Art: Punctum vs. Dictum

Joseph Sterling Adolescence and Ron Van Dongen Effusus

 By Cynthia Zegarra

The difference between studium and puctum could be best described by comparing and contrasting both of these exhibits.  In one we have the significant work of Joseph Sterling whose images tell a story with great meaning as a portrait of a generation.  In the other, we are confronted with exquisite imagery magnificent in shape and form but with no real meaning behind it in the works of Ron Van Dongen, but pure esthetic value.

Joseph Sterling’s work explores the young and rebellious teenagers of pre-Vietnam America through candid photographs taken between 1959 and 1964.

His gelatin silver prints are time period specific telling the story of a generation.  His subject matter is not the average all American boy and girl, but the misfits of that pre-adult age group.  The time period as well as the nature of the subjects is recognizable through the symbols that we have visually learned to understand.  The cars, the greasy hair, the leather jackets, cigarettes, rolled up sleeves… all these were common symbols of the young rebellious crowd that we are familiar with through films such as Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One.

The titles of the photographs are merely descriptive.  Titles such as Man with Eagle Tattoo on Chest, Girls Smoking (Chicago), The Boys in Leather Jackets, Group of Girls Looking over Shoulders do not persuade the viewer into ideas further than what they are watching.

Hard as it was to pick only one to talk about, my personal favorite was Getting Tattoo 1962, a low contrast and very grainy gelatin silver print, which became a riddle in my head.  This picture stood out from the rest of high contrast pictures that had great detail and fine grain.

The frame encloses three subjects, one is the tattoo artist on the left, another is the boy getting the tattoo to the right and the other one, right at the center, is the friend who catches the photographer in the act.  His left eye appears at the top middle of the image as if accusing the viewer of interrupting this private moment.

As John Szarkowski writes in the article Introduction to the Photographers Eye, about meaning by fragmentation, each third of the image could be isolated and tell us a story about each of the characters.

In the composition, it is interesting the way that the subjects are framed.  In the foreground, the tattoo artist is partially covered by a blurry object, which seems to be a cup, as well as a white tip (of what could be a cup) on the top right side. Below the whole image there is a black stripe which could be the top of a divider panel in the studio.  This stripe geometrically matches the background which consists of diagonal thick black lines that outline tattoo designs which cover the wall.  The vantage point of the photographer seems to be at eye level, since the eye of the friend looks straight at the photographer who got caught.

Although the picture is quite dark, we are able to get great detail.  The Tattoo corresponds to the “Gaylords” gang of Chicago, a mostly Italian all-white gang whose

territory started at the corner of Grand and Noble on Chicago’s north side.  The way both young guys have their sleeves rolled seems to be related to their “greaser” background, yet their crew cut hairstyle and that the friend seems to be wearing a dog tag necklace conveys the possibility of the subjects being newly enlisted marines.

This image illustrates what John Szarkowski talks about when he refers to the story told by the picture, being an eye witness which offers a symbolic report of what happened.  A youngster getting a Tattoo is a permanent mark on his skin that speaks about his story and that of a whole group of people. I couldn’t find much of Sterling’s biography, but the way he shoots his subjects makes me think he was an outsider, not affiliated with any greaser gang.

On the other hand, Ron Van Dongen’s work is more of what we can call Studium art; where instead of talking about meaning we can concentrate on shape and form.

It is undeniable that the beauty of his compositions is interesting, yet meaningless.

I consider them to be quite commercial in the sense that this entire collection could be sold to decorate a hotel or an office.  I did not get any emotion from the images.

Van Dongen is very careful in the framing.  He fills the frame letting the sharp viewer know this through the borders on his prints, which show exactly where the frame ends.

His work can be classified by color and black and white.  Some of the subjects were photographed both in color and black and white so the audience can see the contrasts without the distraction of the color.  His color pieces are extremely saturated and his black and white pictures are very high contrast.

As you enter the show, you see both color and black and white against each other.  His work consists of close ups of flowers and plants.  Beautiful and extremely colorful, Van Dongen explores the shapes and designs of nature.  The problem that I personally confront is that I find his work empty of meaning and emotion.  Other than the esthetic value, his pieces really don’t have much to say.  They do not evoke feelings, thoughts or any type of message; they do not express anything other than the beauty of their shapes.

Although I wasn’t excited with Van Dongen’s work, I must admit that there were a couple of pieces that were really nice.  His white flowers on white background and the dark flowers, mainly roses on black background, where the image blends into the background breaking its volume and flattening it; are his best attempts of creating art.

In my opinion most of the images could be illustrations for biology books, or decoration as I mentioned before.

The image I picked was a dark on dark monochrome rose which has very precise detail

and texture, as if it was made of velvet.  The contours of the rose are illuminated so they resemble a negative charcoal painting.  The object is beautiful in itself, yet the way it is framed is quite interesting.  The flower takes over the whole frame petal to petal.  Three petals form an inverted triangle as they spread away from the center, while the center consists of two petals that enclose the bud.  The shape resembles an eye.  The vantage point seems to be a bird’s eye view.  This picture, as the others, only had a number, no titles and from what I heard, he cultivates his own plants and then photographs them.

In conclusion as we’ve seen the value of an art piece is really subjective.  In my opinion, Joseph Sterling’s work has a Puctum value because of the nature of his subjects and the time period.  On the other hand I am not completely convinced about the artistic value of Ron Van Dongen’s work, yet I am able to appreciate the Studium value of it.

In a society that values esthetics over essence I believe Effusus has a place, yet to my eye, Joseph Sterling’s work has a greater documentary value, where essence outweighs esthetics.