The Tethered World of Charles Grogg
by John Wood
Charles Grogg's photographs are hauntingly beautiful. And they are strange. But they are strange in a way that most "strange" photographs are not. There is no violence, no brutality, no shock, except the shock of authentic art, that shock that forces a viewer back again and again to look at them and keeps them as fresh on the one hundredth viewing as they were on the first. But they are, indeed, strange, strange in a way the work of absolutely no other photographer I have seen is strange. Strings and wire are often an integral part of a Grogg photograph, and though that is interesting and connected to their strangeness, it is not at the core of it. The strangeness lies in their tetherings.
In his catalogue, After Ascension and Descent, Grogg observed that "wires, tethers, ropes, string, conduits all appear whenever there is something important near," and he realized that he "must be tethered too." All is connected but we are all divided. If we could "only connect." And so wire, string, tendrils, roots, veins, all the connecting tethers of life, became his metaphor. But I don't want to suggest that all his tetherings radiate with sweetness and light, a phrase popularized by Matthew Arnold, who also wrote "Dover Beach," perhaps the bleakest poem of the 19th century, and the source of the title for two of Grogg's works: "The World Which Seems to Lie Before Us . . . " What Grogg leaves to the ellipsis is this:
. . . . like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
And Grogg's photograph of the "Full Moon," which from what he writes I assume is a photograph of his son's optic nerve, seems to unite one of Odilon Redon's most disturbing eyes with one of his worst spiders.
But metaphor and philosophy, be they sweet and light or dark and sour, are not what pull us back again and again to a great work of art. What pulls us back is a resonance that is at once both fresh but also familiar, new but not unknown. We know all the things of Charles Grogg's world, but we have never seen them before in such combinations. And we have seldom seen them rendered with such beauty.
Where, one might ask, is the beauty of a mud dauber wasp's nest, a stapled envelope, a cracked egg, or a woman with a tree's roots on her head? It is all in the making. The very fact that Grogg can make beautiful photographs of such subjects speaks to the selectivity of his eye and the power of his craft. And when we look at them in the context of their tethers, the images are enriched in the same way that a sculpture by Brancusi is enriched when seen in the context of form being reduced to its essence or conversely in a sculpture by Gaston Lachaise where form is expanded to express the voluptuousness of plenitude. Grogg's curious compositions and masterful handling of his prints allow us to perceive a beauty we otherwise would not have known. They allow us to make important connections we would never have made.