Paul Salveson: Between the Shell

Barry Stone
January 13, 2014

Something unreal seeps into the reality of the recollections that are on the borderline between our own personal history and indefinite pre-history, in the exact place where, after us, the childhood home comes to life in us. 
–Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space1

Paul Salveson has made a board book. Between the Shell’s pages are made of rigid cardboard like a book meant for the young hands of untrained readers not well versed in the gentle arts of book handling and connoisseurship. Lying solidly like an image brick on one’s desk, inside Saleveson’s Shell reside wild images crafted in the author’s various boyhood homes. The photographs depict assemblages made from patches of wicker, Cheetos and errant shower caddies among other materials. You can smell the historical pallor of Salveson’s palate emanating from the page boards, which reek of parquet brown, harvest gold, and greige Formica. The scent is not of nostalgia, but one of both nausea and wonder.

© Paul Salveson 2013, courtesy MACK /

The book is an atlas of synthetic surfaces – the opening spread, an endless faux stone floor. This is followed by an image of stacked store-bought dinner rolls whose rounded corners are arranged in perspective atop a weathered baby blue, magic shield-shaped, shag carpet bathmat hovering motionlessly over a black void – a coat of arms for the most forlorn of families. A vertical wood-paneled surface inexplicably holds a stark white shower caddy and what could be a potato. The elements of each picture are deftly arranged to form plastic grids of suburban humor and pathos.

Salveson pictures an architecture of anxiety, where familiar objects are distorted by displacement, disrupting a presumed natural order. One leaps to thoughts of Freudian analysis and disjointed domestic childhood visions. Between the Shell creates a fantastical world enclosed in Saran Wrap where the horizon is all but obliterated, figuratively and metaphorically. One only sees floors, walls, and corners that offer no hint of escape. The stiff pages are walls that open to flat landscapes mapping territories of invented memory filled with melancholy and gallows humor.

Roland Barthes wrote in “The Photographic Message” that truly traumatic images precede rational thought and function as a “suspension of language, a blocking of meaning.”2  The uncanny dissonance of Salveson’s work is often, however, more playful than painful, as the sheer silliness of the objects tends to soften their pictorial dislocations. Who is afraid of dinner rolls and shower caddies anyway? Yet, mixed in with the bathmats and tiles are other not-so-gentle vagaries: hand-held doughy excrement, plastic packaged cherry entrails and other inscrutable organic substances. These jarring menageries confound our expectations further and introduce elements of fear into this otherwise anodyne collection of assemblages.

© Paul Salveson 2013, courtesy MACK /

Salveson’s methodologies owe much to the traditions of still life and could be seen as an extension of the painterly 17th Century practice of rhopography – a term that roughly translates to “the depiction of insignificant objects.” The still lifes of Salveson’s modern world, however, are not wrought from lobsters and candlesticks, but from shag carpet and linoleum. His compositions are photographically fueled by an interest in new forms of vernacular photography, which appears to come in equal part from Walker Evans’ documentary style as it does from the bewildering image space of the internet. In this way, his work falls in line with current still life practices. Salveson’s photographic terrain subtly combines the pioneering space-bending domestic images and interventions of John Divola and Zeke Berman, the supernormal sensibility of Michael Northrup’s family photographs, and the impossible human distortions of Asger Carlsen.

What distinguishes Salveson’s book is its fervent commitment to domestic interiority. His pictures are amalgams of industrialized household objects rendered abstract through their misplacement in plain sight.  All photographs are abstractions by some measure. Yet, what is remarkable about these pictures is the simultaneous clarity and inscrutability achieved in their compositions. Their impossible inevitability is surprising, which in turn offers the viewer a glimmer of hope despite all the prefab drudgery. Though Between the Shell’s world may be constructed from particleboard and plastic, its elements are poetically rearranged and therefore offer a possibility of wonderment, even among the darkest wood paneled interiors.

  • 1. Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, transl. M. Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 58.
  • 2. Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message,” in Image Music Text, transl. S. Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1988), 30.
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