Cole Caswell’s “Patterns of Aggression” is a complex and mixed photography exhibition combining tintypes, collodion wet plate prints, digital and wheat paste formats. The subject matter and content of the work are no less varied than the presentation. The show falls apart quickly and then teeters for quite a while before finding its footing and conceptual balance.

Choosing to take an alternate reading of the title (think aggregate rather than pugilistic) before discarding it as a guide allowed me, after awhile, to come around and enjoy the show. Caswell’s imagery varies between shots of decay, traces of deer beds in the grass, objects with hexagonal shapes, tree tops seen as straight up shaky negative space in a skyward image, a hipster drone pilot, a timered set of desert shots that at some point during the night captures a passing rabbit and, among a few similar objects and scenes, a group of giant radar dishes pointed towards the farthest reaches of the known universe.

Decay #1, Center Harbor, NH, 24”x24” Inkjet Print, 2016

Decay #1, Center Harbor, NH, 24”x24” Inkjet Print, 2016

Aggression is in fact the opposite of what’s happening in Caswell’s work, but, with patience, it is the back door that allows an active acknowledgment of this particular photographer’s anti-quest. Caswell’s inspiration and lifestyle may reflect the “survivalism” he discusses in his exhibition statement, but the work ultimately connects to us on the level of observation rather than as an active sense of agency within a struggle between life and death.

At his best, Caswell proves to have an excellent eye and a sultry feel for collodion process images, a very old-school wet-plate technique that has been repopularized, as well as tintypes, another older process that produces direct positive images. His smallest works are exquisite collodion images in which Caswell makes up the wet plate in the usual manner until it is sensitized to light and he shifts gears, letting the chemicals crystallize. In this sense, the “Silver Findings” images are abstractions made in the style of a predictably chaotic (i.e. fractal) mistake. These works look like they fit with the observational logic of Caswell’s hexagon object images, but, on the most obvious level, they don’t. They find their way back after a longer look and a broader consideration of Caswell’s project in terms of natural forms and observation.

Caswell’s tintype object portraits follow the rich-toned but low-contrast monochrome to achieve history-flavored and meditative observations of interesting objects: a labyrinthian transmission in a puzzle-flat pose, a hexagonal manhole-like cover set in the ground, a pair of wizened high-desert goggles, a camera-carrying rocket kit with the wooden matrix not yet punched out, hive hexagons and so on. Caswell makes larger digital versions of the tintype image, with varying degrees of success. The images’ theatricality can detract from the otherwise observational logic of Caswell’s best work. For example, a posed image of a drone pilot has an iconic quality on its own when seen as an advertising image for the show, but it detracts from its exhibition neighbor, the much more sophisticated and thoughtful “Bone Hole,” a dark image focused on a hole shaped by the cow femur-like bone removed from and placed to the side of it. The hole is the key feature because it is a trace of observer effect and part of the landscape while, more importantly, it is the evidence of where and what the bone was in its nature-oriented, pre-observation situation.

Tube, Snake Hill, N.J., 36”x40” UV print on newspaper

Tube, Snake Hill, N.J., 36”x40” UV print on newspaper

Caswell’s work pulls together on the basis of traces. The objects show up best with an eye to evidence photos. We become detectives, not hunting for a culprit per se, but we are asked to consider what we can see, learn and understand in the images before us. Open-minded observation pulls together the experiments of collodion process crystals as well as the decay circles in which Caswell asks us to notice nature’s propensity for fractal forms. It also pulls in the tamped-grass deer beds, the radar systems, a rocket camera and even the four before-and-after images in which a rabbit is spotted by a timer-mechanized camera system. But, contrary to the title, these are passive observational systems even if they are intentionally sought out by the artist. Decay may be considered aggressive, but it lacks the intentional agency we associate with the title term “aggressive.”

In the broad sense of artistic process, “Patterns of Aggression” coalesces around a sense of tracking or trace-hunting – an epistemology associated with an evidence-oriented observation of nature rather than philosophical inquiry. The point of this kind of information is that the viewer must become the specialist: the detective, the hunter, the doctor, the scientist and so on.

Caswell does not, however, stitch the works together well enough to make an easily digestible show of his content and conceptualism. His smallest works are gorgeous, and his giant wheat paste blowup of a radar installation is aptly scaled. But his other wheat paste mural print is rather disastrously jammed into a tight spot where it doesn’t fit: The stretcher, just a bit too small, warps out from the wall and digs into the shoe molding at the base of the wall. His two circular “decay” images are set in diagonally-oriented frames that interrupt an otherwise handsome show. And this aesthetic issue, in turn, camouflages the chaos/nature-finding logic of the four, found absence/presence/absence images of the rabbit. Set in the very front with one of the diamond-shaped decay images is the black-and-white view of the sky through the tree canopy and an image of a portable shelter in the high desert. These establish an expectation of narrative that never blooms and that rather stands in the way of the exhibition’s success.

High Desert Goggles, Taos, N.M., 8”x10” tintype, 2015

High Desert Goggles, Taos, N.M., 8”x10” tintype, 2015

But patience pays off with “Patterns of Aggression” if you can look past the assertions of the artist and let yourself see what Caswell has found.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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