reduction of distances has become a strategic reality
bearing incalculable economic and political consequences,
since it corresponds to the negation of space.
Technological change has meant that
photography, film, video and more recently holography and digital
forms, are now widely acceptable artistic mediums. But beyond
this adoption of technologies by artists lie deeper questions.
Technological impact in the context of mass culture is transforming
how we view and experience the world. How can artistic practice
examine all that constitutes this transformation? Historically
artists have not simply up-graded their artistic pratice by
adopting new technologies. Leo Steinberg used painting to formulate
a concept of how information works. In 1968 he examined a changing
relationship between painter and image which, he argued, was
dependent upon the way general representational models were
being influenced by mediated information.
"(T)he pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist
on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface
is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but
of operational processes".
For him this marked "the most radical shift in the subject
matter of art, the shift from nature to culture". Rauschenberg
was a major reference for Steinberg's essay. His early paintings
were a prophetic configuration of the painting as a desktop
upon which differing categories of information, objects and
representations can be gathered. Since then the desktop has
become the most effcient way of conceptualising the screen interface
of the personal computer.
Since Steinberg's essay there has been a revolution in imaging
and reproduction technologies that rivals the invention of photography.
Digitisation has thrown into question the perception that photography
is a way of producing 'naturalistic' visual imagery. Digitisation
has also, ironically, repositioned painting in the front line
of critical concerns. Anne-Marie Willis has described this when
"(I)t is as if the scene or object at which the camera
was pointed imprinted itself on the film. With digitised photo-imagery
the viewer will never be able to be sure of this any more -
the index will be erased as the photo becomes pure iconicity.
In this sense digitisation reverses the history of imaging technologies
and takes photography back to the ontology of the infinitely
manipulable medium of painting. If Paul Delaroche declared in
1839, 'from today painting is dead' now we would say 'from today
photography is dead'. And ironically it is a simulated form
of painting that is displacing photography."
The indexical status of photography as true evidence of a raw
reality can no longer be maintained. The larger issue that photography
has to now address is that it is a medium, it mediates to arrive
at a representation, just like any other medium. This was true
before digitisation, but now technology has placed photography
into a endless process of manipulation which brings it closer,
on one level, to painting.
The popular phenomena of young British art can be viewed as
a modernization of artistic practice. YBa tends to match like-with-like,
displacing the intense sensations found on advertising hoardings
or tabloid newspapers into the context of the gallery space,
bringing life into art. However entertaining this process may
be there remains the doubt that general yBa strategies only
serve to uphold rather than critique the forces which are laid
bare in the work. To theatricalise the forms of the spectacle
may leave the spectator as passive in front of the work of art
as in relation to the spectacle itself. The journalistic jingo
that celebrates yBa tends to cast painting in the role of a
superceded consumer durable. This position was most recently
aired in Waldemar Januszczak's Guardian article, 'Wrong Medium
at the Wrong Time' which was a familar cry that painting has
had its day (a chant of dead, forever, always - now).
The situation may be the same for painting now as it was in
the period when photography was invented. The distance that
painting has from technological innovation places it in a critical
space. It may not 'mirror the information' age as Januszczak
would argue. It can instead offer a critique of it.
Adam Lowe is a painter. He also works extensively on print-making
not as a supplementary medium to painting but as process which
has questioned what painting might be. The most recent and complex
aspect of this are the Digital Prints published by Permaprint
earlier this year. For this Lowe devised one image which would
enhance the differences between a number of printing processes
which range from mechanically outputed to hand manipulated forms.
This image was produced through 24 processes but they were all
outputed using the same computer generated information, some
from a physical master and others direct from disk. The resulting
portfolio of seemingly the same image is a demonstration of
the extremes to which these processes radically mediate the
original. At one level this has been a demonstration which surveys
the qualities of different print technologies and processes.
At another level it has raised important philosophical questions
which can be seen in terms of the varying material results produced
by the mediation of each process. In a curious way this preoccupation
of Lowe's has informed how he has made his paintings since 1995,
particularly in terms of his profound technical understanding
of pigment transfer prints. Used predominantly as a way of printing
photographic images, the process employs pigments instead of
the synthetic dyes used in commercial photographic prints. This
means that it is possible to make a photographic image that
has in conservation terms, a long life. More importantly the
pigment transfer print brings photography materially close to
painting in that pigment is used to create the image. A photograph
printed in this way is distinctive for its qualities of depth
and layering which are quite unlike conventional photographic
Lowe has made a series of portraits which begin with a photographic
session where small details of the sitter's head are photographed
with an emphasis on particular points of focus (nose in focus,
side of nose in focus etc.). These details are then printed
as pigment transfer prints. The paintings begin with a transcription
onto canvas of accurate measurements taken from the sitter.
Lowe describes this as the mapping stage. Lowe then procedes
by painting over the mapped schema. He trails paint "through
time, negotiating non mimetic information". Here the visceral
and spatial qualities of paint are exploited to displace the
schematic registration of the mapping stage. The pigment transfer
details are layered into this stage often with the effect that
a brushmark seems to carry photographic information.
Lowe's transformation of the portrait genre uncover perceptual
mechanisms which in turn question what is meant by 'vision'.
He says that these paintings "start from the premise that
there is no unmediated world and all we have are endless variations
of transformations rather than an idea of coherent information".
The question of what constitutes 'information' is brought to
bear upon what constitutes visual experience. These paintings
do not idealise a natural horizon situated somewhere in phenomena
and perception. Instead they tear apart such ground confronting
the spectator with a shifting ground of operations.
In their paintings, Nicky Hoberman and Mark Wright, use technical
and critical strategies which continue a discussion of the relationship
between painting and photography commonly associated with Gerhard
Richter's work. Richter has brought painting into a critical
position where it is able to question the rhetoric of both photography
and painting and by implication the critical relationship between
these mediums. Both these artists use photographic material
as references and the process of the blending brush. Although
associated with Richter's practice this tactic has its roots
in the nineteenth century when painting was trying to rival
the effects of photography by mimicking such effects as focus
and depth of field. Hoberman and Wright use this technique as
a way of examining images.
Hoberman has for some while used images of children in her work.
Her paintings are not simply pictures of children. They are
paintings of images of children and more importantly of how
the sense of childhood can be seen to be structured. A painting
like My Precious brings together five images of six children
and nine rabbits into a luminous ground. Each image is derived
from separate polaroid shots taken by the artist. They are assembled
into one space in a way that brings to mind the cut and paste
process of software like Adobe Photoshop. This process is essentially
a collaging of elements and layers. Such technology is not a
part of Hoberman's practice but the fact that Photoshop is extensively
used as a tool to form images, especially in advertising, is
worth noting. The photographic distortions of figures, the shifting
viewpoints and the many rabbits which seem to be the same rabbit
photographed several times, all serve Hoberman in underlining
the fictions that are at work in images of childhood. The children
are larger than life, bigger than adults and they are clearly
struggling to impose their regime in response to the socialisation
of an upbringing. The fictional space, scale and the hyper-real
are used by Hoberman as way to challenge naturalised representations
of innocence and childhood.
Mark Wright has used subjects which position elemental qualities
into different frames of reference. In the case of the River
Series the surface of water is represented. There is nothing
to frame the image, no bank of the river, no horizon except
for a white border around the image evoking the sense that this
is not simply a painting of water but a painting of a photograph
of water. Often the images fade to near white disappearing into
a depth of field that seems endless - a type of infinity. In
contrast is the Chalk Series which in his last show was exhibited
alongside the River Series. They are derived from microscopic
photographs of chalk and like the River paintings are framed
by a white border refering the image back to its photographic
origin. Clusters of bands make what could be cylindrical forms.
There seems to be a density to the surface, the repetitions
and reduction in scale of the bands suggest that the structure
could extend and recede endlessly. These paintings play into
but challenge ideas of a sublime. In isolation, the River Series
could be seen to be modernised images of romantic contemplation
bringing to mind Casper David Friedrich's work. However the
microscopic images of chalk disrupt and problematise such a
reading. A molecular image gives rise to an idea of 'nature'
but within a context of science and technology. An essential
sense of nature is disrupted by the invariably mediated fact
of the microscopic image. Lowe's statement comes to mind again
that "there is no unmediated world and all we have are
endless variations of transformations".
At first sight Ashley Elliott's paintings look like examples
of the process based Real Art genre. Thin horizontal lines are
organized to produce what seem to be virtually monochromatic
all-over paintings. This first encounter, which would place
the paintings within the context of a minimalist reading, is
important but also incorrect, a fact that further examination
of the paintings unfold. Behind the coloured grid, which is
closest to the surface of the painting are two other layers.
In a recent series the layers are an assemblage of two images
of Airbus aircraft. Each image is of a plane either landing
or taking off and they are integrated in a way which Elliott
describes as being "an equilibrium of departure and arrival".
The final grid, made by attaching thread to the paintings surface
and then applying paint is the final aspect of a process which
enables each image to "escape recognition....the image
escapes one layer and is trapped by the next". The reading
and associations these paintings set up are complex. At one
level the structure of the works invite associations linking
the grids to screens. The final horizontal lines literally screen
the submerged images but also relate to how T.V. monitors and
computer screens are configured. Baudrillard's distinction between
the scene and screen as framing structures comes to mind: "..today
the scene and the mirror no longer exist; instead there is a
screen and a network. In place of the reflexive transcendance
of mirror and scene there is a non-reflecting surface, an immanent
surface where operations unfold - the smooth operational surface
of communication". The screen differs fundamentally from
an idea of the 'picture' in that a screen is essentially a switch
through which images enter or depart. Elliott's paintings seem
to structure qualities which can be attributed to the screen
not simply in a way which is reflexive or expressive (which
would bring such things back to an idea of the scene) but in
way which is productive. Each layer obscures the other, the
previous image giving up its ground to the next. The temporality
at stake here is complex and a sentance by Paul Virilio seems
appropriate: "(I)n fact, the strategic value of the non-place
of speed has definitively supplanted that of place". The
successive obscuring layers in Elliott's paintings seem to generate
a non-place that throws the entire process toward developing
a specific sense of painting as a medium.
An image of painting, especially in Britain, of a reactionary
enclave where outmoded ideas of tradition and dubious humanist
ideals are conserved has been a backdrop against which yBa has
been staged and not without some justification. What risks being
obscured though is the potential, which painting has repeatedly
demonstrated, to reinvent itself in the face of technological
advance. At times this reinvention reveals how imaging technologies
operate and provide criteria through which processes of reification
can be discussed.