I’ve been working to create a kind of abstract painting that engages lens based electronic culture. I’m convinced that our vision, the way we see and understand the world, has been changed dramatically. I’ve purposely shifted the genres of these paintings from the predominant 20th Century Landscape, with its dematerialized spaces and iconoclastic processes, to more figurative genres such as portraiture or history painting. I want to form abstract visual objects, to see and confront new kinds of being/images. I’m interested in creating an hybridized painted vision without Modernism, without Postmodernism, without the tropes of painting we’ve come to expect over the last 50 years. I want volume, light, value, and as Frank Stella says in his book “Working Space,” caricature, and use them to make a different experience of abstract painting. You can read more about my ideas concerning my work and contemporary art experience below and at Henri Art Magazine.
These Rough Trade posts on my recent work were originally written for Henri Art Magazine. I was doing a series of articles on painting and the challenges it faces in the 21st Century. Since I haven’t been updating my page here I thought I’d begin with a new look and these two posts. Basically they discuss my thinking about my work, about painting, specifically, and about vision. I’m very direct about what I’m trying to accomplish with my work, and how I’m going about it. I hope I’ve given you something to think about, but more importantly, I’m also giving you something to look at, to see in a different way. As time goes on I will be adding new work, some with explanation, some without. I’ll also post some of my older work as well, so that you can see where I’ve been and how I’ve come to these particular paintings. I expect this page to become a kind of studio diary, and a way to keep up with what’s going on with my visual processes. So, I hope you enjoy the new look, the newish work and the upcoming postings.
Freed from the necessity of having to make narrow choices (as painters did) about what images were worth contemplating, because of the rapidity with which cameras recorded anything, photographers made seeing into a new kind of project: as if seeing itself, pursued with sufficient avidity and single-mindedness, could indeed reconcile the claims of truth and the need to find the world beautiful. Once an object of wonder because of its capacity to render reality faithfully as well as despised at first for its base accuracy, the camera has ended by effecting a tremendous promotion of the value of appearances. Appearances as the camera records them. Photographs do not simply render reality – realistically. It is reality which is scrutinized, and evaluated, for its fidelity to photographs. “In my view,” the foremost ideologue of literary realism, Zola, declared in 1901 after fifteen years of amateur picture-taking, “you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it.” Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism.
Susan Sontag The Heroism of Vision
In our 21st Century Postmodern world EVERYTHING is seen and understood through lenses. This experience has narrowed our visual focus so that we find truth and reality in those things and only those things that pass through that electronic shutter and appear on those electronic extensions. News, information, entertainment, scholarship, you name it, we all have to show up in the same place in order to obtain it, to “see it,” to participate in it. Never has so much “reality” been concentrated in one “center” in the history of mankind, and participation in any of the social, economic and cultural industries must be based on our access to that center. But there is another more subtle experience to this online electronic world. Participation in it requires that we exist in a different, inhuman, kind of way. Lens based programming is not physical, it is designed to remake fleshy memory into something else, something infinitely malleable. We can not grasp it, understand it or participate in it without extending our consciousness, without turning our insides out as McLuhan used to say. The nature of our participation and understanding of this reality has taken on a kind of religiousity, a kind of communion with an invisible, omnipresent Kingdom of Heaven, and like seers, priests, astrologers and clairvoyants, we sift through this electronic ether looking for answers. From all walks of life we can experience a sort of hyperactivated Neo-Medievalism as our populace is constantly communing with the unseen, unheard and untouched. Our extensions – cell phones, computers, Blackberrys, and iphones – allow us to communicate with this invisible world, receive answers and perceive solutions from an omnipresent source, a contrived reality. As we have come to exist in this world we locate more and more of our lives online. We replicate – uploading photos, videos, music, recordings, diaries, thoughts and feelings – we make copies of ourselves. We dematerialize our physical lives, we capture and immortalize our past with the lens and the program, and we seek to live forever in this immaterial world, just as we once did for the Book of Life. This electronic world is our new religion, and it is has brought with it a new age of supplication and transformative experience. It has become the greatest and most powerful religion ever. In another time we would have called ourselves Ecstatics, but in this electronic age we think of ourselves in a more grandiose way, we are more god-like, we are Avatars.
“We thought we saw the 20th Century on the news, film, and elsewhere, better than any previous century, although we could say we didn’t see it all – the camera did.” David Hockney Secret Knowledge
IN this Rough Trade – Vision post we will be discussing a different type of Light, Color & Space and how it adds to the solutions we’ve discussed in Form & Structure. Again I will say that these are my solutions to the Postmodern conundrum, and they may not resonate with you. When I first began I was looking for a different process in my work, a different way to paint, one that would allow me to make something of my own, something outside of Postmodern practice. Understand that I am not saying that my solutions are the only solutions. But I do not think we painters have done enough. We have not been thinking heretically, and if anything, I am hoping that these works and these posts may start to crack the Postmodern edifice. Let’s begin…
A Brief History
From Impressionism through to Abstract Expressionism Color was systematically unfettered, unmoored, and ultimately, freed from the visual concepts of Form and Structure. And as color became more central to Modernist theoretics, the thought about what color could do, the type of experience it could relate, sort of splintered into two camps. The Southern School saw color as a vehicle of emotional expression. (“The chief function of color should be to serve expression.” Henri Matisse) The Northern School saw color as a spiritual encounter. (“Color provokes a psychic vibration. Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.” Wassily Kandinsky) These dual theoretical applications carried on until color itself, the materiality of it, fused with the surface of Modernist physicality giving us the Monochrome, the Shaped Canvas, and the finality, the “thingness,” of an object installed on a wall. (Think of Stella’s extra hefty stretchers, Marden’s waxy surfaces or Judd’s wall-mounted Boxes.) Modernism at that moment had taken the history of Western Visual Culture to an endpoint. (“My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object… What you see is what you see.” Frank Stella.)
Postmodernism, beginning in 19 Sixty, used color in a different way. Color for the Postmodernist is neither emotional, spiritual, or even a thing in itself. Its value is found in its application. It is a decorative and descriptive type of color. But that’s not quite the whole story either. Postmodern color is used as the electronic media uses color, to entice, to create a desire FOR something. It is neither emotional nor spiritual in the Modernist sense. It isn’t used to create an experience of life within a viewer. Color is most often used as a sign rather than as a vehicle, as a way to elicit a type of behavior rather than as a means of expression. In Modernism color is designed to elicit meaning – in Postmodernism the application is designed to elicit a response. Color is simply part of the larger context, a way to extend the field, an optical inference – think of the way Steven Speilberg’s DOP Janusz Kaminski faded color out of many of the movies they worked on, or the way Jeff Koons saturates his collages of magazine photos, or the way marketers package and present consumer goods in advertisements. The program always sets up contexts outside of the thing in itself designed to elicit a kind of nostalgia, a type of insatiability, or an unconscious thematic desire for something more. You might think of the differences in this way – Modernist color is personal, idiosyncratic, intuitive. POMO color is public, psychological, manipulative. Modernism’s color is interior, expressive. POMO is exterior, surreptitious. You get the idea…
Light & Space
I often ask myself – why are artists still bandying about outdated concepts like light and space, especially at this time, in this electronic age of projected light and electric hue? Light and Space are anachronisms of another time, of vision and painting – they no longer EXIST as a concern, they no longer define meaning as they once did for our culture. We’ll talk about this more in moment, but let’s backtrack a bit to the mid 19th Century when light and space did matter to painters, especially to the early Modernists. One might say that Light & Space were the first and only concern of early Modernism starting with the Impressionists’ zeal for the “effect” of light on color inplein air painting. By the turn of the century light & space had been supplanted by other concerns when flatness and surface turned Modernism away from visual perception. This path concluded with the repudiation of the visual when painters achieved physical flatness and a type of purity found in optical color. Part of the early liberation of painting in this fashion was technological – squeezable tubes of paint became available for the first time allowing painters to travel, to work in the light. The other part was theoretical – photography, suddenly, changed the nature of the game for painters. Color, Light & Space took on a new importance, seemingly overnight, for a group of experimental painters obsessed with those effects. And in describing this new light & space the idea of process took on a new importance as well. How one painted, how one defined the light & space in the illusion took on a greater importance. This idea of process along with flatness soon took the imaginations of artists into new directions. Volumetric illusion, atmospheric inference, the stuff of light and space in determining color modulations slowly diminished in their practice. Flatness became preeminent when light and space were completely excised from vision, from painting and especially from color itself. The flatter the surface became the more optical the color. It “pushed and pulled” instead of forming and structuring, it was definitive rather than defining. But even as Painters struggled to the surface they retained the old speech. The old school shop-talk of the transformative nature of light and space still hung in the air while Modernists proclaimed the new realities of flatness and purity on their canvases. I believe that this more than any other thing was the start of bad faith in Modernist painting.
Postmodernism’s break from and reworking of the Modernists’ elimination of Light & Space starts with its relationship to media, to the lens. The collaged billboard doesn’t define space nor does it define light either – this is the endpoint of Modernist color. In Postmodern practice space and light are determined FOR the reproduction, the image – this sets it apart from the history of visual painting and puts us into the reality of the lens. In the replication we are meant to look at a thing, a product, a hyper-realized ideal of some banal reality. We look at it as we would a flat ground. We gather information as we would from a photograph, a movie or TV program. We see it as a product of a mediated reality, a thing on a flat surface. The images of light and space are constantly submerged by the ground, the screen, the lens. They are not meant to convey an experience of reality, they ARE the reality, the media IS the reality and the reality is the flatness, the SuperFlat world, the constant ground. Postmodern light and space are not linked to a representation of something, they do not absorb our vision – they are clones of a mediated event. To make this a bit clearer – Greenberg used to talk of paintings being pictures – and by that he meant pictures of experience, physical documents of higher, altered artistic involvement. Today there are no pictures – there are images, one after another, that rise to the surface of the ground and then fall away again. They are not seen, the do not illuminate, their meaning is connected to the ground itself. Light and space do not define the visual experience – they are used to replicate a kind of optical patterning. There are overlaid images, photos, drawings and colors – photoshopped, cropped, cut and pasted. Space and Light are never used to define this type of interaction, they are used to construct optical references, points of entry, or like a GPS, they map where you are. (Think of Warhol’s Portraits and how those images are patterned over abstracted color grounds or the way television news replicates an event endlessly through a broadcast cycle.) Color, Light and Space do not define what is seen, the program “lights up” what should be confirmed – you don’t see anything.
“So far abstraction has struggled to get by without the associative spatial dynamics of figuration. It has been hardpressed to give us anything resembling what Picasso did in the Bather with a Beach Ball. But abstraction has not been without resources; it has gone so far as to give us painting whose pictorial drama is provided by what is not there. Malevich has given us two shades of white for figure and ground, and Mondrian has stretched landscape so taut across the painting surface that only pigmented traces of its structure remain. But brilliant as these manueverings have been, we feel that there is something lacking; flatness and materiality (that is, pigmentation for its own sake) still close up pictorial space. Volume and mass – things that seem so real, and things, not so incidentally, that seem so natural to sculpture, need to be rediscovered, reinvented or perhaps even reborn for abstract figuration. This is what Picasso said when he became a Post-Cubist painter.” Frank Stella Picasso – Working Space
To move away from the Cunundrum posed at the beginning of this century it is imperative to react and redefine what Light, Space and Color can do for abstraction. This has been a part of the difficult and complex issues that I was facing in my studio and the Masters of the late 20th Century were asking painters to understand. As time has gone on I have experienced a deep dissatisfaction with the way Postmodernism enveloped Modernism, with the way abstraction was reformatted as a critique rather than as a primary experience. I have come to see this Postmodern failure as an opportunity for painting. How one sees, how one experiences vision and color, light & space is an extremely personal thing. When confronted with the Postmodern I always felt that this connection to personal experience was not visible, at least not in the work or the things that I was encountering. Color always looked as if one were choosing, as one chooses things in a store or on a menu or on a program – the best examples of this sort of consumerist color are Richter’s giant abstract paintings that always wind up looking tasteful and beautiful in very nondescript and uninvolved ways – they are designed, deliberate and empty. I wanted color to be something a bit deeper, thicker and more personal. I am not a spiritual person and the Northern School of the Modernists never captured my imagination, but the Southern School with its emphasis on emotion has always been closer to my temperament. But in my affinity for the Southern School I also realized that it would be impossible to “go back” and reuse Modernism in their way, that my idea of color had to be mine, had to be connected to vision, to form & structure, and ultimately, to something personal and experienced. But here is the rub, I live, breathe and exist in the Postmodern color saturated world – a place so rich in optical color that none of it approaches being personal, none of it is mine and all of it is designed to constantly rev my engines and stoke my desire. Color in other words is not about passion which demands a physical involvement, but it is about context which demands only my passing interest. The best example of this kind techno-immersive opticality is to stand in Times Square and watch the screens and reflections of pure electrically enhanced hue being pumped into the atmosphere. This hyperactivated color, rich as it is in optical pleasure and economic desire, does not, can not speak with real personal emotion. It NEVER speaks for my interests, never for my small world. Ultimately this sort of color plays the Postmodern endgame of “push and pull” – flashing planes of desire, overlays of interest, immersing one in the thin electronic sheets of commercial optical surfaces. WE are seduced but never loved, teased but never satisfied and always left wanting something more, something real, something thicker.
Now I don’t know how to do this any other way so I will write about my color in the way that I’ve relayed it to my friends. You may find this tedious, but it is the only true way I can discuss it. SO consider that you’ve been warned…
When I understood that color was no longer mine, no longer a part of a kind of truth or singular experience, I began looking to create a different way, a different involvement in color. Here in the US we get smatterings of Western painting, usually second or third string paintings sold to rich collectors in back rooms. We don’t get the full experience of what History painting does or means because so many of the masterworks we’ve learned about do not leave the churches and museums where they are hung. We learn of these things through bad reproductions in slides, books, magazines and now through jpegs and video. In 1995 I was lucky enough to find myself in Venice for the first time – no money, really cheap hotel with a bathroom down the hall and 7 days to wander the alleyways and plazas as I saw fit. I sought out the Venetians with purpose in order to see color in a new light, so to speak. For years I had been reading about the Venetians and their color and this was my first real experience of it. Michelangelo lamented their drawing abilities while he praised their color to the heavens. Titian and Giorgioni were lauded for their subtle hues and values that made their visual world feel real and alive. Veronese and Tintoretto used color to transform the banal everyday gatherings of Venetians into grand soliloquies of powerful expression and rich association. Their color has a vibrancy and thickness modulated by the eye and enhanced by their history, their memory. It is everyday color seen and experienced in the flesh, so to speak, and it is rich with the heat of life. It is a color of memory, of touch and of pure passion transforming painting into something visually real and physically palpable.
What I was unprepared for was the space and the light. White and black, complimentary, secondary and tertiary colors are mixed into the hue modulating the tones with value. Space, particularly the tight interior space of figuration, is electrified when it is warmed or cooled and then molded by light. In fact the depiction of light effects plays an important role in how color is used to define form and structure in Venetian painting. It sets the scene, it opens the door for our entry into a real visual encounter. As I sat in the Scuola di San Rocco I began to understand the power of earthy color, light & space in a new way. Particularly in the way Tintoretto played with this idea in his compositions and figurations. In one painting he could move you in close, pull you back out, wrap you in light and swamp you in flesh. It is visually astounding. I felt that if I could combine this sort of Venetian visual richness of modulated, volumetric color with the expressive possibilities inherent in 20th Century color I might be able to enliven painted abstraction in a different way – in a way that Postmodernism’s color does not, can not do. It seems simple, but it isn’t, because as you know, the lens has changed HOW we see and UNDERSTAND these things. Everything is mediated through that goddamned lens, and as a painter, I had to come to terms with this idea and this reality. Simply put, ONE CAN NOT GO BACK – though one might be able to steal something and find a new use for it. And that’s where I thought I’d start.
For me it boiled down to the Venetian primaries – yellow, red & blue. These are the colors that begin nearly every statement of fact in Venetian painting, but in today’s world they are also the colors of commerce, these are the simple tools of any marketing promotion. How one modulates them, how one “values” (and I mean this in both ways) color is how one hones them into a personal vision. Whenever I began with bright secondaries – greens, purples and oranges – suddenly I found myself in a Richter situation or worse a Paschke situation. Unmodulated tertiaries followed, and at one point I was using fluorescent backgrounds and high keyed complimentaries to create an optical jump in figure and ground. The Postmodern was extremely hard to push back against while trying to remain pictorially viable. The problem was always the space and the light, the modulated form and the volumetric spaces. Flatness, physicality, materiality and opticality have been the norm for so long we have forgotten that we might be able to SEE in a different way. Abstraction, my abstraction, would have to be thicker, more real in its way, and mostly, it would have to risk being misunderstood. And that misunderstanding is connected to HOW we see and the power that the lens has on our vision. With the lens we push in close and tight, we tend to feel our vision rather than see it. When we push in close without the lens we change our relationship to color, we make it physical. By using this idea and engaging the color, feeling the light and space we change the POMO game. We feel our spaces, we no longer have the distance of the Renaissance window or the interior depth of the camera obscura – we are in the scene, we are a part of the painting. At a distance, through the lens it remains flat, it remains on the surface and out of our reach. We can not participate in the visual, we can not involve our eyes in what we are feeling. It boils down to the fact that with a program driven lens based culture we know before we see, and we confirm what we know with our eyes. We are no longer visual individuals, but part of a larger optical collective. The ground rather than the rising subject is our focus. But when we refocus on our own experience, on our own color, light & space in the optical world we can find difference, we make a difference. We can develop a different sort of visual experience.
Which brings us to this last point about abstraction. So many painters equate space and the depiction of that space with landscape painting. This may be so, but the simple truth for me is I am not a landscape painter – I don’t have a feel for it, it’s not an interest. I prefer the spaces of human involvement – the interstitial spaces of touch. When I go into a museum I admire the color or the light in landscape paintings and I move on – quickly – to the history painting, the portraits and the mythologies. Modernism and Postmodernism seemed in one way or another to have embraced the idea of landscape for its spatial experimentation – things in a field, things on a field, or finally, the field (ground) itself. Picasso and Matisse were the last figurative experimenters, but their most influential work on the 20th Century was through their still lifes and their landscapes. In the history of Western Painting there was a strong visual involvement with the individual, the human encounter and the life before us. Figuration, the rising subject, the portrait – all that had been waylaid or set aside or had remained the province of the photographic, the reactionary or the rear guard. When I examine this idea of landscape I can understand the visual confrontation with Nature, the encounter with the sublime, but as an artist I value the relationship, the look of the other, the physical human encounter – I find those things just as sublime and just as powerful. I felt that this history had become an ignored practice of painters, especially abstract painters. And Stella’s Working Space raised this very specter of human visual involvement when I was beginning to question painting. This was my start, this is what led me to color, light & space. These things have guided my fascination and formulation for a different kind of abstraction. I’ve raised a lot of points in these two posts about the basics of abstraction after Postmodernism. I believe there are many painters who are equally unsatisfied with the direction and aims of current abstract painting. So it’s up to us to change it, to make ourselves known and to challenge the academy at every turn. Live, Think, Paint!
“The traditional fine arts rely on the distinction between authentic and fake, between original and copy, between good taste and bad taste; the media blur, if they do not abolish outright, these distinctions. The fine arts assume that certain experiences or subjects have a meaning. The media are essentially contentless (this is the truth behind Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated remark about the message being the medium itself); their characteristic tone is ironic, or dead-pan, or parodistic. It is inevitable that more and more art will be designed to end as photographs.” Susan Sontag Photographic Evangels
These last two Rough Trade posts will be about some of the solutions to the problems posed by Postmodernism that I have applied to my painting. I’m very specific about what my work is doing and the way I put it together. I will say straight out that my solutions may not resonate with you, and that is OK. I won’t be discussing the works’ meaning directly, but I will be discussing my style and how I intend that to create meaning in the work. Like all artists I prefer you come to your own conclusions, but make no mistake, the work will lead you to meaning through visual engagement. I intend the meaning to be IN the painting rather than through a contextual engagement with an extended field. These paintings are meant as a direct visual confrontation. So with that caveat let us begin…
For this first part of Rough Trade – Vision let’s start with the basics – the Form and Structure of a painting. You might call this the entry level to painting. And with these basics we’ll begin to unravel the contemporary Conundrum – how to get beyond Postmodern sensibilities. The not-so-simple truth is that when one starts to tackle Form and Structure one either sets oneself on the path to understanding or one sets oneself up for compositional disaster. How many times do painters find themselves stuck when the foundation no longer holds the Form? Foundations will always determine how the Form will unfold no matter what bullshit about improvisation and extended field we’ve all been told. So in the spirit of function I have done this particular series of Black & White paintings in order to focus our visual engagement, to attack the Form & Structure head on. What I want to convey first is that these paintings involve a Post-Postmodern theoretical visual engagement rather than the usual Postmodern critical optical engagement. I have also set these works apart from 20th century Modernism, from flatness, materiality and pure abstraction. First, I’ve accessed the process of Modernist abstraction indirectly, using classic studio techniques to integrate and synthesize Postmodern lens replication into vision. And secondly, I’ve applied a thicker, more complex visual interplay into the work, a kind of primary process. For this post let’s sidestep the issues of color.
Briefly, in Modernism everything tended to move to flatness and to surface, which brought us, finally, to the materiality of the thing in itself. In Postmodernism we moved from the material to the immaterial, from the physicality of process, to the mapping of those processes through lenses and programs. During these two major movements of the 20th Century the way we understand what we see changed significantly. We began to rely on the lens to provide the context and complete the visual process for whatever we encountered in the world around us. We began to expect that our vision adhere to the limitations of the lens, until finally, it framed every visual experience, fleshy memory and cultural encounter. This optical hegemony has been further compounded by the fact that computers and programs rely almost exclusively on the lens to upload and manipulate that optical data. This alliance of program and lens has forever changed how we accept and interpret visual information. For example the program Photoshop is used both as an abstraction machine and an image manipulator providing the collaged surface patterning we have come to regard as “abstract” and also the enhanced optical photo imaging used to describe “reality.” We have defined EVERYTHING as Art creating a culture of the hyper-real. With this sort of lens based programming ideas of reproduction, representation and appropriation have come to dominate our views of late 20th and early 21st Century art making. The process of fetishized optical replication is now the ONLY art and art’s programmed dematerialization is the outcome of that process. Painters, especially, have been trapped in the endgame of this tautological mechanization of vision.
From 19 Sixty through the end of the 20th Century there have been furtive suggestions and not-so-quiet speculations about painting’s current predicament from some of our Modern Masters. Picasso’s late work which for many years was overlooked and ignored, we’ve discussed at length in other posts. Frank Stella’s Working Space tried to propose a different approach to abstraction as he speculated that Baroque illusionistic space could infuse painting with a new visual viability. However, this approach contradicts his work’s overt OTT POMO mannerism and his insistence on Modernism’s flatness and physicality. David Hockney’s tremendous and ground breaking theory of the history of lenses in Western painting in Secret Knowledge opened up a different argument about how we can understand vision. Hockney has found renewed ambition for his work, but he remains happily tied to a kind of Pre-Modern Pop Naturalism exemplified by his use of multiple “lens” viewpoints a process he calls “wonky.” He looks backward rather than forward. What I found in these Masters’ work and in their thoughts were hints of an alternative solution to the Postmodern conundrum, to the limitations of the flat, billboard-like, contextual appropriation that has slowly squeezed the life out of painterly visual engagement. But unlike them, I find it imperative that I use the visual tools of both the Modern and Postmodern world to form a different sort of abstract painting based on a more expansive visual engagement.
“But the truths that can be rendered in a dissociated moment, however significant or decisive, have a very narrow relation to the needs of understanding. Contrary to what is suggested by the humanist claims made for photography, the camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth.” Susan Sontag The Heroism of Vision
First I want to discuss painting Structure in relation to our lens infused culture. I believe that we should approach this Structure from a different perspective, a different “view” from both Modernist painting which relies on a traditional figure ground relationship, and Postmodernism which relies on a collage billboard approach. These types of structures were both formed through lenses, reproduction and replication. Modernism supposedly freed painting to become what it was – material and surface. It found liberation in painting purity. Postmodernism repudiated the Modern by embracing lens replication programming fragmenting and dematerializing Modernism. The pure became the invisible, the pretexts of Modernism became the contexts of Postmodernism, and the lens, once the liberator of painting, became the fascination of painting. In both movements we have to understand HOW a lens works as it composes both the figure/field and the collage/ground. In both movements we must understand how these compositional devices are perceived as a kind of reality or a patterning that involves an optical reality rather than a visual one.
First the lens flattens. Whether we are looking at a landscape or a portrait, the lens pushes everything straight to the surface and across that surface from side to side. Artists understood this effect from the beginning of photography’s inception. Even so-called “primitive” cultures understood this “flattening” of experiential vision, likening it to capturing someone’s essence or holding on to their time. By removing the physical experiential part of vision – the thickening of perception through time – the rising subject is submerged and subordinated to the process of optical mechanization – it is submerged by the ground, the focus becomes the process. In other words we create a sign or an avatar through lens imaging. (Think of a passport photo, an imaged likeness that becomes a blank ground or Jasper Johns’ flayed self portraits.)
The second part is the “likeness” that the imaged replication produces. We have come to regard this “likeness” as a form of documentation, a type of reality on which we base our understanding and expectations of how culture works. But it is the machine that captures this reality, it is the program that catalogues and manipulates it, and it is the programmed process that keeps replicating the data and submerging it back into the ground. Likeness becomes data and is separated from meaning. (Think of the ubiquity of the Che Guevara T-Shirt or the image of Albert Einstein with his tongue hanging out.)
Painting requires both eye and hand, one translates vision through the physical manifestation of sight. This practice demands that one develop a skill underwritten by one’s consciousness and memory. When we rely on the lens we become dependent on the machine, on the program and on the process of that appropriation – we are not required to become involved. Our hands remain “clean.” In relying on the lens we have to seek expression through the materiality or the process of the imaging, and this takes precedence over the thing seen in itself, we remain distanced and removed. In other words there is no longer the need to engage a rising subject, the ground is the outcome of optically focused attention. We are empty handed.
Many traditional painters (both abstract and figurative) still want to hold on to the academic ideal of “slow painting” hoping that the visual connection to an older process provides a visual weight or viability to their work. But because something is hand made doesn’t necessarily make it visually stronger, especially when relying on traditional historic precedential Structures to create the composition. A “thing in a field” or the “field as the thing” can not carry us further, can not create something seen in our dematerialized age. Instead what we experience when looking at this sort of work is the appropriated image, the submerged likeness. So artists have fetishized the idea of touch, that their moment of expression was the key to a type of humanity. There has been a great deal of abstract work in the last 30 years that encapsulated that touch. But this fetishization of the handmade is not enough to provide a rich visual encounter, especially as it recontextualizes Modernist practice. What we get in that case is Mannerism without the vision, something that employs a known and “pre-existing” condition. Instead, our focus must be direct, and we must abstract through all of our messy humanity without a reliance on an historical Expressionism.
But to achieve this we can not do it in the old ways. Postmodernism has cleared away that past, and it is the Postmodern that we must push against. The lens image is instantaneous, quick, and impersonal and our vision must accomodate this. We must isolate and define the world just as the lens does. But we must also refine this, take this back into our physical selves, reclaim the process of seeing. For me the delineation and composition of Structure is close to the idea of a lens-captured image, but as a PAINTER, the process must become more personal, more physically direct. Traditionally, painters defined this visual encounter of thickness through mass and volume. I wanted to accomplish this same effect, but in a quicker, direct way using both traditional chiarscuro (light and dark) and cross hatching (a process delineating light and dark) one re-defining the other, one creating a visual tension with the other. I double the process of volumizing, of creating thickness while playing the game of Modernism, the game of flatness. The lens is far too quick at localizing effects, so as a painter, I felt I must counter that effect with delineation, using drawing to reconfigure the speed of lens sight. Delineation allows for instantaneous focus, but it also allows for memory in a way the lens does not. I felt that Captured Structure rather than Appropriated Structure would be made visual in this way without the use of a program, of Postmodern extended fields, and this technique relied directly on the eye, on vision to provide engaged meaning. I felt this was a different way to use drawing and painting. It is both lens and flesh and it creates a thicker visual experience. For the early Modernist drawing was essential to the realization of form and it was through drawing that process and flatness became ascendant. Drawing wasn’t determined by photo-chemicals or later by the electronic program, rather it was a directly experienced event extending in time through the artist, through memory. It is why Matisse and Picasso were both so insistent on drawing and bringing that drawing into painting. With this sort of Structure we attack lens programming with painting’s strengths.
What we have come to expect from POMO work is a preoccupation with the idea of reproduction, or more precisely, replication. Replication in itself is threefold, first it captures, second it simplifies optical processing, and finally, it does away with the concept of the original. The idea of a simplified process was an interesting solution to the problem of Form, and if I could slip through the process, both the capture and the replication would become redundant to the outcome. I thought it boiled down to the fact that I would have to use simplified reproductive processes in a handmade way. Crosshatching, block shading and line reduction all could link me back to the immediacy of drawing by using the accepted tools of Postmodern reproduction and replication to get me there. So I created a complicated process of using illusionistic painting techniques structured through academic drawing techniques and finally pulled those through a lens based reproductive process. (Think of Picasso’s etchings and Lichtenstein’s paintings as a model.) I used this to emphasize and explicate the Form itself. This would move me beyond the Postmodern program by subverting its subservience to the replicating process. Drawing and Painting at the same time put the rising subject back into my hands, so to speak, without resorting to a reactionary contextual historicism. I wanted to create a new painting hybrid. In this way my abstraction retained process, but process connected to actual visual practice rather than one allied to optical signifiers. Additionally, by subverting the Postmodern tendency to create signifiers rather than bodies I could complete the VISUAL work without the lens. The work is contained, the visual idea is implicit, and the rising subject takes precedence in the abstracted vision. The work is neither part of the traditional figure/ground or part of the electronic billboard, but something else, visual and thorough.
For me abstraction must comprise a radical visual engagement. This new active seeing should not be aligned to flatness or surface, context or appropriation but to Form and Structure. Abstraction, and especially, abstract painting, must adapt itself to a deeper visual understanding of meaning rather than remain content to follow our current practice of “optical” recognition so that we may push away from the Postmodern. In these paintings the Form is abstract, must be abstract, but it is abstracted from a visual encounter, an engaged memory with (in this case) a figurative element, something that I have experienced directly. It is figuration up close, Form and Structure as directly encountered. This is something I call Close Vision – this is vision of touch. We see a similar thing happen in lens work when we watch a movie. The lens creates an intimacy for the viewer when the camera moves in close to the subjects, cutting and focusing on aspects of what is being touched. We use our eyes in a similar manner when we become intimate with a rising subject. When we’re in close we “feel” with our eyes. We’re not sure of what we see, but we visualize texture, structure, shape, temperature etc., to come to understand what we think we see. Our eyes become dominant as they are extended through the “touch” of our other senses. By emphasizing the Form and Structure in such a way we create a sort of visual physical intimacy while honing a connection to an enhanced understanding of the visual subject. We achieve a Thickness that remains unfulfilled in Postmodern lens appropriation, and we form a visual presence, a rising subject unmet by Modernist physicality. By asserting Structure and Form in this way we move beyond the extended Postmodern ground and focus again on visual presence, movement and Thickness. The immaterial no longer dominates.
In the next part of this post we will discuss Light, Space and Color and expand on the ideas we’ve been discussing so far.
Coming up Vision Part II…