Last April, Liz Rideal and I spent a week in Kyoto. For Rideal, although she had never been to Japan before, the trip was something of a homecoming. For years, she’d been fascinated by the way the Japanese – citizens, like the British, of a small island anchored off a large continent – had coped with the idea of smallness.


The traditional British answer to the problem has been to look outward, to imagine the grandiose. The art of Britain has been the art of imagined bigness, and hence of big imaginings: Constable’s distant prospects, Turner lashed to the mast, Blake’s ghostly fleas. Faced with the same constraints of size, the Japanese have arrived at precisely the opposite answer: a cult of inscape rather than of landscape.


This aesthetic has bred its own rules. The god of Japanese art is the god of perversely small things. The famous kare-sansui – or Buddhist dry gardens – of Kyoto’s Daitoku-ji temple are not about the model-village thrill of finding yourself a giant in a miniature world. (Still less do they have to do with galumphing words like “abstraction” and “minimalism”.) Rather, they are about the dynamics of completeness and containment: the quiet wonder of being able to see an entire scene, and all its interrelations, in a single glance and moment.


It wasn’t primarily the gravel seas and boulder islands of Daitoku-ji that caught Liz Rideal’s imagination in Kyoto, though. What really intrigued her was the warren of streets around Nishijin, an old artisanal quarter still lived in by silk-weavers and textile workers. The odd thing about the houses in Nishijin is their inwardness.


There is no feeling of planned development to the streets and no house-numbers; no assumed communalism, no neighbourliness. Stroll down an alley and you are left with a strong sense of being excluded from its inner life, although with an equally strong sense of the inner life from which you are being excluded. FaÁades are blank, like sex shops or bookmakers. What you are allowed to see, by and large, are the unadorned backs of things: a grill behind a frosted pane behind a paper blind behind a screen.


You can see where the appeal might lie for Liz Rideal. Like the kare-sansui gardens, the point of Nishijin’s domestic architecture is not so much its embracing of smallness as its ritualising of the rules of smallness. The Japanese take on domesticity is an exact inversion of the Englishman’s idea of his home as a castle, a piece of fancy that relies on finding grandeur by looking outwards across imagined acres to a fictive horizon. Scale in Japan works the other way around, being measured internally from obscured windows rather than externally through them, in units of tatami mats rather than of distance. Consequently domesticity itself becomes a great thing, a drama of self-containment. 


The similarity of all this with photo-booth photography is obvious. When she first started experimenting with the medium fifteen years ago, Liz Rideal was struck by the way in which the photo-booth turns theatre inside-out. Instead of the collective experience of being spoon-fed revelation in an amphitheatre, the excitement of the booth lies in curtaining yourself off from the crowd in a public place. It’s a subjective rather than an objective process, with yourself as the subject and your own tiny dramas as the narrative. It’s a comic medium, and yet (as anyone who has looked with horror at that strip of four vampiric mugshots will know) part of the comedy lies in the essentially tragic fact that we seldom get what we think we deserve. We invent the machine, we pay it and suck in our cheeks for it and it does whatever it likes.


This might lead you to assume that Rideal’s fondness for the photo-booth is ironic in some way. Her subjects however – garden flowers and drapery – are the stuff of still lifes and history paintings, High Art. Given that the function of the photo-booth is the making of portraits (another High Art pursuit), her exclusion of the figure in favour of what looks like consciously inappropriate subject matter suggests something in the way of subversion: particularly so, given Rideal’s long association with London’s National Portrait Gallery. Perhaps the artist is saying Warholian things about the pointlessness of demarcations between High and Low Art in an age of mechanical reproduction; perhaps something about the banalising power of photography. Perhaps her work is a Luddite stand against the mechanistic nature of the modern world, perhaps all of the above.


Or, perhaps, none of them. When I asked Rideal to provide images accompany this essay, she wordlessly produced the following: Utagawa Hiroshige’s Matsu Province: Scenery at Matsushima an etched alphabet of hand-gestures from John Bulwer’s 1644 manual on rhetoric, Chironomia; a black-and-white photograph of a shuttered window in her French grandmother’s apartment in Paris a postcard of Henri Fantin-Latour’s Spray of Purple Lilac from the San Francisco Legion of Honour Museum; a Madonna and Child by Dirk Bouts; Etienne-Jules Marey’s photograph of plumes of smoke wafting around a curved surface; and a stereoscope card of Japanese women at an Edwardian flower-show in Yokohama entitled “Four Little Maids Are We”. 


What can we deduce from this choice? The Fantin-Latour and Bouts suggest that Rideal chooses her subjects not so much for their beauty as for their painterly quality. Her work is the same as, but different from, that of her mentors: a new look at an old idea, an act of homage that is intended to make us re-notice both the thing that is being praised and the means of its praising. Bulwer’s rhetorical tract a nd Marey’s photograph show the artist’s fascination with the grammar of movement, and with the way that grammar can be abstracted into a visual code. The four Japanese maids are also about optical languages, conventions for codifying things like stereoscopic vision.


It is the last, and perhaps most unlikely, pairing of a Paris window with a Hiroshige landscape that tells you most about Liz Rideal’s work, though. For one thing, it introduces a biographical note to her images. Rideal’s exclusion of the human figure is not complete. The artist’s hand makes an occasional ludic appearance in the frame, stressing the accidental nature of what we commonly think of as a mechanical process, but also playing a quiet game of cat-and-mouse with the idea of authorship. In the same way, her proffering of her grandmother’s window suggests a reason for her empathy with the Japanese aesthetic of enclosure – an aesthetic that finds its ultimate expression in Matsu Province: Scenery at Matsushima.


Look at Hiroshige’s woodblock print and you will see the same inversion of Western thought as you do in the streets of Nishijin. Were the work to have been made by (say) an English contemporary of Hiroshige’s, its point would have been a recession into depth. Hiroshige, by contrast, stresses the verticality of his picture, using a portrait rather than a landscape format and inviting an up-down reading against a flat picture-plane by colouring his perspectival foreground and background in the same dark blue.


Like the obscured windows of Nishijin, his picture rejects the overblown significance of horizon in favour of a smaller drama which is codified, complete and self-contained. And that same drama is the one we see being played out, again and again, in Liz Rideal’s work. 


If you were to find a single word to define the spirit of that work, the word might well be “politesse”. This is not to suggest the well-bred lifting of little fingers or the distant clink of tea-cups. Rather, Rideal takes on board (even cultifies) the whole idea of rules, taking the obvious perameters of her medium and playing with them, weaving them into the fabric of her art. Robert Frost compared the writing of free verse to playing tennis without a net. Rideal’s art starts from the same position: that rules are there as an essential part of the game, to be embraced rather than discarded.


Take any work here, for example the Fantin-Latour Homage. The point about photo-booth photographs is that they are neutral, alike and taken in a strip: mechanistic, if you like, with none of the hand-made quality and authenticity that we now value in a painter like Fantin-Latour. Rideal’s Homage out-booths the photo-booth, presenting us with not four but four dozen identical images, arranged in a grid so strict that we are torn between reading the end result as a collection of tesserae or as a single, abstracted work.


And yet it is precisely Rideal’s observation of these rules that introduces a deeper tension into the picture. In fact, her grid is not as strict as it seems. Tiny differences; the inversion of alternate photo-strips and the variations in lighting, set up rhomboidal rhythms in the work that bring to mind the Op art work of Briget Riley. Slivers of frame, a sign of enclosure, can as easily be read as connective tissue in an overall pattern. The photo-strips are both a pictorial medium in their own right and a material in the making of pictures, woven together like quilting. And behind all of this is the playfulness that bent the rules in the first place by putting a High Art subject in a Low Art setting; and creating an obscure narrative.


For all the playfulness of this process, though, there is nothing of BritArt glibness in Rideal’s images. Suggest an ironic reading of her work and she will deny it: instead, she talks about the painterly finishes achievable with a photo-booth, the beauty and precision of identical repetition. The obvious analogy is with a musical instrument, a machine for the making of art. Nor does Rideal’s exclusion of the human figure, and particularly of her own figure, from the frame suggest any kind of aloofness from her process. She is in all her pictures, her own daily drama is as much a part of them as if she were using the booth for its more normal purpose.


This is especially apparent in her latest large-scale prints blown up from ten by eight colour negatives of photographs made directly from her original photo-booth images. Photographs of photographs, portraits of portraits: it’s a very Japanese game, which is to say, it’s a game of rules.


Mask: Runner Bean is, in terms of Rideal’s usual practice, verging on the Baroque. Quite apart from the question of scale, the clogged roots of its subject have a (literal) earthiness that seems shocking against the picture’s white muslin background. Rideal has used the set focal length of a photo-booth, producing areas of blurring, to reinforce the sense of three-dimensional modelling in her image. This creates a Hitchcockian drama. And yet the real drama comes from the fact that – for all their seeming to defy physics – these are clearly photo-booth pictures, with ghostly frames and a flat, neutral, narrative reminiscent of Hiroshige. They are impossible but credible, unlikely yet seductive.


Part of Rideal’s fondness for the photo-booth is not formal but nostalgic and in that sense autobiographical. The booth is a place where we record banal things and, in recording them, make them special. One of the new works is called Sunny Gardens after the name of the suburban road where the artist spent part of her early life. Another, Wyang Kulit, takes its title from the Malay shadow-puppets that Rideal saw during a time spent in Singapore as a child. Her fascination with the puppets, now as then, came from the way their shadows were both back-projected onto a sheet and distorted by it: contained by enclosure and created by it. Without that personal drama, you might see Rideal’s work as tricky or obsessive. With it, it’s extraordinary.


Charles Darwent, 2001