Bob Nickas
Persistence of Vision

Published in Tom Fairs & David Schoerner, Woods
Hassla & Kerry Schuss Gallery, 2023

A dialog between artists will usually require them to be present to one another, occupying the same space of time, optimally speaking a shared language, and often, but not always, engaged in the same medium.

The British artist Tom Fairs (1925–2007), best known for his fine pencil drawings and paintings, and only after his passing, who also worked in stained glass and for many years taught art and stage design, and the younger American David Schoerner (b. 1984), primarily a photographer and a prolific publisher, never knew one another. And yet this book, following an exhibition that brought their art together, represents an uncannily fluent conversation, one suggesting that the distant geographic and generational coordinates—and, at least until now, what we would have thought of as very different preoccupations—would not keep them apart. Here, art may be understood as a medium, an image or object that allows us to move between this world and another, the present and the past: one of the great bridges that spans the major arteries of human existence. Although this may be grasped more readily with distance, from our time to antiquity, for example, it holds true within greater proximity, and artworks connect us to those who made them.

Viewers who examine a drawing or a photograph intimately are as close to an image as the artist was to a sketch book, or to a print in the darkroom. The common presentation of drawings and photos, when matted and framed, obscures the fact that each is a sheet of paper, a thin plane upon which depth has been conjured. For these artists, as we may suspect of they themselves, scale is modest. Their images fit the expansiveness of the world into a space no larger than a note card or a sheet of writing paper, each a means of correspondence.

Seen side-by-side, these drawings and photographs are so reciprocal as to conjure an image of the two artists walking about Fairs’s well-trodden Hampstead Heath, one of the highest points in London, and through the woods on Schoerner’s grandparents’ farm in Sweden, outside of Stockholm. Moving in between Fairs’s meditative graphite drawings of trees and Schoerner’s gelatin silver prints, in each his eye steadied on a handmade birdhouse affixed to a tree trunk, there are acoustic echoes: a small branch quietly cracks underfoot, a wind flutters the leaves, the artists barely speaking, if at all. The experience of nature shared with someone reminds us that art—as a conveyance of beauty, wonder, curiosity, strangeness, sublimity—is always there and need not be recorded. What can it mean for an artist to return again and again on their own to do so? What do Tom Fairs’s drawings say about him? He was drawn to them. And David Schoerner’s photographs, what might they reveal? As we will discover, they represent something otherwise unseen, a familial triangulation: the family tree.

If solitude is one of the subjects of these works, we are reminded that in life, which art makes implicit, there is a hopeful loneliness, a space of refuge.

Some conversations are beyond words. Nature has a way of allowing this particularly, a being together without need of any spoken acknowledgement, only an awareness of presence, that of human alignment. Movement in tandem in nature may be thought of as a form of harmonic convergence, and nothing supernatural about it. And what of moving in tandem worlds and lifetimes apart? 

Quiet, in its latitude—evoking a breadth of freedom, the mobility of the body, the eye and memory—clears a way forward without destination, to wander and at times be perfectly still. In quietude, an inner calm, we hear ourselves think, and seeing may go beyond the surface of the world. Within this expanse, even the most faithful of representations, in their seeming verity or documentary view, may prove revelatory. In the gallery or a book we are never merely looking at pictures on the wall or on the page, but through the eyes of someone else. This is what they saw, we might say, on our behalf: images not simply recorded but recalled from another time, another place, another mind, present to them, possibly distant to them, in a moment captured, barely held, leading elsewhere.

Tom Fairs once observed:

My interest is primarily in things seen: landscape, interiors, still life where, in the light of the imagination, the commonplace may be transformed into the extraordinary. The ever-present transforming principle moves me. I have no theories, no special techniques and no information to communicate. I try to achieve a brief glimpse of the implicit order that lies beneath what we perceive as reality.

These observations, if not spoken by David Schoerner, can be readily applied to his photographic practice, and not only in the series paired with Fairs’s drawings. Among Schoerner’s previous works are more conceptually-driven images, vernacular objects arranged in everyday situations, often tabletop arrangements, still life made animate. He has also immersed himself in the city in which he lives, and in the countryside where city-dwellers seek respite and reflection. Every year since he was a child he has visited the farm of his grandparents outside of Stockholm, which is where his mother grew up, and where he now goes with his wife and their small son. The photos in this book were all taken there, and in different seasons. As with the Tom Fairs’ drawings, we may discern the time of year, whether a tree is bare branched or profuse with foliage—so enlivened in one that the leaves of summer appear as impossible snowfall, a curtain of flurries out of time. Mystical. The woods, by way of folklore and superstition, are a place of magic and mystery, a primeval realm, the unknown. One can get lost there, or unconsciously needs to. Having explored the woods on the farm from an early age, familiar to Schoerner and reassuring in the way that only physical, locational continuity allows, they yet exerted a certain pull, memory, as a gathering of firewood, to be rekindled with every return. The making of these photos, he has said, began when the artist’s grandmother was ill, and continued after her passing. In all of them we see a birdhouse crafted by his grandfather. Walking through the woods with his camera, Schoerner would come upon them. They were there to be found, as if tracing his grandfather’s footsteps. In photographing them, in a sense he reunited his grandparents and joined them, a means of reconciliation.

To stand before a tree, one may have the feeling to be in the presence of a person: a prominent trunk, solid, vertical, branches for arms, anthropomorphic. In a drawing circa 1998, Tom Fairs emphasizes two dark sockets in the rounded bulge at a tree’s midpoint which clearly register as eyes, a spooky, pareidolic face. The trunk in one of his late drawings, dated 2004, vertically bisects the page, rising top to bottom, a pale column, possibly a birch, a tree with no apparent branching, an attenuated torso, frontal, naked. The bark of a tree in one of David Schoerner’s photographs appears ossified, weathered, its crusty skin easily broken off, a branch to the right pointing upward. Although the roots are not visible, we know that the farm has been home to many generations, and with one of his grandfather’s birdhouses central to the image this can be identified as a family tree. They all are.

Each of these photographs and drawings compel us to ask: how long is a moment? How long does it last? A moment’s duration is not only variable but may move simultaneously in opposite directions. When what is directly before us has a gravitational pull, we may be brought back to places or experiences long past, or so we thought. For the creator of an image, returning over and again to a particular location, this is palpable.

How long did it take Tom Fairs to complete a drawing? It may be possible to measure his activity in minutes and hours, no more than a matter of guesswork, likely inaccurate. But don’t his drawings encompass years? How long did it take David Schoerner to make one of these photographs? An exposure can be made in 125th of a second, and yet a photo, at least one by an artist, not someone with a phone in hand, is no mere matter of clicking a shutter. The images Schoerner has made on his grandparents’ farm also took years. He had seen them without taking them since he was a child. Here we are reminded that a photograph can serve as a memory-device. The same holds true for the drawings of Tom Fairs. How could it not be? They are no less accurate than mechanically apprehended images. Each drawing is faithful to what was seen, felt, remembered and transformed on that day, on the days and weeks and years before.

These images, whether rendered by hand or camera, with a graphite surface or that of silver gelatin, imprinted on paper, are equally meditations. They are meditations on what it means to be alive, or to trace the path to life’s unwinding. Tom Fairs in the act of drawing saw the trees before him, that had preceded him, and that he surely must have reasoned would withstand the elements long after his departure. He would have seen from one day to the next, within that continuity, the pencil held, his fingers, the veins leading to them, eventually a hand less steady? The drawings that describe his daily activity were made from about the age of sixty. For the next twenty years he would persist. David Schoerner moves through his present and past today with his own son, walking in a sense alongside himself. What, in the end, is the subject for each of these artists across considerable arcs of time, time encompassed within each image? Their subject is not merely nature: trees and fields and hilltops. This is simply what is visible, a rendering. What is to be sensed in an image, often hovering at its periphery? Their subject is no less than the persistence of vision.

In the chill of winter breath becomes visible. It is one of the great discoveries of childhood, one of the reassurances of old age. Breath comes from our chest in its subtle rise and fall. The warm oxygen inside meets the cold air outside. We are alive.