“Then I reflected that all things happen, happen to one, precisely now. Century follows century, and things happen only in the present. There are countless men in the air, on land and at sea, and all that really happens happens to me.”—Jorge Luis Borges
To talk about Peggy Washburn’s photography, you have to talk about time. That makes me nervous—because I have this mushy gray clock in my head that doesn’t work very well. It ticktocks along to its memories, obsessing over its own peculiar past as if that past were reachable.
Relativity, the fourth dimension, the bigness of the universe and the smallness of its quantum fabric—all of these factor into the strangeness of time. Even so, what makes the past irretrievable is not its dissociative identity disorder but disorder of a less clinical kind. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” I prefer Yeats here, but in physics, the shorthand is “entropy.”
In this series, fittingly titled “Entropy,” Washburn journeys into the wastelands of perception, memory, and relativity. Moments of disparate origins clash in seemingly ill-fitted diptychs. Or else the image struggles to develop, as shadows on all sides tighten their grip. Nevertheless, each picture holds together. And from that same chaos—maybe even because of it—the wondrous (beholden to nothing, not even entropy) makes itself anew.
As a child, for instance, Washburn was taught to use her right hand in class, though she preferred her left. Hence the images of left and right hands. But the circles we see derive from an inexplicable fascination that compelled her to draw them by the thousands. From that entanglement of obsession and restriction, a new symbolism emerges and makes for us a gift of the artist’s unique perception of time.
Hands and letters, circles and grids, chickens and children meet at the junction of what Washburn calls a “familiar disorder”—as good a phrase as I’ve ever encountered for this moment, this “now,” which is mine, not yours; yours, not mine; and already falling apart.
Peggy Washburn on Creating a Familiar Disorder
As a child I combined images. From the comfort of a closet I pasted found objects into overstuffed books as a tangible record of things I’d seen; to make visual order out of a world I wanted, while providing a counterbalance to the familiar disorder of the world I knew.
My first camera was a 1973 Polaroid Land Camera. I was ten years old and began by shooting at night. I was unable to make the rotating, disposable flash cubes sync with my shutter, so the images were blurry. I remember thinking, if I could just hold still I’d take better pictures. I began shooting again in the early nineties to improve the quality of images I was incorporating into collage work and became unexpectedly enchanted with the darkroom. I loved the meticulous routine and rules, which could later, with respect, be broken.
My camera provided a much-needed respite from the pressures of motherhood, and my children were inescapably accessible as subjects. The images were never about them; the act created a barrier, allowing safe passage between my subconscious and the undeniable chaos of the present. What began as an escape eventually become sustenance, and the triangulation between lens, self and offspring transformed into unavoidable collaboration.
And I continued to combine images. I integrated other media, using the combinations to examine ideas pertaining to balance and referencing literature which seemed relevant to my life at the time. The practice itself addressed my need for a semblance of order, while making allowance for unavoidable disorder. For me the process is nonlinear, and frequently ideas take on lives of their own, regardless of my original intentions. I try not to fall in love with what I’m working on. If I do, the love precipitates caution, the caution precipitates fear, and both precipitate a reluctance to take risks; I might as well be handcuffed to the wall.
I wanted my early grid combos to loosely resemble that of a tic-tac-toe board, exploring the possibility of a world inside of one which already existed. I started with Everything in the World. It commented on death, sex, nature, violence, pleasure, suffering, religion and science. My son, about fifteen at the time, told me that the concept behind the title was misguided, that anyone could use such vague terms with respect to creation. I kept that piece, along with its title, but I have to admit the interaction forced me to delve deeper into my personal world and reevaluate what I was trying to convey. Shortly thereafter I began incorporating paintings from my sketchbooks into larger pieces – sometimes recreated, sometimes photographed and layered with differing media, but thematically remaining inexorably the same.
Peggy Washburn was a recent Art Photography Awards finalist for LensCulture. Click on this link to see the amazing feature they did for Washburn. An exhibition is schedule for Spring 2019 at the Aperture Gallery. To see more of Peggy Washburn’s series “Entropy,” along with her fabulous projects in fashion and portraiture, go to www.peggywashburn.com. And be sure to follow her on Facebook and Instagram!
Featured Image: “The Rider” © Peggy Washburn