Sarah Tulloch's ObjectImageby Megan N. Liberty
While British artist Sarah Tulloch was completing her undergraduate degree in fine art, she inherited a collection of photographs from her grandfather, an amateur photographer whom she hadn’t known very well because he lived in Australia and she in the United Kingdom. The collection included both photographs and slides, and it became the catalyst for Tulloch’s extensive photomontage practice. Without anyone to ask about the images, Tulloch had to imagine their narratives. “That sense of not knowing or not being able to access something but having clues of something left behind,” she explains in an interview in the book, “I think that flowed into the work.” Tulloch’s artworks tread heavily into the unknowable, making the familiar setting of the family album unfamiliar. Building on the inherited photographs, Tulloch continued to add found photographs to her collection, forming a vast archive from which much of the artwork in ObjectImage derives.
Tulloch works largely in collage, with found black-and- white or sepia-toned photographs, largely portraits or landscapes, as her source, leaving the frayed photograph edges visible. Faultline, the cover image of ObjectImage, depicts a missing person: A vertical slice cuts the photograph slightly off center, right where a figure in the unaltered image had stood. The face and much of the figure’s body are removed in the excision of this slice, leaving the edge of the figure’s coat to meet the shore and the elbow of another person, united in such a way as to keep the identity and any visible markers hidden. In Beach the scene is again sliced vertically to create an absent figure, joining what appears to be a young woman’s shoulder to a larger bare arm. In the background a woman in a patterned dress walks down the beach. These could be images from anyone’s family album. We recognize the markers of vacation and frivolity, yet crucial information is missing and we are left unsettled—who are these people and whose vacation has been so rudely cut?
The landscapes similarly create gaps in our ability to decipher them, preventing us from fully placing the image. In the collage of a found postcard titled Stonehenge, all imagery from the location has been removed, replaced instead with slices of brick buildings, manicured garden hedges, and palm tree landscapes. Inserted in the center is a blank space, perhaps a grey open sky or pavement. This is a literalization of the metaphor behind Tulloch’s work: her collages open up the space of the photograph, creating vacancies for imagined meanings. These vacancies—along with the visibly tactile nature of the photographs them- selves: the torn edges of the collage fragments are among the images’ most palpable qualities—shift the focus of the image from its pictorial qualities to its material ones.
The book design of ObjectImage also heightens this material awareness, with an open spine that reveals the stitching and a lightweight textured cardboard cover rather than a polished glossy one. The inside cover shows a photograph of the collages scattered and stacked in piles on the floor, highlighting their status as tactile objects before engaging with them critically as artworks. And the frontispiece—a dramatic seascape in which a large illustration of a whale’s tail is pasted into a waterscape for which it is far too large, causing the fin to protrude from the borders of the square photo—is turned to its verso in the endpiece, revealing it to be built from found photos and masking tape.
Influenced by Hieronymus Bosch and Dada collage, Tulloch’s works have a touch of the uncanny and surreal, both familiar and mysterious. While the majority of ObjectImage focuses on her collages of postcards and found photographs—those from her grandfather’s collection and her own digging—it also includes a series of work made from newspaper and magazine clippings. These incorporate references to artists ranging from John Baldessari to Rembrandt, as well as political figures like Nelson Mandela, former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in addition to images of ISIS soldiers and political riots. These more recent color collages are at first jarring to discover toward the end of an otherwise nostalgic intervention into family photos. As she explains in the book, “My interest is in what happens when you start to work with those types of [more contemporary] images and in the natural and bizarre juxtapositions that happen in newspaper layout.” All the images in each Newspaper Heads collage are from the same day’s paper and, while not as haunting as her monochrome album collages, they continue her found-photo practice of abrupt juxtaposition as a means of dislocation. The reformation and unification of these pictures creates a surprisingly unified image, considering the range of daily news subject matter. One 2015 color collage is especially beautiful and dramatic, as Rococo babies, layered fabrics, and picturesque landscapes meet blazing fires and riot police in a darkened center. The images blend remarkably well, and it takes a moment to discern the seam—unusual in Tulloch’s work, which otherwise highlights these markers of connection. As with Stonehenge, the title offers some clarity—Greece Riots and Jupiter Taking the Shape of Artemis, Dagens Nyheter, 16 July 2015—but no answers.
Juxtaposing advertisements with images of war and celebrity faces with those of polarizing politicians, Tulloch highlights our dislocation from the reality of what we are seeing. When we read the paper and engage with these images, do we distinguish between the war zones, or do they bleed together as just another battle scene in a distant place? Much as her album collages emphasize our dislocation from our past and the unknowable people and places in it, Tulloch’s newspaper images reveal our existing dislocation from the fabric of media—unable to know what’s true and what’s fabrication—and the newspaper’s materiality as a constructed document. Bringing to light the materiality of both family albums and newspapers, both presumed truth-telling media, Tulloch shows that even in the known there is always the unknowable.
ContributorMegan N. Liberty
MEGAN N. LIBERTY is the Art Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her interests include text and image, artists’ books and ephemera, and archive curatorial practices.