accelerated space corresponds with the special composition of time in the artist’s pictures.  The dimension of time also appears as a conglomerate. Just as the most disparate objects cross over within the set of individual visual motifs, different planes of time are also woven in. Decades reach over and overlap. Different forms of visual perception attach to them, and that kind of temporal layering within the picture’s formal structure simultaneously reflects the historical conditioning of all seeing: it constantly changes. An elegantly dressed female figure, dancing or hurrying along, holds it all together.

Linda Salerno gives her gestalt photographic shape. Concrete: the artist is physically present in these images – while de facto absent. Photography’s game! The transfer from the body and the material creates an imprint, the trace of a former presence. Only the trace is visible; sometimes more markedly, at other times almost absorbed by the jungle of incomprehensibility. The fact that she presents herself mostly as a figure seen from the back, less frequently from the side and once in half profile makes one hesitate to call these pictures self-portraits. The artist is as much her model as the landscapes, buildings, bushes, trees, flowers, leaves, the sea, fishes and butterflies from books are her subjects. But she avoids what distinguishes a portrait from a picture of an arbitrary person: psychology and physiognomy. Neither does she fulfill a portrait’s false demand for authentic representation, for a coming out from behind the mask of the exterior. On the other hand, almost every detail in these pictures relates more or less intensely to the artist’s life, to her origins, her emotions, as well as to pictures she realized before the  “Black Mirror” series. Her family comes form Calabria. They made a living by producing textiles. Threatened with poverty and unemployment they emigrated to the USA, but returned. Linda Salerno stayed in New York as a painter. Beyond that, the world in the pictures of “Black Mirror” is totally subjective; an amalgam of reality, dreams, and projection.

Linda Salerno opens the eye for a scenario of the fantastic. Involuntarily and irresistibly, the background figure pulls in the viewer. A whiff of melancholy is caught in this world. Laments of the irretrievable losses of life mix with the sense of an elated and inexplicable lightness.  In a palace revolution, the reality of poetry takes over the regime of painting. This cannot – and should not – be understood.

“If you don’t feel it, you will never catch it,” says Faust in Goethe’s drama of the same title to Wagner, the dust-dry science assistant.

Translated from German by Claudia Steinberg