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Memory & the Real

Power, Corruption & Lies, released in March 1983 (by New Order), was a synthesizer-based outing and a dramatic change in sound from Joy Division and the preceding album, although the band had been hinting at the increased use of technology during the music-making process for a number of years then, including their work as Joy Division. Starting from what earlier singles had hinted, this was where the band had found their footing, mixing early techno music with their earlier guitar-based sound and showing the strong influence of acts like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder.”

Where do we find “reality” these days? When the virtual and the physical collide what happens to our vision? How do we “see” our lives, the things we love, the world of our memories? Is it all a little off kilter, slightly slanted through our own dematerialized electronic vision or are we seeing reality for what it is? Is there any objectivity to our subjective desires when can not “see” without our technological extensions? In Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” there’s that famous bit of “reality hunger” stretched across the bottom of the painting. It’s a weird unknown thing intruding into our vision. When you look at it from one point perspective the life of the time is there in front of you, a picture perfect lens representation of two very grand individuals and all of their worldly goods. Step to the side and suddenly the picture goes out of sync. What comes into focus is a Momento Mori, a skull rises up before you in crystal clear optical perfection – Death. Somewhere between the straight on picture perfection and the side-stepped optical play we are being chided by the artist to remember that even though we may find this vision of power and opulence desirous, it is ephemeral. A slight adjustment to one’s perspective and a new reality will intrude.

Rauschenberg uttered his famous tag line about the gap between art and life at the beginning of our Postmodern Age. The gap was, at first, used to cleanse Modernism of its visual past and open it to new interpretations. It was a step to the side. However, this facile answer to the Gordian challenge of the time was quickly institutionalized and used to carve out meaning from painting, history and memory. This process changed how we related to what Art could be, how we experienced it and how we made it. 60 years later, Rauschenberg’s gap, intended to create new critiques and new forms, is nothing but a factory tool used to manufacture art products for a consumer-directed, top down Art Investment Economy. In painting after painting we can see the workings of the well-worn shop tools of appropriation, deconstruction and dematerialization used to produce institutionally sanctioned product, i.e., the well-made art object. We’ve grown enamored with the reality engendered through this one point perspective in our Art, on our screens and in our lives. It turns out that we’ve grown comfortable submerged in the gap. We’re not interested in climbing out. Like the beautiful vision of power and opulence in Holbein’s piece we’ve grown accustomed to looking straight onto the picture plane. “What you see is what you see!”

I saw a work by Michael Zahn in a group show a few years ago and it stuck with me – it was the best thing in the show actually. It looked slightly off, not that it didn’t work in the show with the other abstractions – it did. It just didn’t fit comfortably with the other works – it was unique. The painting was very simple really. Four canvases stacked one on the other, done in a “minimal” style, using high keyed color, like the color projected from a video monitor. The “paintings” were representations of the “notes” program on a Mac. They were stacked, like they are in that program, blank, ready to be filled. I thought they were as bold as you please, out there on the wall. Stella and Halley came to mind immediately, but with a difference. They weren’t necessarily about systems, or about mathematics, or even about “minimalism” – but about memory. They stayed with me, troubling me, as I walked through Chelsea blowing in and out of the galleries. What notes? Why the insistent color? Why am I supposed to remember something? Why was the program now actually in my fucking space, or worse, maybe I was in the program? I was perplexed by the idea of the empty reminder – was I supposed to fill these stacked things with my thoughts, ideas, passing quandaries? I had a nagging feeling that I had forgotten something, something important, and the reminder, glaring right at me, was daring me to come up with the memory, to fill in the blanks. That painting was inscrutible, it didn’t declare anything. Michael wanted us to remember, to think, and all he gave us was this bright, colorful “nothing,” this painting, a thing that looked like a program. He had depicted the pure Neo-Platonic beauty humming beneath the program’s surface. The painting was neatly scrubbed clean through and presented as an airless electronic representation. This painting rematerialized on the other side of the program, and suddenly, I felt I had to step sideways to understand what I was looking at. Beautiful, distrubing.

In many of Michael’s works he reveals the mechanics of optical electronic images as they unfold in the virtual world. You can see the packets of information sterilized right on the surface of the Modernist grid. The painting freezes the download, cauterizes the process of appearance in the paint, subverts the Postmodern quotation. In his paintings we are given the mathematical precision of “reality” unfolding in equations. Michael then uses this blunt optical language of manufactured Minimalism to drop the processes of algorithmic imagery right into our laps. The stretcher bar is wide, at times, like Stella’s or Halley’s, pushing the image away from the wall, creating a thicker presentation surface. This tends to remove the image from the wall while it’s being disguised as an emphatic thing – a trope of Post-Minimal painting. But instead of the “thing” we are confronted with our very own Postmodern ground. The image doesn’t project into our space like an image on the screen. It insinuates itself into the space of the room. It’s both virtual image and physical reality, ground and thing. As we confront this unfolding download something changes in our perception. We are participating in a tangential optical PROCESS as it manifests the codes of the image in paint. Michael is wrenching information from the nebulous electronic ground and re-presenting it as reality. Something isn’t right any longer with the way we see these things. Our vision has been tainted by the “gap.” We’ve stepped sideways again.

It’s there that we begin to see that this electronic approximation of an image has warped our idea of what painting should do, of what a painting should be. The surety and fixity of the surfaces of Judd or Stella, the fictive systems of Halley, have all gone viral in Michael’s work. We can not submerge our vision into the ground or slide away on the surface. In the reality of the space of the gallery, our physical memories must become more important, more real – they cause a glitch in the program. It’s as if this approximation of “reality” forces us to side step away from our fixed point of view and the predetermined outcomes of the Postmodern program. Visual touch becomes imperative to understanding while we’re looking at this unsettling discursive reality. We have to fill in the blanks, manipulate the virtual while it unfolds in painted time. This is a different kind of painterliness, one that doesn’t drip down the surface in a false approximation of brand-like stylishness. We discover that our lives must provide these blank surfaces with our memories, provide a depth of focus to the blurred boundaries of these unfolding equations. The work’s stark, beautiful, unapologetic color tugs at our physical perceptions. It pushes us to move away from the single point perspective. We feel our fleshy existence edge forward against the program, and when we do, we come up against the idea of painting itself. The subject, our existence, comes into sharp, chrystalline focus against the god damned thing.

Michael used the image of New Order’s album cover from a jpeg found on the internet. Originally, the picture was a work by Fantin-Latour, a 19th Century academic realist, who probably used lenses and mathematics to make his works. The record cover, a reproduction of that painting, also included a coded color chart corresponding to information about the record. In Michael’s painting he has sought out and isolated part of this online image in pixels, and he has made the “coded” color chart different and more emphatic. The color chart changes its meaning as it intensifies and enlarges it’s colors. Nothing on the surface of Michael’s painting is quite as the original or the replication as presented – the painting, the album cover or the virtual image. But the feeling implicit in those images persists. In the blur and buzz of Michael’s painting we feel that maybe we’ve forgotten something important about what we are looking at.

Fantin-Latour’s painting is a Momento Mori. It’s a still life exploring the emphemeral nature of beauty, sex and death, depicted in a 19th century, academically sanctioned, lens-based image. The flowers are in full bloom just a day or two away from browning, wilting and dying. This moment of beauty lasts for a very short time, and it’s just time enough for us to step sideways, to relish that ephemeral moment in this painting. For a generation that was coming to age during the 1980s this image would prove to be prescient. The record cover based on the image commemorates and celebrates fragility – for the band New Order, the end of one time and the beginning of another. The connections to art history, academic still life painting, youthful rebellion, coded visual language, and beauty, sex and rock & roll open our memories to older art forms and new understanding. All of this is “pixelated” through Michael’s painting of the replication of the reproduction. But the download is not done for us. The grid remains unfilled and Michael dares us to fill it in – but with what? There is no Postmodern irony at work, no direct critique of the mediated experience. The painting demands a different encounter, one connected to our own memories. It’s here that my thoughts, my experience, begin to work with the image and with the “thing.” Rather than falling into the ground or skating over the surface I had to reach further inward to understand the vision. This for me is a Romantic encounter.

What is happening, for a few of us, is that we are looking to find something lost, something glossed over, something that was raw and imperative to painting, something that could speak to the relevance and history of vision in our own time. Memories of certain moments in our lives, certain spaces, sounds, and touch all come to play through that vision, through the way that we see. Those are moments that can be and have been lost to the cynical Postmodern sense of nostalgia. So much of painting these days is about nostalgia, about some former greatness of visual encounter. But in the gauzy, mediated experience of Provisional Painting this sort of nostalgia is false and absurd. It’s something thoughtful painters should guard against, something to react against. Painting isn’t precious. It’s should be tougher, more powerful than that. To engage VISUALLY one must remember. Memory is not the same thing as nostalgia. Memory is viscous, it’s alive and critical. It doesn’t create a glow of comfort or wonder. It doesn’t yearn for the better days or the promise of youth. Memory is subjective history, all good and bad at the same time. It points out our short comings and reveals our strengths – it is bittersweet. Michael understands this and uses it unflinchingly in his best works. The idea of the replication, of the empty ground, refers us back onto our own histories and Michael pushes us to remember – the vision, the image, the space, the passcode. His paintings don’t re-present the past with the glow of a warmed over present. He doesn’t gently nudge the confines of academic styles. Michael pushes us into our own memories through the downloading image. He demands that we engage with our humanity even as the technological sublime washes away our physical connections.

It’s an active visual engagement with persistent history that twists the replication into an older visual tradition, and for me, it echos and re-presents a true Romantic encounter in this mediated age. Romanticism as it manifested through the Modern Era always took us into the unexplored self of both the painter and the viewer. The great works bring us back to our visual touch, the physical memory inherent in vision, and the feeling we get when we REALLY see something through and through. That emotional connection is about our own humanity. That feeling comes from memory not some manufactured idea of reality, or some ad man’s idea of comfort, or some academic’s clever appropriation. It’s the part of us that makes each of us truly unique, truly human. I’ve stepped sideways in front a few of Michael’s paintings because they describe this moment, this time. They remind me that I’ve forgotten and they dare me to remember.


  1. Hans wrote:

    Hm, partly one must be an apple user to get this work. I like how you describe how this work went on in further circles in your mind. To fold digital virtual and real paint seems to be a cool movement right now with many artists, no wonder when they spent 95% time in front of screens and half an hour per day at the canvas 😉 The other big issue that touches his and other new good works in the folds between virtual and real is “time” that is also what Cranach has it about and partly the piece of Michael, as this programme seems to be frozen or in waiting modus. Btw 😉 I made a little spring redesign of my Website and put works up for sale at the new Saatchi Online

    I think the Postmodernism is gone with your piece here, the road to future ahead, what do you think ?

    Sunday, March 20, 2011 at 5:50 AM | Permalink
  2. Hans wrote:

    PS as you chose the Cranach piece from the Virtual Museum Google project it seems so unreal when “walking” inside this Street View Program in the frightening void of the Gallery space (here MOMA )

    as if it was all dead

    Sunday, March 20, 2011 at 5:58 AM | Permalink
  3. Hans wrote:

    some images about the “NOW”
    Best regards, Hans

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 3:39 PM | Permalink
  4. admin wrote:

    Hi Hans,
    Thanks for the comments and links. The redesign of your site looks great and I wish you much luck as well with your participation on the Saatchi site. I hope you’ll sell a bunch of work!

    I also wanted to point out a really great photo from Michael’s studio that was taken as he was working on Power Corruption & Lies. Paul Corio has posted it on his blog at No Hassle at the Castle. I think that you can get a clearer sense of the extent of Michael’s love of color in this photo. I also find the idea of the conceptual nature of his work being mitigated and honed there on the palette.

    Best to you as always!

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011 at 1:04 PM | Permalink

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