Writing this in the archetypal Patagonian scene, a boliche or roadman’s hotel at a crossroads of insignificant importance with roads leading in all directions apparently to nowhere. A long mint bar with blue walls and a picture of a glacier, the view from the window a line of Lombardy poplars tilted about 20 degrees from the wind and beyond the grey pampas (the grass is bleached yellow but it has black roots, like dyed blonde) with clouds rushing across it and a howling wind.
Colour is one of the essential tools to describe something that is not at hand, an instrument much used by novelists and travel writers to make the reader live the immediacy of an experience. Bruce Chatwin’s celebrated book ‘In Patagonia’ makes vivid his impressions of the remote South American country, of that windswept tail of the continent. Colour, then, serves to specify; it does not address what is generic or general, rather it deals with intricacy and detail, it answers how something is, instead of posing the blanket question of what it is.
Similarly, the artist Tim Braden uses colour to refine or redefine the things he depicts: faces, landscapes, snowdrifts, signs, animals. His taxonomy appears excessively broad, as if he were interested in everything, in the manner of a scrapbook. The French Philosopher Michel Foucault argues that language leads to the levelling of the differences between unconnected phenomena, through the tabula rasa effect of the page. Since all representations are distinct from the lived world, images can be said to behave in a similar manner. The ubiquity of images, no matter how distinct, connects them inexorably to one another, creating an unbroken surface of experience. This is especially so in the recordings of the topographical painters in the 18th and 19th Century, who recorded scenes, places and people, sometimes to order, to educate those at home in the cities of the Western world.
To refer back to the Grand Tour, undertaken by well-to-do scholars and adventurers from 1660-1840, or to the earliest instance of a guided world tour by Thomas Cook in 1872, which prepared the ground for mass-tourism, seems almost to step out of time: in the Contemporary, where Globalisation has succeeded in both shrinking the world, thus levelling out its differences, and heightening awareness of the great chasm of inequality that continues to exist between us and them. The global nature of things has also had a significant impact on visual art, resulting in ever greater numbers of artists from once distant places being exhibited, whilst artworks in the West display a carefully crafted knowledge of otherness, both at home and abroad.
On the surface, Braden’s work then seems oblivious, anachronistic almost; its images of faraway exotic places remind us of other times, rendering the present virtually superfluous. And yet, these paintings and sculptures do chronicle a present, providing us with a vertiginous sense of time out of joint, of how the here and the there can never coincide. As Zeno’s celebrated paradox shows, the tortoise and the hare are forever incapable of meeting one another: one is too slow, the other too fast, yet both are engaged in the same pursuit of running a race. Similarly, different worlds cannot correspond; furthermore the sense of an elsewhere is hardwired into our psyche. Braden returns with images gleaned from other places, a Norwegian Wood, an Asian Steppe, an Alpine scene, gossamer-like monochrome impressions of elsewhere, like watered down polaroids arrested in their development, forever underexposed. In photography, a surfeit of light burns out the colours, robbing them of their impact. Many of Braden’s watercolours and acrylic paintings perform like negatives in the manner of the ‘Grisaille’ used during the Renaissance as a form of underpainting, or as an exercise in skill. The single colour also serves to heighten the experience of plasticity and depth, whilst speeding up the process of painting. What Braden furnishes us with is then an impression, something that appears executed in the moment, paint substituting the photograph as something less reliable but infinitely more lasting, since it involves touch. Paint or pigment, like dust, ‘is where faded dreams and touch intersect, where the blue horizon fades to gray.’ Unlike the mechanised process of photography, the painting requires the artist’s hand, the palpable proof of presence.
Dust is what connects the dreams of yesteryear with the touch of nowadays. It is the aftermath of the collapse of illusions, a powdery cloud that rises abruptly and then begins falling on things…dust is like a soft carpet of snow that gradually coats the city, quieting its noise until we feel like we are inside a snow globe, the urban exterior transmutated into a magical interior where all time is suspended and space contained.’
His painting entitled ‘Book Cover (Alpinist)’ exposes the fantasy of travel and adventure, as it depicts a mountaineer scaling a rockface; yet it is only a film set, since the scene is lit by great stage lights and recorded by a camera. It reveals the thin line between the authentic and the artificial. This is reprised in his travels to Algiers whose topography he has glimpsed through reproductions. On arrival, Braden realises that most of what he knows of the city has been gleaned from images of the Jardins d’Essais, a genteel French Colonial garden, an artificial construct that is rather different from the reality of Algiers. The Italian writer Aldo Buzzi recounts a similar experience when journeying to the town of Gorgonzola, the home of the famous cheese. On arrival he realises that the cheese factory has long since gone, erasing the towns unique selling point. Buzzi, however, argues that his time has not been wasted because of the journey itself, the landscape, people encountered and so on. Arrival and confirmation simply serve to point out the circularity of the exercise, while disappointment shatters this hermetic fantasy.
Perhaps the most intriguing of Braden’s works are his sculptures and models, which reprise the objects of childhood. He points to an interest in things that are unremarkable and can easily be overlooked; works such as ‘Yellow Toy’ or ‘Holland Electro’ are reminiscent of the kind of coin-operated rides that are stationed by the exits of supermarkets, or, in more primitive incarnations, in playgrounds that no longer fulfil a function in a digital world.
The American writer Susan Stewart argues that the toy is the embodiment of fiction, a liminal thing, a trigger for another state:
The inanimate toy repeats the still life’s theme of arrested life, the life of the tableau. But once the toy becomes animated, it initiates another world, the world of the daydream. The beginning of narrative time here is not an extension of the time of everyday life; it is the beginning of an entirely new temporal world, a fantasy world parallel to (and hence never intersecting) the world of everyday reality.
‘Teka’, a model of a tall office block, mounted precariously on a wooden pallet on wheels functions both as a toy and as an incomplete still-life, in the way of a building site where most of the dwellings have either been torn down, or are yet to be erected; here, human life is temporarily arrested. Architectural models are miniatures of city life, they idealise and embellish, yet their detail is never quite commensurate with the actuality they depict. Braden’s models are threadbare and unstable, as if worn out by overuse and the ravages of time. They point toward a Modernism that is no longer new and has buried its utopian dream. Faded, cracked, and dirty, these models are bereft of a destination, belonging in the past.
This lack of event or destination is echoed in the works ‘Steps’ and ‘Platform for collecting Milk’. The former depicts a series of modest stairs attached to the exteriors of buildings, while the latter is a model of a rickety platform with three postboxes attached to its railings. Its look is utilitarian, faded and bent with use, but its actual purpose remains incongruous.
Like fallen angels, objects lose or rather ruin their auras on descent, arriving with little more than a crumbling, dusty shadow of their once iridescent haloes. Deprived of supernatural immunity, the shaken-down aura falls prey to all the vicissitudes of earth-bound things: it can be touched, traded, copied and tampered with; it is but a fragment of its former existence. It is kitsch.