Vision – Late

Everyone will have noticed how much easier it is to get hold of a painting, more particularly a sculpture, and especially architecture, in a photograph than in reality. It is all too tempting to blame this squarely on the decline of artistic appreciation, on a failure of contemporary’ sensibility. But one is brought up short by the way the understanding of great works was transformed at about the same time the techniques of reproduction were being developed. Such works can no longer be regarded as the products of individuals; they have become a collective creation, a corpus so vast it can be assimilated only through miniaturization. In the final analysis, mechanical reproduction is a technique of diminution that helps people to achieve control over works of art – a control without whose aid they could no longer be used. Walter Benjamin A Short History of Photography

The world is filled to suffocating. Man has placed his token on every stone. Every word, every image, is leased and mortgaged. And we note that the picture is but a space in which a variety of images, not of them original, blend and clash. A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. Similar to those eternal copyists Bouvard and Pechuchet, we indicate the profound ridiculousness that is precisely the truth of painting. We can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. Succeeding the painter, plagiarist no longer bears within him passions, humors, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense encyclopedia from which he draws. The viewer is the tablet on which all quotations that make a painting are inscribed without any of them being lost. A painting’s meaning lies not in its origin, but in its destination. The birth of the viewer must be at the cost of the painter. Sherry Levine Statement I

We are late. The world is stacked with images, with images of images, with images of images of works of art. There is no escaping the fact that painting can not keep up, has not kept up. Today we use painting as an additive. We use it to describe a process, or it becomes a backdrop for nostalgia, or it metastasizes into something architectural or performative. It’s hardly used to make images, and if it is used to do so, it’s guided by the confines of the lens and the screen. We look to painting these days to provide some nostalgia, some feeling of connection with our past. The work above is a repro of Rudolf Stingel’s painting of a picture of Paula Cooper. It’s billboard sized at 11 feet by 15 feet. As a photograph I find this image banal. As a painting I find it boring. But as a comment on our times it is a grand statement about our Postmodern condition, the art world, the intimacy of the lens, and the final capitulation of painting. In this one image we can feel the nostalgia inherent in a good snapshot, the capturing of a wistful moment, a lazy connection with a powerful art dealer, an implied intimacy between the photographer and the subject, the ubiquity of replication and reproduction, the surrealist charge inherent in the close up and the blow up, and the erasure of the processes of painting through the mechanics of a machine. I read in a recent Artnet piece that this painting made people cry. We are very late indeed.

America is the land of nostalgic images. Our culture, both through advertising and Hollywood, hyper-mechanized the processes of imagery, made images into signs, sped them up until they became codes streaming through electronic circuit boards. We don’t even need to print our pictures any longer, we hand our phone over to whoever we’re sharing with and scroll through. We post them on Flickr or whatever photo sharing site we prefer, making them available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. But what’s telling today is that many of the photos we share and carry are not our own, we did not take the photos ourselves, we’ve “found” them and claimed them as our “own.” Tumblr is case in point. It allows users to upload collections of photos, most of which have been gathered from the huge stores of images available on the net. I am astounded at the depth and specificity of these collections in every kind of subject matter, in any form you could possibly think of, from mid-century airplanes to 1890s porn. Images of every thing, every where, collected and traded, reposted, recontextualized and reworked, infinite, unending, unabating Postmodernism. And all of it designed and replicated through the lens machine.

Painting these days feels more like an afterthought, a fashionable gesture. It no longer makes imagery. It provides backdrops for other art forms and experiences. Even in the Stingel piece above one must enter a carpeted isolation booth in order to experience the image of an art dealer captured off-handedly between questions in an interview. That interview has long since lost its importance, but that moment of lens capture has been transformed, not through the painting itself, but through reformatting and recontextualization of the lens image as a ground for nostalgic engagement. The narrative of the piece is all inside – an insider look at an insider dealing with the problems of being an insider, presented to hungering collectors who value the ironic historicity of the inside narrative. It is a collector’s paradise of references. This isn’t about art or life, rather it’s a discussion and glorification of a certain kind of lifestyle within an Art World context. We are slicing our Art experiences into finer and finer moments intending them for a smaller and smaller group of cognoscenti while raising these airless moments up as if they are avant-garde gestures. In our Postmodern Art World we have replaced the active questioning of historic ideas with the distilled exclusivity preferred by the collecting classes. None of the workings of Stingel’s conception are dealing with new ideas about vision or looking forward to the future. The piece doesn’t even need to actually be encountered, because it’s a replication of our past experiences of Contemporary Art. There is no need to adjust our vision or question what we see. It’s comfortable, exclusive, expensive looking. This isn’t even Stingel’s first time recontextualizing a found image of Ms. Cooper in this way, receiving similar praise for a pristine theatrical encounter with a reformatted (Robert Mapplethorpe) photograph back in the mid-zeros. I think this article/review in Flash Art says it best, “These paintings may evoke a number of art-historical references for the viewer in their composition and monumental scale, but the process allows Stingel to keep any self-expressive content out of the finished paintings. In this way, even as the image of the artist moves from photograph to painting, it maintains the impersonal quality that the camera can provide. Most importantly, Stingel does not produce the image that appears on the canvas leaving the act of representation to the photographers themselves. It is more accurate to describe the labor of these paintings as a sequence of framing, selection and translation….” What is radically reactionary is the work’s absolute insistence on high gloss Nostalgic reverence and Retro conceptual references as transgressive gestures – Lens generated Belatedness re-presented as newness.

It is way past midnight and I’m feverish, looking out of my studio window. In the distance I can see the blurred blue-white lights tracing the cables of the Manhattan Bridge. A bright red beacon at the top blinks marking the seconds. On. Off. On. Off. One. Zero. One. Zero. I know that the bridge will still be there long after I’ve gone. Just as I know that the idea of painting still exists long after it has ceased to be. I turn away from my window and let the city move on. My body is heavy, painful, and I’m bone tired, exhausted. I want to sleep, but I can’t. It’s gotten too late.

When I get together with friends we often talk of the strange warp in time that we are living through. Part of this is because of the fact that we use our brand spanking new technologies to continually revive the past. There is no difference between a lived experience and a manufactured one cobbled from other lives. Truth and Narrative, past and present, are the exact same thing, constantly shifting our realities from context to context, grounding us as one. This is a real consequence of Postmodernist culture. There are no histories, no precedent, there is only the ever shifting ground, the constant eradication of the rising subject. We mine the past in finer and finer details, telling the same story in exactly the same way. Our fleshy realities are suffocated by these fictions until the march of time has been truncated and the experience of our own lives may very well be someone else’s. We are surprised by our own imminent demise, because the contexts of our existence make no forward motion, experience no future. And this is what we’ve seen since the 1960s in the art world. All things become Art refined and smoothed over for ever more esoteric and exacting tastes. From a six seat airplane rotating in the park to a suspended locomotive engine we live in an age of Fine Art Experience where reality and fiction are one, and the difference between Art and Life, that “gap between” that Rauschenberg so loved, has dissolved into consumerist conformity.

The Non-Conformity of Lateness

Michael Zahn recently shared one of his paintings that I find compelling, touching and comic at once. Not so much for its full-on, matter-of-fact visual properties, but for it’s quiet poetic ones. It is deceptively simple really, a clear font, a silver letter on a flat field of white. It’s a representation of a sound, a portrait of breath. The umlaut slides that sound which begins as an “a” then elides into an “e.” It emerges from the white ground, clear and exacting as a form, complex and ambiguous as an utterance. It looks like a failed literary question, a distinctively voiced shrug. This particular portrait of a unique sound is one we don’t really have to form or see, but Michael has done so anyway. This vision is actually something that escapes us without thought or effort. Our jaw can remain slack, our mouth slightly open to hear what we see. We make this sound to no one in particular, and it’s seen by no one in particular, which is why Michael has painted it to look so specific, why he’s made it so very particular. The vision of that sound will continue to resonate and emanate long after we’ve seen it; after sight, after engagement, after breath. It’s a sound that comes later, after our confusion, after the end.

George Hofmann approaches this confusing belatedness from another point. On the manufactured wood surface he juxtaposes the tropes of landscape abstraction against the replicated “natural” veneer ground. The paint clots and smears over the activated surface nearly forming into a kind of hyper-Impressionism. The paint recalls the forms of the L’Orangerie, but the work never allows us to readjust, to collect those kinds of images, to bring the visual into sense. There are no gardens or lilly pads, just paint and history. He sands away the transitions, marks through the blossoms, breaks the forms across the space of the manufactured wood grains. We are too late for painted experience, too late to see in the “old” ways. The world has moved on. These painted passages exist like half remembered presences, ghosts that haunt the program. It is a beautiful elegy to vision that promises something unseen.

“She would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings or of beautiful places. But at the moment of buying them, and for all that the subject of the picture had an aesthetic value of its own, she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography. She attempted by a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether their commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to substitute for the bulk of it what was art still, to introduce, as it might be, several ‘thicknesses’ of art; instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud, or of Vesuvius she would inquire of Swann whether some great painter had not made pictures of them, and preferred to give me photographs of ‘Chartres Cathedral’ after Corot, of the ‘Fountains of Saint-Cloud’ after Hubert Robert, and of ‘Vesuvius’ after Turner, which were a stage higher in the scale of art. But although the photographer had been prevented from reproducing directly the masterpieces or the beauties of nature, and had there been replaced by a great artist, he resumed his odious position when it came to reproducing the artist’s interpretation. Accordingly, having to reckon again with vulgarity, my grandmother would endeavour to postpone the moment of contact still further. She would ask Swann if the picture had not been engraved, preferring, when possible, old engravings with some interest of association apart from themselves, such, for example, as shew us a masterpiece in a state in which we can no longer see it to-day, as Morghen’s print of the ‘Cenacolo’ of Leonardo before it was spoiled by restoration. It must be admitted that the results of this method of interpreting the art of making presents were not always happy. The idea which I formed of Venice, from a drawing by Titian which is supposed to have the lagoon in the background, was certainly far less accurate than what I have since derived from ordinary photographs. Marcel Proust Swann’s Way

And in the end it can no longer be about the context of things, but the vision of things. How we see things is the most important place to start. There are many of us who are fed up with the ongoing Postmodernist dialog. We want something more visually stimulating, thoughtful and resonant. We want to use our eyes informed by our technologies instead of relying on the technologies to dictate to our eyes. We are all visual hybrids at this point. We work both online through the lens-based programs and in the flesh and blood world. We are “colored” by those distinct experiences. We do not see in the open world as an Impressionist did. We focus on specifics, isolate details, scan for patterns and then suddenly if we move beyond the program, we are able to comprehend a larger picture, fall into older ways of linear seeing, a to b to c, rather than being stuck in the loop from zero to one, one to zero. When we paint we should work through the lens to our own physical structures of vision, not the other way around. We should abstract from the world around us rather than world presented to us. For me there’s no going back to Modernist pretensions, no insider refinements of period pieces, no pleasing designs for fashionably retro collecting clientele. To see in a new way, outside the Postmodern imperatives, we must, each of us, devise a different engagement with how we understand our lives through our vision. Yes, we may be very, very late, but we are also very, very early.

Vision – Provocation


Clement Greenberg BBC Interview – double click to play

In the surprisingly candid and touching video above Clement Greenberg mentions that many of the artists of the time did not see Pollock as a proper painter. And at the beginning of the clip you might see why. Pollock used paint differently, as a way to record his involvement in the moment, like a captured experience in time – almost like a photograph. Now I want to be very clear about one thing most American painters don’t think about when we stand before our canvases. We do not acknowledge that America does not have a tradition of painting. We do not have that kind of visual history in our genetic makeup. Painters are an afterthought. Even as AbEx fever raged in the minds of the small group of committed painters on 10th Street, even as America proclaimed it’s coming of artistic age in paint – we still weren’t painters. Truth is most of the AbExers had come from Europe or were taught by Europeans that were steeped in the philosophies, aesthetics and politics of old Europa. Whatever AbEx was it wasn’t a strictly American movement. What we had to do in order to take the cultural stage and declare our readiness to overtake Paris as the art world center was to inherit, or better, steal the idea of Modernism – depending on your viewpoint. And Modernism, the flowering of 20th century culture, was all about the history of painting.

At that time America was not yet the “Super Power” it would become. Our art was still considered provincial and unformed by the rest of the world. But after the international success of the Americanization of Modernism America began to export the Art that truly reflected our own culture, that came from our own experiences. And why not? America was the new super power, the new empire, and like any empire, it began to erect its own distinct culture everywhere it found a foothold. We didn’t need European visual history to make the point of our cultural power. We had our own. Paint and painting is just not all that interesting to us, it’s never defined us the way it once defined Europe’s Culture. It never represented life in America. And the younger generation of American artists that rushed to the fore after AbEx made their mark on the art world’s stage through other means and in other ways. True, some were “painters” but they did not approach painting as the Europeans had done. Instead these artists relied on and embodied American corporate values like productivity, quantification and electronic imagery – all of which come from Hollywood, TV, advertising and manufacturing. Think of Stella, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Judd, Rosenquist and Andre – the artists of the early Postmodern years. And most all of that art, most all of our truly American art, was formed and documented through the use of the lens, formed by what lenses could do and how those lenses defined and fashioned us. Our avant garde never gave a good god damn for painting, for seeing like painters, for making images, spaces and light like the great European painters once did. No. Painting was as old, outdated and passé as the war torn history of Europe. We had something far more “real”, something far more “true to life” humming through our culture. And it had absolutely NOTHING to do with painting.

America’s Forgotten Old Man

We begin this provocation at the moment that America began to form itself into the nation we experience today. Matthew Brady was America’s first great imagist, its first great Avant Garde Artist, its first great provocateur. And in his work you can see all the future of American (Post) Modernism, from 291 to 10th Street right into Warhol’s Silver Studio. From portraiture to landscape Brady set the tone for how Americans would confront European visual traditions. From his studios in Washington and New York Brady formed a vision of America that played between two intellectual opposites. On the one hand he photographed the powerful, rich and famous in highly stylized and mannered portraits. In these works he was carrying on the visual traditions of Europe and creating something that would become our Hollywood culture, the culture of fame, glamor and celebrity that is still prevalent in every media outlet in America. On the other he and his studio documented the harsh realities and unfortunate incidences of the lives of everyday Americans. What we see in this disparate body of work is the interior and exterior, the studio and the world, artifice and nature. His art captured the speed and violence engendered by a growing mechanized culture as it defined the ethos of this new nation. And in doing so he reformulated an old critique, an old problem that had faced painters through the centuries – artifice or reality? But Brady did this through the new lens/machine, the democratic eye, rather than in paint. In Brady’s photos as in American culture – reality and artifice become one.

The contact sheet of America’s most famous President (the analog precursor to the thumbnail archive) is stunning. First because of the prescience and collaboration between the sitter and the artist. Lincoln was one of the first Presidents to understand the power of image, the star power that mass produced images can bestow. He sat for Brady many times and his face, as Brady fashioned it, is still to this day etched forever in the minds of every American. That face, or rather Brady’s images of Lincoln are as ubiquitous as the Mona Lisa and just as mysteriously fascinating. Yet we don’t often think of these images in that way, we don’t “see” Lincoln as an art historical watershed. They don’t matter as Art because we have all been continuously fed these sorts of images every day of our lives. It’s how we communicate with one another. That face based on Brady’s image is on our fucking currency. We forget sometimes about the mind behind the image. Brady used the lens in clever ways. In many of the photographs of Lincoln, especially the close ups, Brady played with the depth of field, strongly focusing on Lincoln’s face and allowing the rest of his head to slightly blur. He was making sure that this face would register strongly in our unconscious, that this sculpted vision of Lincoln would remain with us like a dream, emerging from the ground and lodging into our collective memories. We take it for granted today, the ubiquity of these kind of images, of manipulative close ups and focus, especially in photographic images, but at the time of the civil war, this kind of encounter, this visual intimacy with a “life-like” image was a new experience for the American public. We have craved and coveted this kind of intimacy with fame ever since.

Second is the amazing structure and composition of the contact sheet itself. Though Brady would never present the work in this way (at least I don’t think he did) this contact sheet is a Postmodern miracle. From Warhol to your computer screen, most of the faux antiqued modernism and quantified structures that we see looks and acts in our minds exactly like this contact sheet, and in fact, most every contact sheet that came after Brady – taped, grease penciled, unregistered, collaged, repeated, delightfully fucked up. The composition not only speaks of the intimacy within the image, but the intimacy within the processes of the photographer. We see a double capture, something we Americans prize in everything we experience – reality as artifice presented as experience. The composition in this contact sheet is classic Warhol and classic late 20th Century. And even more telling in the processes of the contact sheet is the fact that this offhand quantification and explication also mimics the way artists had for centuries made drawings, worked out ideas in their sketch books. Only now these processes were being done through the machine. For the American this kind of process, this working method is what we prefer to engage with: the unfinished, the unmade, and the undone. It allows us to find the piece, to bond with the subject, to discover ourselves within it, to be a part of the finish and to make the thing great. It means WE must experience the process, we PARTICIPATE rather than have the thing arrive as a full blown vision before us. Like most things in America that is what we crave. You see this in our reality TV shows, our political talk shows and in the myths and biographies of our famous citizens. In this way we can see the experience not as a product of genius, but as a democratic event, an elected leader, as one of us. And that means we get to choose, to feel that our opinion counts, just as our speech has been promised to us, just like a Coke and a smile.

I have to say that I’ve always been fascinated by the disparate nature of Brady’s body of photographs especially as it concerns the “real” life of Americans. Brady ran a massive project during the Civil War photographing and documenting that conflict. This was a first for art in this country and you can imagine the logistics involved. Because of the nature of the tools the teams of photographers capturing the images could not “shoot” the work on the fly. The camera had to be stationary, and so we have a kind of before and after experience in the work. For instance there are the posed shots of the battle commanders around a campsite and then there are the disastrous found images taken in the aftermath of a battle. When Brady first showed these photos the American public was horrified. They had not seen death presented in such a baldfaced and vile manner before. There was none of the heroism, none of the great cause. Liberty was not leading the People over the barricades. All that was there was a “true to life” moment captured by the machine. This reality was empty of virtue, clean of drama and vicious in depiction. There wasn’t any of the painterly space or dramatized narration that the art going public expected to see in Art. Rather they were confronted with a different experience – the violence of process, the all consuming ground.

The truth about the lens/machine is that it conflates artifice and objective imagery. That distance between the abstraction of the “image” (the focus and framing that happens in the machine) and the “reality” of existence (the world outside that framing) is fraught with all the questions that the coming American Century would wrangle with over and over again. Questions regarding our participation in society, in relationships, context – what defines individualism, romantic engagement, Manifest Destiny, country, wealth, class, sex and race – public issues with which we are STILL and ALWAYS coming to terms. Our visual avant garde began right here – NOT with the early Parisian Modernists and their struggle to paint in the face of a vast and powerful history. Painters in Europe were still engaging with the magic of the newly reproduced photographic image and how to incorporate that “reality” into painting. Americans had none of the visual tradition of this European legacy, and we found that we could easily do away with the problem that faced the painted image. And that is exactly what we did. We became Sunday painters and avant garde photographers. We Americans don’t see, we experience (which is why many Europeans don’t “get” us,) and the lens machine was the best, quickest and easiest way to achieve that “experience” for our Art. Inherent in the use of lens images are many other thornier questions about reality and imagery that Brady’s work also brings up. They are questions of authorship, reproduction, replication, appropriation, copyright, and just about any of the current “problems” that preoccupy today’s art world. Of course when we look at Brady’s work today it looks naive and dated, but it also brings with it the nostalgia and sentiment that defines so much of the art we make and encounter today.

Death is an overrated literary idea…

“Two attitudes underlie this presumption that anything in the world is material for the camera. One finds that there is beauty or at least interest in everything, seen with an acute enough eye. (And the aestheticizing of reality that makes everything, anything, available to the camera is what also permits the co-opting of any phtograph, even one of an utterly practical sort, as art.) The other treats everything as the object of some present or future use, as matter for estimates, decisions, and predictions.” Susan Sontag “The Image-World” On Photography

Greenberg was onto something important in that interview. For the American painter the old ways of seeing and painting didn’t make sense. This difference in understanding vision and culture put Pollock in the Cedar Street Tavern in the last year of his life. These drunken bouts speak to his nagging uncertainty and his loneliness in the face of his achievement. It also exacerbated Pollock’s Romantic inclination for a literary death. The old man makes clear that Pollock wanted to return to the Impressionists, to learn from them. And for me this points to our own continuing conundrum about painting. Pollock wanted to learn about painterly vision in Nature, about the way the Impressionists would see and paint through time instead of seeing and painting in time – visual culture versus experiential culture. His palette, composition, techniques and light and space would have had to change. And you can see this renewed struggle with European painting in his last “failed” works. He had stripped out the color, he had reclaimed the brush and reintroduced the figure. Another great push was on the way. In a telling gesture Pollock’s very last painting was entitled “Search.” In that painting he’s back to the clotted surfaces and chunky imagery of his younger work, like he’s working back toward something, trying to remember something he had forgotten. But in reality, that memory was something he may never have had access to, something that he had never really experienced first hand. Maybe a new kind of hybrid vision would have come from Pollock’s need to look at the Impressionists. What would have happened if Pollock spent some time in Paris? Who knows what l’Orangerie would have meant to Pollock?

You can see this struggle take root in many of the more prescient Postmodern painters as well. Frank Stella’s Working Space is all about the visual anxiety that American painters feel when confronted with the European visual traditions. He writes of finding volumetric space and light for a new kind of abstraction. He’s seeking a kind of hybridization of vision just as Pollock did those years ago. David Hockney approaches the same issues from a different perspective through his Secret Knowledge – which turns out to be a historical account of the lens in painting. David Reed begins with the Baroque and tries to marry European vision into American abstraction – light, hue, value, flatness, objectness – it’s all there. But for the most part we painters still ignore the conundrum, we still find it too difficult to confront. We keep replaying the recent past. I think the thing Greenberg was lamenting in Pollock’s need to reconnect with Europe is what we’ve been discussing here. We painters have to approach our history differently, we have to understand it differently in order to form better questions, find other solutions, and work our way out from under the Postmodern morass in which we find ourselves. If we are honest about our past as painters we might find our future a bit more interesting and a bit more relevant in our time.

Final Part to come…

Vision – Left Overs

If you haven’t played the video above you won’t get this.
This scene begins with Modernism. Right there on the beach are perfect modernist abstractions. They are like sculptures that we come across in museums all over the globe. Only these are not sculptures, they’re barricades, omens for the coming day. Inside the landing craft we’re experiencing the visual past. Beautiful photographic portraits of faces, faces that are trying to confront the inevitable. What we’re looking at is a narrative of emotion, like Walker Evans portraits – pictures, photographs, static moving images. We are looking at the end of the 19th Century, the end of narrative, the end of the enlightenment, and quite frankly, the end of the individual. As the door drops the whole world changes. Suddenly the camera is no longer outside the action detailing individual moments, but it’s within the moment, guiding the vision, pushing the world along. The lens condenses and abstracts, flattens and obscures at breakneck speeds. Structure, Design, Form and Composition break into a thousand pieces unable to maintain visual presence in this hyper-reality. There are no stories to outline, no visions to detail, only the capture of the turbulent churning and flow. Subjects quickly rise into view and fall back into the ground again. Confusion, violence, fear, distortion, all of it, all of this optical SPEED, is being directed and captured by the constantly moving and angling lens. We are everywhere on that ground, all at once. We are not seeing, we are experiencing, and this is the major difference between the optical and the visual. It’s the difference between experience and contemplation. In this new world there are no reference points, no sense to be made of the situation. There’s only the next ground, the next moment, the past forgetting. There is no history, no future, only this very instant played out, captured and replayed by the lens/program.

Perfect Moments


Ansel Adams

In our last post we examined the WAY the lens worked; the warping and enclosing of our vision, the flattening of space, the off kilter instant compositions, the detailing of our sight. At first photography was considered a low form, a popular one, one used to quantify and elucidate. But the early photographers were also trying to define this new medium as a tool to make “fine art.” They wanted their work to be taken seriously, and so, they modeled their approach after the history of painting. There was however a difference – the hand. Painters had a long history of laboring “genius.” They created fleshy magic in order to manifest a vision. Their claim to a personal vision was tied to the skill of their hand, to the way they overcame their physical limitations. (Think of the learning curve that Cezanne or Van Gogh underwent.) The photographer realized that in order to make a claim for Art he had to get past the democratic ease of the machine. The thought was to put the focus on the disposition of the artist while in the act of “creation.” In other words the fine art photographer would not be about the labor of making. Instead photography would be all about the moment of performance. One had to wait like a fisherman, wait for the perfect light, the perfect moment, then flip the switch. The composition would be “always already” in the position of the lens, in the angle of the light, but that particular revelatory moment was only understood by an “artist.” The fine art photograph was a vision unimpeded, a vision captured in an instant of pure clarity. This is unlike a painter’s understanding, which was always grasping at a “truth” over time, through labor, through the hand and the eye. The photographer’s hand had absolutely nothing to do with the “making” of the image. It was understood that a photographer’s vision would not be hamstrung by a painter’s physical limitations, by the labor and expertise that went into the facture of the work. Rather, the lens/prosthetic would enhance one’s immediate relation to reality, to the moment, ultimately freeing the ARTIST to become a more perfect visionary.

It didn’t take long for the photographer/artist to be recognized in this way. But the artistic glorification of the perfect moment wouldn’t last very long. It was found that one could capture these images from life over time, first with multiple cameras, then with a motor. By the end of the 19th Century those single perfect images became a stream of images, a chunk of existence permanently quantified for replaying whenever we wished. Images captured in time could be replayed through time. The photographer didn’t have to lie in wait for an image to appear. Theoretically this meant the machine could run without the artist, indefinitely. Time streamed onto a strip of film (today into a chip.) The idea of a single “discovered” image became something else – it became one moment representative of a series of moments – an icon, a compilation, a poster. Real time viewing did away with the singular thing, the photograph, and vision became something else entirely, something that had never before been experienced. The making of an art work, the physical involvement in the process, the crafting of specific moments, no longer mattered. The machine captured everything. All images became found images, always already, a vast storehouse of documentation. Rather than makers or hunters, we became choosers. “The fine art photographer” quickly became an anachronism along with painters. Photography is no longer about the camera or the moment, but about the lens/program. It has been untethered from any medium and any history. The lens is the perfect Postmodern vehicle.

In the meantime painting was playing an endgame it did not quite understand. In the early 20th Century the Parisian avant garde had discovered that moving pictures were breaking up time and space, unfolding shattered images across the surface of the ground. Representation, movement, light, space, imagery; all of that history of Painting as we inherited it, suddenly looked old-fashioned, rigid, awkward and incomplete in comparison to the immediacy and directness of the picture plays. How could it not be? Electric communications, lights, gasoline powered engines, flight, speed, movies and television; all of these super powered inventions were changing our relationship to how we saw and experienced our world, and to our chagrin, we painters found that painting was far too slow to describe this new world, far too slow to keep up. Painting found itself in the rearguard scrounging for whatever glimpses of reality it could find. By the middle of the 20th Century the static image had finally been discarded by painters in favor of representations of processes and materiality, and most of that “painting” began to define the primacy and ubiquity of the lens/program. Today we paint grounds, we collage, and we “process.” We don’t challenge the lens image, we don’t dare define the world outside of the frame. We find images from among others. We contextualize those captured moments. We see only what is there on the screen.

iPhones and Private Parts

There is a peculiar heroism abroad in the world since the invention of cameras: the heroism of vision. Photography opened up a new model of freelance activity—allowing each person to display a certain unique, avid sensibility.
Susan Sontag On Photography

Even with so many images available there is an unrelenting sameness to the way photographs show us the world. The lens/program treats everything in the same way. It works with predictable and unbending codes. It makes no distinctions, offers only certain choices. Absolutely EVERYTHING it appropriates becomes Art – flattened, abstracted, quantified and composed. It doesn’t matter what one photographs, there is an egalitarian sameness to every photographic image. It makes us all connoisseurs of choice. We admire someone’s selections, collections and displays – tumblr pages, flickr sites, and photo networks. Today most of us carry a lens at all times. We use it to extend our memories and document our existences for the program. However these captured moments LOOK and FEEL the same. We use the lens to present the human figure in exactly the same way that we do food products or automobiles. Look at these videos – watch HOW the camera works, HOW it levels all vision to the SAME vision:

The lens prosthetic has become another seamless tool for living just like computers, flat screens and spectacles. In our electronic lives these lens captured moments have become the “content” streaming on the internet, images of our passing. We carry our cameras into the most intimate moments of our lives. We hump from POV. We “read” and “write” journals and diaries on projected and programmed representations of “paper.” These programs shape the content of the lenses. They allow us to instantly access a kind of outsourced “professionalism” without the pain of study or practice, without the flesh. We become auteurs of our own lives. And in order to share and participate in this artificial world, in order that we move from “out here” to “in there,” we have learned to live through our lenses. We are photographing and photoshopping, iLifing our lives in ways that culture never could before. Today this new “reality” is found where consciousness streams without the filter of the failings of flesh. We have moved beyond “making,” or “creating,” we simply have to show up, appear before the lens. It turns out that the 20th Century was about something we did not expect. Painters could not capture the REASON for the collapse of the Loud family in the 1970s nor do they understand the basis for a multi-billion dollar IPO by Facebook. Let’s face it, Painting didn’t have a freakin’ chance….

But what of the stuff outside the frame – What kind of reality is that?

Left Over Vision

If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junk-Space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. The built (more about that later) product of modernization is not modern architecture but Junkspace. Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout. Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown . . . Although its individual parts are the outcome of brilliant inventions, lucidly planned by human intelligence, boosted by infinite computation, their sum spells the end of Enlightenment, its resurrection as farce, a low-grade purgatory . . . Junkspace is the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than did all previous generations put together, but somehow we do not register on the same scales.
Rem Koolhaus Junkspace

So much of the painting, especially abstract painting, that we see today absolutely HAS TO BE completed by the lens. It doesn’t make sense otherwise. It must be captured and re-presented in order for it to be “seen” or understood. Rem Koolhaus’ essay on Junkspace dovetails with this idea of lens based vision. Photography makes all things into interesting things; a long corridor to nowhere, a leftover room, an empty strip mall, a foreclosed home, a forgotten billboard, a food court, an empty canvas. All these things only exist when the camera captures them. Junkspace is the entropy felt after the interaction of the lens in the failed designs of the artificial world. There is no Junkspace in nature. It is the proliferation of the ground, the endless looping of billboard space upon which we collage our passing moments. Yet that collage can never be visual, it must be experiential, re-played in real time, a passing televised reality moment. The collage submerges back into the ground, becomes the ground, because it is never about a singular moment, a rising subject, but about the experience of disparate moments or contextual inferences. In this Junkspace we believe that the representation of the ground will set us free. I know this because Siri tells me so…

For us, painters, here in the 21st century our interest should be the world NOT captured by the program, the one that lies just outside the edges of the viewfinder, the unquantified existence. Granted our eyes are not used to that space, it is bland and boring, but it is where we might engage a new and different kind of reality. As Fran Liebowitz said, “…the world went inside the television and became the world.” What’s important for painters is the detritus left out by the lens. That’s the fleshy seen world, the tactile world of emotion and feeling, the world that smells funky after the all night bender. As it stands now we no longer work with our own imagery or paint images from our unmediated visual lives. Look at the painters most admired in this time – most all are in thrall to the lens or the way the lens replicates and reproduces its own reality. We cut and paste these found images across a billboard space and then do what’s leftover with the paint in our hands – we accost the image, mostly with a rough hand, hoping to maintain some semblance of critical relevance or angry control. We have been forced to collage and “treat” the ground. And it is to the ground that we return to OVER AND OVER AND OVER again. The ground allows us to be present in this Postmodern “world,” present in the electronic reality, present FOR the lens to complete us. But the ground can not define, it can not provide meaning, it does not individuate experience or vision; the ground merely validates.

Why do I still make the case for painting? Because I believe that we painters can still make something visually compelling even in an age blinded by the screen. But in order to do that I believe we must come to a new kind of hybridized sight and vision. I find the lens necessary to communicate in our time, but it’s far too limiting a tool. My vision is much larger than the confines the screen imposes on me, and I’m sure yours is as well. I want to see something “thickly” taking cues from both our vast visual history and our new lens realities. The anachronism of the static painted image can actually become a strength if we ask the right questions, if we approach vision with smarts and panache. I want to make the case for new images, new abstractions born of this kind of hybridized vision. I want these works to be “familiar” and novel at once, neither one nor the other, yet engaging both the screen and the world around it. What we need to accomplish this kind of vision are a set of different questions about what painting can be, what we might be looking at in the world. And so we’ll begin with these – What if we leave the ground behind? What if it we no longer allow the viewfinder to organize our looking, drawing, imagining, seeing? What if we engage Junkspace in a more thoughtful and purposeful way? What if things, the actual things in our fleshy world, suddenly became much more interesting to paint than collaging the relationships between those things? How would one confront the thing in itself, the rising subject, the visual encounter without the lens, without Postmodernism’s contexts, without the reliance on Junkspace materiality? What kind of painting would that be, would that look like? How would you make it?

more to come…

Vision

“…essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
Susan Sontag On Photography

I experience a recurring dream of being in a crumbling house filled with malevolent memories, angry ghosts, shameful failures. I understand why I have the dream, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about having it. Sometimes in the middle of this dream I tell myself, “OK, this is that same fucking dream,” and I can stand back from it and watch it unfold, safe from it’s violent emotions. Other times I’m caught in it, and I find myself involved in its manipulations. On these occasions I don’t have a choice. I’m pushed along by the narrative, enclosed and swamped by the breadth of it, swept up by the force of it. When I’ve finally awakened I’m breathing hard, my pulse is racing, and I’m covered in sweat. I’m filled with uneasy emotions – deep, harsh, and unrelenting. There’s no distance between me and the effects of what’s just happened. I know it’s not real, but at that moment, it is my reality, the only reality. I am in close, a part of the unfolding experience, seeing the inevitable outcomes of something out of my control.

We begin Vision with this, a photograph by Irving Penn No. 58.

What you are looking at is in our age an “accepted” way of seeing a figure in a photograph. We don’t question this kind of viewing any longer. It’s what we’ve come to understand of ourselves and how we interpret the images of others. But let’s have a real look at it, let’s go a bit deeper into the mechanics of it. Right off we can see that the perspective is skewed. It’s not necessarily how we would see this perspective if we were laying there on the floor with this model. The image itself is a captured interpretation of the figure, a severely cropped view of a momentary reality. The len’s curved surface and one point perspective, it’s focal length and the shutter speed, have determined the way the form is “seen”. Her right knee is formidable, right in our face. The left leg is in the process of moving, either down onto the right leg, or maybe she’s about to swing that leg over. Her hips are caught in the movement. Her torso twists in a very exaggerated way, at hard angles to her legs. You can see her muscles pulling. Michelangelo would approve. There is no space in the photo, it’s unclear where this figure is, where it exists, other than on the floor of some ambiguous white space. The figure’s been isolated and abstracted, presented to us as a thing, a form, an idea. What is clear is that the harsh foreshortening makes this figure look powerful, encompassing, engaging, and even though it’s abstracted, truncated, it’s sexy and very, very human. But it denies specificity, personality or deep understanding. It is an icon.

Postmoderns easily accept this kind of optical engagement. We understand it. We expect it. It’s coded into our visual vocabularies. Today, academic photographers everywhere engage in this kind of lens warping and skewing. This technique’s become a quick means to present an intimate abstract experience of a rising subject. And in fact, this type of image is par for the course in most all of our electronic lens based experiences. There are literally, what must now be, billions and billions of truncated naked figures photographed in similar ways floating through ethernet just waiting be clicked on and downloaded. Why they are there, well that’s an interesting question that we’ll try to tackle as we go on in this series.

This is a photograph (apologies to the unknown author of this found image) of our old friend Giambologna’s sculpture of the Rape of the Sabine. The sculpture itself is an eye grabbing theatrical tour de force, so much so that Urs Fischer appropriated it for his work in the last Venice Biennale and received a lot of accolades for his choice. Look at the hand grasping that woman’s buttock and you’ll recognize something else. That hand will later become grist for Bernini’s mill. Talk about appropriation! (OK, we’ll leave that idea for another time as well.) What we are looking at in this photo is the extreme angle of sight within the image itself. Again the subject rises into view against a blank ground. It is ALL form and rising composition. And in a Postmodern twist we get two eras of different kinds of vision slamming into one another. There is the Mannerist vision of OTT figuration as learned through Master Michele; the twisting torsos, the vibrant movement, the overwrought, balletic experience of the naked figure – all action, power, and movement used to intensify the impossible physical drama going on between the figures – rape depicted as a ballet among beautiful bodies. The sculpture emphasizes the major forms, the power and tension in the torsos, buttocks, legs and arms, but it also adjusts our vision, teasing our feeling with the more delicate sculpted moments – the fingers pressing the flesh, the hair falling out of place, the perfectly formed feet and hands. Mannerists were master visual manipulators especially with the dainty bits… But we are not looking AT the statue are we? That would actually be a very different visual experience – Mannerism in the round so to speak. What we are looking at is an extreme angle of a thing in-itself captured through the lens. And it’s that photo composition which is of interest. We are experiencing the distorting view of one point perspective seen through a framing lens. We see the violent foreshortening and flattening of space that we’ve come to expect in a photograph, and one that we’ve come to expect to see in abstractions of the figure – in painting think of Picasso and de Kooning, or for that matter, Yuskavage and Currin.

Additionally this extreme foreshortening abstracts our understanding of the connection to the thing in itself. Though we are seeing figures and they look correct, they are not. Not simply because this is a Mannerist sculpture of exaggerated proportions, but because the sculpture has been flattened, distorted and objectified by the lens machine, removed from our vision so to speak. We would not, could not see it in just this way if we used the naked eye even if we stood in the same position. We need the prosthetic to isolate a thing in this manner. Our vision, our minds don’t do this without it. Our machines change our perceptions. We accept that we are looking up, because we know how a body is structured, but in this spaceless, airless ground we may also be falling. There are no points of visual reference outside of that composition itself. So we accept the reality of the statue because we “know” that this is a photo of some thing. We accept that the image must be correct, it’s a captured image of a lived moment after all.

Another part of this kind of lens seeing is that it not only isolates and distorts, it allows the eye to move in closer, it magnifies. And we have adjusted our vision to understand and expect this closeness as well. Below is an Irving Penn photograph of Barnett Newman.

There are distortions here as you can see, but what I want to discuss is the intimate vision of this photo. When we move in to the subject, when we get close in this way we become part of the image itself. We begin to have a different relationship to that rising subject. I love this photo for a number of reasons but mostly because of its incongruous elements. I’ve never been able to take these contradictions of meaning very seriously. First of all because of the ridiculous cigarette being delicately held in that meaty hand. The space and angles again are ambiguous, abstract, and though we “know” that hand is Barnett Newman’s, for Chrissakes, it could be anyone’s hand. Barney may be walking past someone, or maybe turned into someone who’s just tapped his shoulder while holding the camera in the other hand, or maybe there’s someone crouching below holding the cigarette. Then there’s the ridiculous monocle. It’s like Barney’s a decadent visual fighter pilot and only one of his eyeballs has succumbed to the rigors of his craft, like a wounded WWI flying ace. All that in combination with the fuck-you mustache and slightly raised brow over the monocle and you have a cliched image of a classic autocratic ruler. So much for the All American Painter.

We are in close for a reason. We are there to become instantly intimate with this face, these features. And the closer we get, the more our vision becomes something else, something that, in essence, disengages our vision, disengages our objectivity. We are not able to maintain our distance from the rising subject, we can not get to clarity even though we see every pore on that face. We are abstracting a form at such a rate that the rising subject engages us without thought, so that our encounter reaches into our own physical experiences. We are heating up a visual encounter in a very cool medium by moving in close, so that we don’t have to think, so that we “feel”. We see this mechanism in movies all the time, it’s what brings us to an involvement in a character’s “emotional arc”. We move in close, especially to the eyes of the subject. That overpowering closeness is primal, involving, disconcerting. We are swallowed up by what is happening, we are overcome by this ground which is the subject itself, submerged in the narrative of proximity. I’ll leave you to go through the Freudian aspects of this kind of involvement, but let’s just say that a good optical storyteller will always look you straight in the eyes stretched across a 30 foot screen. Calling Sergio Leone…

What these tropes of lens based vision accomplish fairly easily is an eroticized optical engagement. You are not looking for meaning in this type of viewing, you are engaging in an experience of seeing. Meaning is always already known, pointless in the presentation of the image itself. In the photo above (I don’t know its provenance, my apologies to the author) there are a number of mechanisms at work to give one just this kind of experience. First there is the very dramatic chiaroscuro. The lighting on the figure is right out of the Baroque; a form emerges from the darkness, highlighting our own visual consciousness, intensifying the tautness of the muscular back. Second is the drastically foreshortened torso which places us in an ambiguous perspective. We may be face to backside, but we don’t know where we are in the space. We could be falling, upside down or sideways, in heaven or hell for all we know. Our only reference, the only known space in this composition is from buttock to shoulder. Our understanding and experience is directed only through that one point, everything else falls into blackness. Third is the erotic optical charge implicit in both the figure itself, the lighting of the form and our closeness to it. We are meant to experience this torso in a heightened physical state. The upper torso is lit like it’s cool marble which then flows down into a fleshy, cushiony posterior – we move from “art” (sculpture) to something “real” (flesh). Hell, we don’t know for sure if this image is of a male or a female, we are given only the ambiguity of its flesh. We have abstracted not only the image, the lighting, and the Baroque historical references, we have eroticized the processes of these abstractions. We are not necessarily responding to the “naturalness” or “reality” of the naked figure, but to the optical mechanics and appropriated references in the image itself. We don’t engage the erotic lens image as a passionate encounter for a specific, unique experience, but instead we are titillated by the closeness of the lens and the manipulation in this optical encounter itself. It’s an encounter that has no place, no face, no space presented to keep one in a perpetual state of desire. This kind of viewing is at the base of most Postmodern art. It “works” in nearly every situation, in every mediated construct. We can experience these kind of optical desires indefinitely without ever actually being passionately, physically involved. It’s without consequence like video game violence, aerial drone killing, online sex, Facebook friendships, youtube confessions, and most importantly, theoretical art blogs…

Once upon a time the advertisers would have draped this vehicle with a scantily clad model reasoning that tits and ass would sell the thing, make you, the consumer of the image, WANT IT, desire the actual product. But as time has gone on the Ad Men, the best of them anyway, have realized that it wasn’t the T&A that was selling the car but the lens, the mechanics of the lens. The intimacy and distancing of the lens actually manipulated the viewing of the thing, actually worked down to the viewer’s fingertips so to speak. And it did so because this kind of viewing is how we experience our “reality”. This short video advertisement has all the lens mechanics going on in it that we see in the photographs above; the sleek sheen of the hubs, the extreme foreshortening, the angled perspectives, the in close viewing. (Watch it without the sound.) All of it we respond to without thinking. It creates desire almost automatically in the viewer. These moving images are abstracted, the ground ambiguous, the engagement cool, then suddenly heated up with extreme optical proximities. We are being seduced and manipulated into the experience, into the engagement. But unlike the images above, this image has an additional purpose, one just beyond our acceptance of disjunctive viewing. There is the program guiding the lens images alluding to that fact that you may actually purchase the thing desired. This programming is of great interest as well, but it will have to wait for a future discussion.

We’ll be discussing color, programs, movement, sight and vision over this next series in order to dissect Postmodern viewing. We’ll also be reaching back to some favorites in order to explain a kind of hybridized sight, something we’ve discussed before, and we’ll now elucidate further, make more clear and alive for you. It’s the 21st Century. Let’s understand that we are complex visual beings and make a new vision for our times.