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.