NABOKV-L post 0017329, Sun, 16 Nov 2008 17:03:50 -0500

Nabokov once dismissed his reviewers ...

FRATER / OPACITYThe Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once dismissed his reviewers for mistakenly assuming that 'seeing through things' was his professional function, as if the prescribed role of the novelist was to probe hidden meanings or to delve into the historicity of his subject. For Nabokov (at least, for this incarnation of Nabokov – he had many faces) someone approaching a work of art with these intentions is distracted, even hazardously distracted, from its real and immediate significance. “A thin veneer of immediate reality,” he writes in Transparent Things, “… is spread over natural and artificial things, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish.” His point is, I guess, that if you stop and stare at any one spot for too long, you’ll crack the surface of the ice and fall through. Things pretty much are what they are, and when you start reading into them too much they lose their immediate meaning. Or to put it another way, someone who over-analyses can be in as precarious a position as a complete dim-wit. I mean, I might be able to read all sorts of brilliant things into a dog turd on the pavement, but if I step in it my foot’s still going to stink. Sometimes it’s better to look once and keep moving on, sliding over the surface, than it is to stop and plunge right into something. At least if you want to stay dry and keep your feet clean. Anyway, I think Nabokov’s principle is a good thing to keep in mind when looking at art sometimes, especially if it’s the kind of work that an artist like Richard Frater makes. Frater’s objects are a lot like a sheet of ice in some ways - they’re pretty ‘thin’. And I don’t mean ‘thin’ in a pejorative sense; I don’t think they lack conceptual substance. I mean they’re transparent – they work in the opposite direction to the sorts of art that Nabokov's reviewers expected. Looking back over Frater’s recent work this is pretty obvious: a fridge made of paper, several empty aluminium frames, various curls of hose-piping…and you don’t get much thinner (or more transparent) than his brick incident which had all of it’s materials removed. These works don’t ask you to spend too much time studying their detail. They don’t have a lot. And when they do they tend to frame something beyond the work itself. Empty space. Gallery space. Snow. Water. For the most part, you're more likely to start looking past the pieces into the area surrounding them. To stop and look too closely at the works, as though they might be laden with all manner of political and cultural ideas, might tempt you away from their immediate significance, the materiality of their present. They’re purely incidental. I kind of agree with something Sam Rountree Williams said about Frater’s work. Talking about one of his rug pieces, R.W. wrote that the work “is both useless and non-informational, and must be thought of as much more than an aesthetic phenomenon: it is question of the work’s role within a greater immanent system.” Well, I don’t know much about immanent systems or aesthetic phenomena, but I do agree that if you look at Frater’s work for information and utility (as Nabokov’s reviewers did his novels) you’re probably looking for the wrong things. You might be about to drop through the ice. Better, I think, to glide through the works, appreciate their dimensions, take in the gesture as a whole. Matt Harris, November 2008.

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Visit Zembla:
View Nabokv-L policies:
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:"

Manage subscription options: