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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Not Life Alone

Updated: Jun 17, 2019


GLIDING o’er all, through all, Through Nature, Time, and Space, As a ship on the waters advancing, The voyage of the soul—not life alone, Death, many deaths I’ll sing. —Walt Whitman

DOES THE LANDSCAPE RETAIN the impression of a traumatic event? Does an object capture the essence of its owner? Can memory and history, spirit and emotion be accessed through communion with objects and places? There is a belief that these things are possible—that there are people who can in some way decipher energies or emanations that objects and places project. Psychometry is the practice of holding an object and “reading” its past. Landscapes too are said to become imprinted with certain historical information when a tragedy or event of great emotional importance happens there. These places are said to be able to give up their long-held secrets to those who are sensitive enough to see the imprint on time.

Robert Gould, Hill Mumma Farm, Antietam, Maryland, 2012, Ink jet print with soil on wood panel, 10.5 X 36 inches

Not Life Alone brings together three artists whose interests intersect with the idea of the landscape or the object becoming imprinted with historical information. Their attempts to resurrect the often vague and partial stories of the past, and piece them into a visual whole brings form to the vision they have of the present, and of the history of the places or objects they are exploring.

Victoria Manning, The Peach Orchard (birds), Gettysburg, PA, 2013-2014, Opalotype, 4 x 5 inches

Through the research Victoria Manning began on the phenomenon of the phantom limb, she was led to the writing and work of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell was a Civil War surgeon who coined the term “phantom limb” after observing amputated solders complain that they could still feel their missing appendage. Manning investigated and photographed the Gettysburg battleground, surrounding structures and relics to experience the place where such tragedy and horror took place.

Manning’s resulting photo series Scarcely a Leaf or Limb was Left reproduces the 19th century photographic technique of the opalotype. The opalotype is an image printed on translucent white glass with a delicacy of detail similar to ivory miniatures. Originally developed for photographic portraits, Manning employs them for her landscapes of the Gettysburg battlefield, giving them not only the delicacy of detail inherent in the process, but also a sense of the reversal of time. Unlike the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady or Timothy O’Sullivan, Manning does not document the battles, the dead in the field, or the now famous men who led the troops and strategized the war. Instead, her interest is in the phantom limb; what is no longer there, but what can still be felt. Through the qualities of the antique process Manning employs, and the emotionally fraught history of the location, the viewer experiences a sense that the artist has captured an imprint of the past.

Marianne McCarthy, We Are Here #14, 2018, Digital pigment print, 11 X 15 inches

When Marianne McCarthy received a cache of anonymous 19th century glass negatives from a colleague, she knew that they would be important to her work. We Are Here is a series of prints that has come out of her exploration using those negatives. The nameless, long dead women that occupy the negatives have been further obscured through McCarthy’s manipulation of the images. She places translucent pieces of glass over the faces of the figures in order to replicate visually the process of a medium’s attempt at contacting the dead.

Unlike William Mumler’s spirit photographs, where he used double exposure to fraudulently create photographs of deceased persons behind the portrait of the sitter, McCarthy employs no such shenanigans. Instead, she describes her intention as akin to the crystal gazer who cannot get a clear vision of the information they seek in the ball. The obscured faces of the sitters hint at their missing identities. Their dress, poses and background objects are captured, but the whole of who they were, their personalities, their families and attachments; the minutia of their lives is lost or obscured by the veil of time. The viewer can only see and understand so much about these women. Eventually, we have to accept that time refuses to relent the access to more detailed knowledge. The reading is incomplete. The spirits retire to the shade and shadows.

Robert Gould is also drawn to Civil War battlefields, but his images take on a more physical aspect. Gould adds the very soil from the battlefield sites. Like Catholic relics that contain the dust from the catacombs to impart a degree of the holiness of the martyrs, Gould uses the soil from Antietam (and other places) to impart a sense of immediate involvement to the viewer. This is the soil that absorbed the blood and anguish of the soldiers who fought in this war. This is the soil that holds the imprint of that emotional and physical tragedy of that dreadful day. It is a physical remnant and remembrance.

Robert Gould, Sulfur Soldiers, 2017, Sulfur on laser print transfer onto wood panel, 8.5 X 11 inches

World War I saw the development and use of many modern destructive weapons that were developed to impart the most damage to the most people. One of the most feared of these new developments of destruction was mustard gas. Contact with mustard gas was a slow and agonizing death, or if the victim survived, the gas was disfiguring and debilitating. Sulfur Soldiers is a series of works that Gould has created to recognize the damage and suffering that WWI brought to the world. Recalling the dramatic and confrontational portraits of wounded and disfigured WWI soldiers by Otto Dix, Gould finds old photographs of WWI soldiers, and using sulfur, a main component of mustard gas, paints it on the faces of the men to give a palpability to their suffering and a presence to the brutality of the weapons of war.

There is a theory in cosmology that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously. Manning, McCarthy and Gould have built art practices that would make this theory a reality. For them the past exists in their experiences of the now. It can be visited and recaptured with the proper process and a vision that is able to move backwards through the dim funnel of history and pick out the glowing emanations that make sense to us now. Through their work and in their hands, the past can be read again, the landscape and the objects give up their closely held secrets and tell their stories to a new audience.


Arthur Bruso and Raymond E. Mingst


Curious Matter © 2018 used with permission

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