What you see is not what you get in images of conflict

by Jordan Green

The first image from Salisbury artist Frank Selby’s Misunderstanding exhibit that greets visitors to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art is a blur of fear and velocity.

The finely detailed pencil drawing depicts a helmeted soldier in a frantic sprint across a wrecked landscape. There’s no doubt that the image represents combat, but otherwise the title, “Chechen,” and program note offer the only context.

Using images of conflict, insurrection and rioting as means to explore the breakdown of communication, Misunderstanding turns the project of photojournalism on its head, not unlike Curtis Mann’s Modifications, which showed at SECCA last year. While photojournalism, the source of these images, purports to capture an accurate depiction of an event of significance, Selby’s renderings emphasize that, in actuality, very little is clear in combat, including where enemy fire is coming from, who is friend or foe and what motivates people to fight. The moment is transitory. What led up to it and what will happen in the future are unknown, as are the other actors and their relationships to the subject.

The exhibit begs the question: What don’t we know about the ebbing waves of reality that have conspired to produce conflicts that pit person against person?

The first impression is of a damaged or antiquated photo, a slipping film reel, but the granular accumulation of pencil marks on second examination tells the viewer to look closer. The techniques in Selby’s conceptual toolbox include blurring, doubling images and repeating frames.

“Those approaches grew out of puzzling over how to get across the idea of an absent object,” the artist said in a recent e-mail interview. “For years I’ve tried to somehow communicate the idea, a representational image whose subject, if it exists at all, is elsewhere. As I’ve been saying, the riots and uprisings and even wars are not precisely the subject of the pictures; they are to the larger group of ideas that makes up the conflict that caused them as a symptom is to a disease.

“To my mind the true subject is, as it were, off-camera. There are layers to this idea: Any representation of a thing implies the absence of the thing. Absence is a basic feature of any representation. But I wanted to figure out ways to somehow manifest that, and manifest the linguistic nature of what was missing. Hence the doubling and subtractions. If a representation requires the absence of a referent, then repeating the thing within the drawing takes away a certain sort of existence from the picture. It’s only a linguistic action, but language is what I’m tackling so it makes sense.”

“Light Blue Sands Day,” a blue watercolor based on the photograph by Gilles Peress depicts a 1981 riot in Belfast, Northern Ireland in reaction to the death of Irish republican leader Bobby Sands. The image of children running in the street towards an unknown destination bears a playful quality. Likewise, a representation of Bruno Barbey’s classic photograph of French university students rioting in Paris in 1968, entitled “Double Riot (After Bruno Barbey),” carries a feeling of expectancy. Yet Selby’s techniques of confounding and complicating the original images make views distrust those initial emotional reactions.

Selby said his current favorite in the exhibit is “Now on Now,” a pencil drawing based on a photograph of a 1970 National Organization of Women march in New York City. It’s rare among the images for its unqualified sentiment and lack of moral ambiguity.

“There is something so wonderful about seeing those brave and beautiful young women enacting change together,” Selby said. “Their youth seems to embody the new life of their movement, although of course it wasn’t a new movement. Still, it must be said that my work tries to somehow pinpoint what is not represented in the picture and therefore I can’t help thinking about the untold years of oppression women are subjected to in order to bring them to the moment pictured.”


Frank Selby’s exhibit of pencil drawings and watercolors, Misunderstanding, remains on display at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, located at 750 Marguerite Drive in Winston-Salem, through Feb. 10. Visit or call 336.725.1904 for more information.