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Essay: On time, repetition and melancholia in Anthony Boswell’s work

‘Time Box’ (2010) is a modest theatrical set-up enclosed within a white carton, with one vertical cardboard wall removed for viewing. The room is surreal, inverted and askew, with a wooden model chair, a photograph taken from a three-dimensional grey watercolour interior, and a gold-rimmed timepiece reflected in its mirrored floor. The ticking clock in the mirror runs backwards, indicating disorder. Its face points up, directing one’s gaze perpetually back and forth between the real and the reflected scene. This doubled stage disrupts the completeness of conventional viewing, fixing instead a boxed-in, spatial and temporal loop, figuring artist Anthony Boswell’s thick sense of the unheimlich: “There are moments when home is not completely secure a shelter.”

Freud describes psychic temporality as very different to the linear, developmental sense of time that we use to frame everyday life. Repetition and relay, “anticipations and reconstructions,” structure our mental processes. In a psychoanalytic account, the painful, desiring state of melancholia is full of such returns, endlessly circling in one’s mind something perceived to be missing. Of course, it is not my job to diagnose the artist. Rather, as Hal Foster has attended to across twentieth century avant-garde practice, the repeat patterns within Boswell’s individual works, and his oeuvre, are significant, as they metaphor melancholic longing and reiteration.

His drawing and painting evokes a spectrum of experiences of time, space and emotion, from the lingering stillness of the Hammershoi-esque ‘Lovers’ (2011) to the uneasy friction between competing potentialities in ‘Moment of entering or leaving’ (2010). Specific residential environments, for example, the artist’s home, or an Edwardian house-turned-museum become strangely familiar. Often in cinema, such as Stephen Poliakoff’s ‘Joe’s Palace’ (2007) and James Ivory’s ‘The Remains of the Day’ (1993), domestic settings provide clues into the inner lives of their characters, or even loom as defining personalities in their own right. While human figures are absent from Boswell’s images and models, each work’s closely observed interiority similarly mirages a compelling – but lost – personal presence.

In the artist’s recent experimental films, troubled time, repeated location, and implied character tighten in a melancholic weave. ‘Elusive’ (2011) is a careful montage of alternating interior and exterior shots, often recognisable from Boswell’s prior drawings and paintings. Transient light and shadow – filtered through curtains, sky-splitting during a storm – reveal a world doggedly sustained “between the fleeting glimpses” of everyday sight. An evocative, graphite study of a window and stairway flashes on and off the screen, strengthening the circular relationship between two dimensional work and moving image.

Pamela Lee’s ‘Chronophobia’ (2004) explores post-1960 cultural and artistic anxiety about time being “fractured, sped up, multiplied” due to technological advances, using the surrealist-turned-kinetic sculptor Pol Bury as an example. Viewing his ‘16 Parallelepipeds’ (1962) after stretches of patient waiting one is “startled by tiny, possibly imagined movement,” interrupting the continuum. While Boswell’s work makes sense in this context, his concerns resonate equally with earlier tropes of “pent up energy,” reworking and preserving modernist relevance to contemporary practice. For example, by recording qualities of light, ‘Elusive’ appears to begin, conventionally, in the morning and end at night. However, what happens in between is fragmented, layered, and concentrated; relying on the formal rhythmic energy of familiar place, and paralleling the way Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’ (1931) conflates character and setting across both condensed and extended time frames.

As we have seen, the motion of return is key to Boswell’s practice. Motifs and settings are recycled across drawing, painting and film; a more expansive, and yet fractured, version of ‘Time Box’s’ perpetual loop. The absent, but implied, presence of human residents recalls the central, compelling void of melancholia. As the artist moves further into cinematic work, the productive multiplicity of images circling that gap must only intensify.

1. Anthony Boswell- from his blog ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ 23rd July 2011
2. Lacan’s reading of Freud, in Hal Foster, ‘Whats Neo about Neo-Avant Garde’, October 70 (Autumn 1994) p.30
3. Hal Foster 1994
4. Anthony Boswell. ‘Elusive’ 2011
5. Pamela Lee, in James Meyer, review ‘Chronophobia, 2004. Art Bulletin. 88.4, (December 2006) p.782
6. Robert Schuster, ‘Pol Bury at Chelsea Art Museum’, Village Voice 11th March 2009
7. Henry Moore, ‘The sculptors aims’.