The Blur of Clarity: John Monteith’s Distant Spaces

by Travis Jeppesen on November 8, 2013


A long corridor stands before us, empty save for the myriad reflections emitted from the glaze of the floor. Light and shapes foment a static yet buzzing composition through the blurred effect that seeing-through-memory often produces. When we stare at the image long enough, effectively allowing ourselves to sink into it, we find that the pictorial realism initially offered by the image no longer holds; instead, we are immersed in a realm of geometric abstractions, seemingly liberated from their three-dimensional sources. [1]

Welcome to the world of John Monteith – a world, I would argue, that actually contains a very peculiar hyper-realism that is distinct from what we normally conjure in our mind’s eye when we hear the term. For, rather than trying to persuade us of his subjects’ veracity through an amplification of their most obvious surface qualities, Monteith takes the opposite route, employing what he deems a “psychologicaly distancing” effect as a means of translating his experiences of spaces into a concise language of images – one that shows us that “reality” does not necessarily rhyme with “clarity.” 

Monteith’s two inter-related series are manifested in the form of a group of paintings titled (de)construction (re)construction and a second of photo works titled with the date, time, and address of their geographic location. The object at the center of Monteith’s ongoing practice is that very thing that cannot be represented in physical form: that is, the in-betweenness of an event itself. Bouncing back and forth from historical sites imbued with reverence and banal locales of seeming irrelevance – and juxtaposing the two in both form and content – Monteith confuses us as a means of clarifying our own expectations of what a frozen moment in space and time is meant to symbolize. What’s more, the work allows Monteith to join a legion of great traveler-recorders, such as Sir Richard Burton and Xuanzang, updating the tradition to a distinctly 21st century sensibility that is ever cognizant of the stains of history cloaking every surface to be traversed.

Framed in relation to this complimentary series are sixteen hand drawn graphite text works taken from a series of fifty that were created simultaneously with his photographs and paintings. These nouns, adjectives and titles were drawn from Monteith’s lexicon of research material representing his last five years of study of film, television and text.

Responding intuitively to the meaning Monteith ascribes to these words, he meticulously selects his font, weight and spatial arrangement in response to the formal dimensions of the paper. In some cases, the page contains its text, while in others, it does not, narrativizing an otherwise de-contextualized subject.

As we gaze upon this grid of 50 co-dependent, yet seemingly disconnected words, an internalized knowledge begins to manifest itself as we, each of us, begin to bring our own linguistic associations forward.  Viewed as individual and autonomous works beside each painting and photograph, new layers of associative meaning become affixed to each image.

A Being and The Event.


Monteith employs a similar layering technique in rendering both his photographs and paintings. In his paintings, two identical painted layers are placed on top of one another then, shifted into the correct composition. From there, he brings out the shapes that emerge in hybrid form as a result of the layering, shapes native to neither of the originals, creating a third reality no less real than its sources. [2]

In constructing his photographs Monteith first captures up to one hundred unique yet virtually identical images taken over a span of time. From these he then layers one upon the other, reducing the opacity of each photograph, rendering each image virtually invisible. As one hundred images are layered together, the photograph reconstitutes itself in the form of an atmospheric composite.

The two series resulting from these experiments look radically distinct from one another, as though the work of two different artists. “Concrete” versus “abstract” imagery: This is but one of the conflicting tendencies one discovers in Monteith’s work. In some ways, the series’ distinct styles reflect one of the central canonical crises that gave rise to Modernism in the visual arts: the invention of the camera, which allowed for a realism “more authentic” than any that a painting could possibly offer up, and thus gave rise to abstraction in the painterly realm. For Monteith, this is spelled out not only in the clear formal restraints exercised in the works’ execution, but in his identificatory choices. This conflict resolves itself by forcing us to reflect back upon our own habits of perception, arriving at the discomfiting awareness that vision is oftentimes dissociative. [3]

Monteith claims that the identity of the spaces captured in the (de)construction (re)construction paintings remain of secondary concern – they are banal spaces; stairways, hallways, interstial spaces operating as architectural voids – whereas the identity of the spaces in the photographs are defined – not by name, but by their specific street addresses. The artist gives away a little bit, but not too much; he doesn’t want to tell us what we’re seeing, he respects the autonomy of his images too much, giving us enough information to go out and find these precise locales on our own, if we are so adventurous.

Far from being “innocent” banal empty interiors, all of the spaces captured are tied to troubling aspects of history which have been repurposed in an effort, if not to erase their origins, then to revise their histories, keeping in line with neo-liberal Western ideals of “progress.” A massive airport constructed by the Nazis to dazzle the masses with Teutonic invention and accomplishment, now an empty space available for rent as a convention hall; South Vietnam’s former presidential palace, now a symbol of the Communist North’s triumph, and a museum open to the public; a tearoom in a highway rest stop just south of Pyongyang, North Korea, as bereft of visitors as the surrounding highway is of traffic.

What use is this knowledge, other than it feeding our tendency to narrativize each photographic image our eyes consume? An attempt to map the work on spatio-temporal coordinates proves a fascinating exercise. Interestingly, the artist insists at one point that the paintings “reflect a collapse of space, whereas the photographs relate more to time.” [4] The original architects could have no idea what history would do to their spaces; hence, architecture’s vulnerability to time. Such mappings become troubled, of course, in that the photographs are very much about particular spaces, which Monteith himself is willing to admit. But the particularities of the spaces break down in the (de)construction (re)construction series, which is really about the impossibility of fomenting a stable identity for any place – just as there is no such thing as a stable identity for any human being. We are like objects – mobile objects, vehicles, in that we are forever transforming inwardly and outwardly, while simultaneously being propelled through time and space.

In discussing his conception of deterritorialization, conceived with Felix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze once stated bluntly that it is not how one occupies a space that is interesting, but the way in which one enters and exits it. [5] The photographs and paintings Monteith has “left behind,” as it were, are the signs of that coming and going. The memory of a lived event lingers onwards, or perhaps doesn’t, in the mind of the artist; it belongs to him alone, and can never be fully reproduced through any means: this is why, as Beckett famously stated, [6] every artist must come to accept the burden of failure weighing down on such endeavors: the work can thus be considered as instances of reconciliation. Much like the Impressionist painter memorializes his experience of landscape with a redaction of color through the filter of emotion, Monteith projects his preservations of repurposed historic buildings into an architectural ideality. Free from the constraints of definition, the blurred contours of the objects seen in the photographs drift into weightless ahistoric modalities: the associational, the “purely visual.”

But not only visual. The blurred effect deployed in the photos, which are often reminiscent of Thomas Struth’s nostalgia-inducing architectural trips, causes the eye to strain – a physical process that impels a psychological after-effect: the photos radiate a kind of melancholy through the distancing produced by the layering process. Far from the nostalgia typically promised by the postcard memento, Monteith’s photographs transport us to lonely spaces where any trace of human inhabitance could only be a disruptive force. The poignancy of these spaces lies in the impossible autonomy with which they have been momentarily imbued – artificial though it may be, its very artifice inflects the image with a reality very much its own.

So the “distancing” achieved by the works make total sense: We can have neither the actual lived experience of the author, nor occupy his space of memory. What we are getting is a third thing, the work, which must bear the traces of the former two. There is a great pact of trust that must be signed if we are to accept the images in these photographs. And for the paintings, even more so.

Here, distancing takes on a wholly aggressive stance, as any identificatory measures are completely erased. We must avoid the natural tendency to mistake the paintings as distorted reflections of the concrete imagery we see in the photographs. Nor are they blown-up and repurposed details taken from the photos. We must deal with them head-on in their ghostly autonomy. If the photos are eerily lacking in human presence, the paintings in (de)construction (re)construction are, in more than one sense, unreadable. Or are they?

Monteith has described the paintings’ composition as a process nearly akin to two-dimensional sculptural collage. As though to emphasize this inherent sculptural quality, Monteith has mounted them to cut white plexi, which allows them to float when hung on the wall; thus, upon seeing them in the exhibition space, the effect is one of floating. This exacerbates the paintings’ content, which, like that of the photos, is architectural. Taken from photographs of shadows and interstitial spaces, the paintings effectively alter whatever space they’re displayed in while simultaneously training our eyes to those seemingly unimportant contours of the unexemplary spaces we occupy in our day-to-day lives.

At the same time, though their subject is shadow, the technique employed seems to cull from the very origin of photography – the notion of “drawing with light” – effectively uniting the artist’s “painting” and “photographic” practices. Interestingly, as Susan Sontag notes, Henry Fox Talbot arrived at one of the earliest inventions of the photographic technique through his wish to engage on a deeper level with the spaces he came across in his travels.

In his book of photographs The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), Fox Talbot relates that the idea of photography came to him in 1833, on the Italian Journey that had become obligatory for Englishmen of inherited wealth like himself, while making some sketches of the landscape at Lake Como. Drawing with the help of a camera obscura, a device which projected the image but did not fix it, he was led to reflect, he says, “on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the camera throws upon the paper” and to wonder “if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably.” The camera suggested itself to Fox Talbot as a new form of notation whose allure was precisely that it was impersonal – because it recorded a “natural” image; that is, an image which comes into being “by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil.” [7]

Just as one cannot really separate space from time, it is impossible to distinguish the painterly and photographic impulses at play in John Monteith’s work; similarly, one cannot measure how much has been left to chance in his juxtapositions and to what degree they have been composed. What’s exemplary is the extent to which, through a seemingly simple compositional process, the paintings capture the essence of movement, becoming a metaphysical projection of the roving agency that captured them.

And so it is that there is nothing obscure about the blurred images that John Monteith has culled from his vast and ever evolving archive. Whether we ever get time properly figured out or not, infinite motion and volatility will remain the key features of the reality machine. In this sense, Monteith’s images are anything but static. If anything, they show us that stillness is illusory.




[1] The work in question here is John Monteith’s April 2 2011 2:34 pm 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia,

pigment print 58”x 38”, 2011.

[2] This process was described in the course of several conversations with the author in July 2012.

[3] Susan Sontag noticed as much when she digressed on habits of viewing photography: “Photographic seeing, when one examines its claims, turns out to be mainly the practice of a kind of dissociative seeing, a subjective habit which is reinforced by the objective discrepancies between the way that the camera and the human eye focus and judge perspective.” In On Photography, New York: Anchor Books, 1990, 75.


[4] Again, taken from conversation with the artist.

[5] See Claire Parnet and Pierre-Andre Boutang’s wonderful series of filmed interviews, Gilles Deleuze From A to Z, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011.


[6] “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett, “Worstward Ho” in Nohow On, London: Calder, 1989.

[7] Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Anchor Books, 1990, 67-68.


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