Skip to content

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…

One Comment

  1. I think this opens an important door for us as painters. I have been thinking a lot about how much we want to show Everything – and how penetrating, by contrast, the gaze of the early Renaissance portrait painters was – even in a profile you get the whole Person …

    Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 4:51 PM | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *