The Poetics of Burton Pritzker

by Ileana Marcoulesco

Houston Center for Photography
Houston, Texas
September 5-October 26, 2003

In common parlance, "artifact" means any man-made object that may become, at some point, an object of cult or dis­play. In a more specialized context, such as experimental-observational biology, an artifact is a specific structure that appears as a result of the interference between the observing device (such as a microscope) and the object observed, made more visible when "enhanced" with dye, a process that masks its origi­nal color and shape. The result makes an "objective" observation impossible.
Pritzker's 10 gelatin silver prints expand the very notion of artifact through an exquisite staging of organic microcosms enhanced from behind a subjective camera lens. His questioning eye, heart, and mind move banal organic objects in a metaphysical direction. The result is a powerful metamorphosis of seeds, fruit, and decaying flowers from scientific specimen to artistic artifact. Pritzker never looks at the beauty of things through a naturalistic lens. No doubt that nature, in his mind, is the repository of all beauty and signification. But to remain prisoner to a classic vision of nature through a so-called photo­graphic eye, even with the added embel­lishing light effects, would be trite and boring. It is not modernistic fashion or snobbery that drives this photographer to seek hidden angles, recesses, and abstruse meanings in everyday objects.
Rather, it is a philosophical impulse to live in a world animated by secret significations—not an empty, neutral, predictable world of objects.
Avocado Seed, depicting a seed once moist with oils and juices, appears to be reflected in a concave mirror that invites the eye to tour and taste a distort­ed world. The bulging kernel, where a new plant would later sprout, seduces the attentive eye to discover a potential, vital universe.
Similarly, Magnolia Petal, a barely sketched petal emerging in a curve of light, and Magnolia Seed Pod, propel the viewer into a fantastic landscape full of traps and accidents. Pritzker's mysterious and provoca­tive images intensify even the most conventional subject. Isn't that precise­ly the intent and tech­nique of modernism, to act on our senses and intellect, not through a sum total of descriptive details, but through one or a few significant ones which stand for the whole?

Turning to the most original work in this exhibition—both in Pritzker's choice of content and mysteriousness of form— Midge Gall I and // portray the swelling (or gall) induced by the sting of a female gnat-like insect (a midge) that will nest in this swollen vegetal tissue.

Calla Lilies alludes to Zen Buddhist calligraphy. Black sepals emerge through a sensitive tracing or path of light carved into the negative. In this work, Pritzker combines the everyday object and allusions to a refined Oriental culture to extraordinary effect.

Pritzker's masterful ability to highlight minute voids, in otherwise opaque organic matter, is in part a combination of subtlelighting, observation, and a unique penchant for puzzling metaphors pitting the microscopic against the huge. For example,Acorn Shells leads the viewer through natural caverns and openings. Two shells, one obscured in shadow, the other, pierced with light, invite the viewer to enter spheres of the imagi­nary. Pritzker unites things and their contraries in cryptic dispro­portion (shall I say Taoist?); between cause and effect; between the micro­scopic midge and the massive gall. There are a lot of dark corners and meanings in these images, which lead the viewer as far away from the known as from convention.

In his artist statement, Pritzker freely quotes from William Blake and Walt Whitman, whose cosmic view syn­thesizes the human, animal, and vegetal. Such poetry ignites this photographer's inspiration in signs, forms, and destinies. Yet, it is obvious Pritzker translates poet­ry into artistic matter; a physical reaction to a metaphysical space where Blake once spun myths, narrative, resounding rheto­ric, and maximal poetic noise. Pritzker's photography swims in understatement, gnomic aphorism, cryptic Zen-like nota­tion. When the practice of his poetics reaches a perceptible sublime, however, it is expressed not in theological dis­course or in effusive epic, but in a striking haiku-style economy of means.

To the question Pritzker has repeated­ly asked himself—is a Romantic view of things, their elusive, sometimes messy volumes, shadows, and meanings com­patible with a modernist view of form as severe harmony, high resolution, self-and other-transcendence, lead to another level of perception? The answer is emphatically, yes.

Ileana Marcoulesco is a Houston-based philosopher and writer who has contributed to Artlles, Art Papers, Sculpture, andspot. She is working on a fictitious, Tragic-comic memoir, La Femme Dada.