11.09. – 01.11.2020, 24 / 7
Free Figuration – On Omer Halperin
1. In linguistics, ‘grammar’ can be defined as a set of rules that govern the forms of possible verbal expression. Is there a grammar to a picture?
2. Of the many ways of reading an image – symbolic, iconological, historical, affective, contextual – very few describe themselves as grammatological. Yet, an observer of 19th century bookshelves might find publications such as Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament (1856), or the work of Aloïs Riegl, who gave lectures in 1897 and 1899 compiled as the Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts. Such authors attempted to discern iconographic rules and laws as they applied to architecture, ornaments and the visual arts. These aesthetic formalisms have come and gone, but their core question remains valid: what is the grammar of a picture?
3. In 1912, a Geneva-based philologist named Charles Bally was among the first to identify an unusual characteristic within certain narrative texts. Rhetoricians have long distinguished between oratio obliqua and oratio recta (oblique and direct narration): grammatical forms whether or not the speaker was actually present at the site and place (for instance, Lucan’s ‘indirect’ characterizations of Curio in his Bellum Civile.) But Bally noted a third form of recorded narration that did not fit either category. Terming this ‘free indirect speech’, the notion has since gained currency as a way of understanding the stylistics of literary texts – especially those of Jane Austen or Gustave Flaubert – in which a third-person narrator slips out of his or her perspective and actually adopts the psychological perspective of the character described. Whenever the narration of Madame Bovary (1856) undergoes an inflection such that Emma Bovary’s most intimate thoughts, emotions, confusions, etc., take over the register of the text, revealing information the narrator could not have known otherwise, we have experienced this ‘free indirect speech’.
4. When we tell a story, we impute motivation, beliefs, feelings to individuals who are not us. There is always a depiction not only of surface but of interiority. It’s obvious enough, but remarkable still: storytelling and portraiture share an oscillation between subject and object. In a grammatological method of free indirect depiction, however, it is not the subject’s perspective on an object that governs the depiction of that object; rather, the object itself governs its depiction. One way we can think of it is that, instead of someone telling us what two characters in another room are saying, we actually begin to hear, through the room, what they speak. The effect, paradoxically, is not of exteriority, but rather of a heightened intimacy and interiority.
5. The idea of a ‘free indirect speech’ was so compelling to Pier Paolo Pasolini that, in his article ‘The Cinema of Poetry’ (1965), the writer and filmmaker considered the possibility of a ‘free indirect camera’. In this lecture, Pasolini characterizes this method as such: ‘the author penetrates entirely into the spirit of his character, of whom he thus adopts not only the psychology but also the language.’ He identifies examples from Dante, onward through contemporary film, in which the image is saturated or overtaken with the language of the depicted individual.
6. The acute psychologization of Omer Halperin’s charcoals – black and white depictions of individuals – stems from their achieving something that can be described as a free indirect figuration. Hers are not portraits in a conventional sense which maintains a clear delineation between figure and ground, subject and object. Of course there is a playing of faces and hands, of hair and of the cloudlike stroke of charcoal, with its intimations of moodiness and vaporousness. Yet in her works, she achieves a sense of intimacy and estrangement that is irreducible to voyeurism. It is tempting to characterize this as a depiction of interiority, but – as in free indirect speech – a depicted interiority is also a ruptured one. By contrast, she sustains the interiority and mystery of her depicted subjects. I propose that what she is expressing is, with remarkably clarity, a kind of grammar of the visual. A grammar that allows for the chance and determinate encounter with individual character, which sets up the conditions for its own depiction. Here it is: a free indirect figuration.
Omer Halperin (*1984, Raanana, IL) lives and works in Jaffa. Internal Curl is her first exhibition in Germany. Previous shows include: Eardrum, Ventilator Gallery Tel Aviv, IL; Tiny Hands, Sommer Gallery Tel Aviv, IL; New Age, Moby Museum Of Bat Yam, Bat Yam, IL; In Restless Dreams I Walk Alone, Sommer Gallery Tel Aviv, IL; Arad Contemporary Art Center, Arad, IL.