We have a lot in common with ink: from the carbon we bleed to the fuel we burn. I’m inclined to think this vital, essential medium knows us better than we know it. Its essence is our birth. And it may even be, before it’s all said and done, our extinction.
Paul Cava’s Ink Series reflects on these contradictions—not only those that relate to our mortality but those that account for the long, ongoing narrative of our consciousness: the human and the inhuman, the beautiful and the grotesque, the holy and the profane.
The series began around 1997, a year after Twin Palms published The Killing Fields, portraits of Khmer Rouge prisoners taken during the Cambodian genocide. “At the time, I was working primarily on paintings and drawings,” says Cava, but the book “pushed me back toward working with the photographic image.”
The transition took place organically. Painting still played a large role in the development of the series, as we see in the hewed wood panel (see below), one side in gold leaf, the other inked— a three-dimensional meditation on spirt and body.
But we can read the painting in multiple ways. English and French agricultural communities used to call the iron cross in the middle of a millstone the “ink of the mill” or “iron ink.” The ink supported the heavy runner stone that would grind the grain. If we think of Khmer Rouge and its grinding agricultural reforms, the inked panel and gold cross take on even greater historical significance.
The Tuol Sleng inks coincided with the creation of Cava’s Man/Woman series. In these images, ink rushes against the body—osmotic, generative, yet just as hewn as the wood painting. In fact, the inked wood reappears at times, its golden counterpart now embodied, human, impassioned.
The Model inks are comprised of photographs by the inimitable Jeanloup Sieff and are themselves riven and unresolved. The ink makes a personal claim on the figure, as the woodgrain (itself a kind of fingerprint) suggests. But vicissitude, distortion, transfiguration—change—goes on.
The Christ inks bear the weight of every conflicting emotion in the series. It’s an interesting choice of image in so far as its religious associations resonate with the ink as a material medium—I mean “medium” in both senses of the word. The ink communicates its own message of resurrection. Jonathan Swift, speaking for the ink in his pen, once said: I am “the son of pitch . . . I’m dead except I live in light.” So too do Cava’s Inks struggle with what is tenuous about history, art, pain, and compassion.
Five of Cava’s inks were exhibited in “Take Two: Contemporary Photographs” at the Philadelphia Museum in 2015 and are in the museums’s permanent collection. The Inks featured in this issue of Od Review will be on show at the beautiful Philadelphia Episcopal Church in 2018. Follow Paul Cava on Facebook and Instagram for updates. And check out Cava’s extraordinary monograph, Children of Adam, published by edition Galerie Vevais.
“Paul Cava / Variations” currently on show June 3 – July 15 at C.R. Ettinger Studio, 2215 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146.
Feature Photo: Ink Series (Tuol Sleng #4) / unique ink and varnish photo-reproduction / 1997 © Paul Cava