Artwork > Writing

Paper Presented at UAAC Conference, York University
Nov 7, 2008

1. Intro: A Tree -A Bird - A Bridge: “Entropy and Abstraction”

I would like to begin with a personal anecdote, what you might call a fable of sorts. It recounts a particular experience of mine when I lived in Edmonton in the 1990’s.

“In Edmonton there is a particular bridge that spans the North Saskatchewan River, a bridge that I drove over frequently in my travels between downtown, my home and the University. The Walterdale bridge, as it is called, is made of iron girder construction including an open gridded bridge deck, which hummed wonderfully as cars drove over it. One day *(slide 1) while driving over the bridge myself I noticed a magpie had met its untimely end sometime previous, Whether it had been hit or had fallen, I am not sure, but it had come to its final stasis in the most precarious of places on the gridded road right in the line of my car wheels. *(slide 2) I thought, “how unfortunate”, (or some other expression of guilt and regret) as I tried to steer clear of it, but due to the narrowness of the bridge, had little choice but to replay its unfortunate death by running over it again. *(slide 3) The next day my travels took me on the same route and again I noticed the bird was still there, its body a little more broken down than the previous day, a little less “bird-like”. *(slide 4) I returned in my travels to that spot each day afterwards for a week, or more, I can’t now exactly recall the time-frame, and each day I noticed its gradual disappearance as its body was pressed and pulverized further into the gridded roadway, *(slide 5) until once more, as before in that one particular spot, there was more bridge than bird.”

Mondrian: Like and Unlike
*(slide 6)
What is Figuration? What is Abstraction? And more importantly, what is the nature of the path that moves between them? For quite some time I have worked under the assumption that what this path traces, when gravitating toward abstraction, is a process of entropy. That it marks a dissolution, and distillation of form down to its most basic structural and material components. Such as we might see in a house broken down to its bricks and mortar, or as we have seen in this series of Mondrian tree works, where we see the artist breaking the image down to its basic formal/geometric language. Whereas with figuration, one might say that these building block components (a language of line, colour, space and form, etc.) are put in service of bringing to the fore an illusory resemblance or, a “likeness”, to something in the world (like a tree, a bird, or a face), abstraction, on the other hand, is perhaps “unlike” anything in the world, except itself, and serves only its own expressive potential. The one uses a material language, but hides it; the other is its material language and is the expression of its own revelation.

To paraphrase poet Don McKay, he observes that, “artists are often drawn to those places in language where it begins to break down.” Where “wilderness”, the term he ascribes to all that is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and even perhaps unrecognizable, encroaches upon the human domain of the already familiar. Or, more properly, is shown to be always just below its surface. You merely need to scratch it. *(slide 7: Ed Ruscha)

And so, in scratching at the surface of language one soon finds revealed the material basis on which images are founded. *(slide 8: Arnulf Rainer) A material basis which moves variously between stability and instability, between holding a likeness in its grasp, and that “likeness” succumbing to its own material vulnerability. This vulnerability of language in relation to the world of appearance, perception and experience is seen, through various approaches, in the selection of artists I will be presenting here. It is also a central feature of the writings of poet and essayist Tim Lilburn. His concern for how language reaches out into the world in an attempt to render it intelligible, knowable, and even to render it more like us is particularly instructive. As is his contention that the world itself is a fundamental “unlikeness”, distant, and strange, a distinction similar in spirit to Mckay’s “wilderness”, being that which resists and recoils from language’s colonizing tendencies. It is this tension that informs my considerations of visual aesthetics here in this lecture. An aesthetics where the image is realized through “encounter”, and the realization of its own fugitive underpinnings.

For the image is not found just in the thing seen (in all of its unique shapeliness) but in the seeing. It is relational. As such the image is less a unique, self-defining visual form than a causal-temporal language of convergence, accumulation, and dissolution. The artists discussed here will be shown how their use of conceptual and process-based strategies have also reconsidered and problematised “figuration” and “abstraction”, and the relationship between the art object and its ability or inability to render the world in its making. How does a material become language? And conversely, how does it betray language’s communicative function: Here, the image moves quite freely between these two not so extreme poles. It is like a face becoming unlike itself.

2. The Apparatus and the Language of Images

a.) Charles Gagnon: The Frame and “the Distinct”

How does something come to be an image, how does it move in and out of the visual field, or more specifically, the visual frame. It is useful here to remind ourselves that all images are by nature abstract. We make a frame and hold it up to the world, and in doing so completely shift our relation to what and how we see.

To frame something takes the thing out of the world while still being in it. A bounded image is still in the world, obviously, as a physical presence. It has dimension, surface, materiality, which decidedly links it with the world of things. Yet, an image is also at a distance from the world. Jean Luc Nancy calls the image “the distinct”, for it fundamentally separates itself, as a cut, a break, a kind of “other space”.

There is a well know story, probably familiar to many by now that John Cage tells about a disagreement he and artist Wilem De Kooning had while in a restaurant about art and breadcrumbs. De Kooning said that to put a frame around the breadcrumbs found on their table does not in itself make it art, while Cage argued that it did make it art. Framing something changes it from being a part of the continual rush of phenomenal occurrence to being a localized pictorial experience. It makes a distinction, like pulling a glass of water out of a stream, it becomes something different, something to behold, something we drink in, and even begin to show aesthetic appreciation for. For the crumbs are no longer crumbs but a picture, a composition. They are what they are (breadcrumbs), but also not what they are. Photography, I think, especially has taught us about this deterritorialization of the world into image, but also obscures this fact, through its apparent seamlessness with the world. And yet, by becoming pictorial it immediately takes on the status of an abstraction (a distillation, step remove from the “real” and concrete.)

For Montreal-based artist Charles Gagnon the frame has long been a critical feature of his work as both a measuring and limiting device and through which the independent lines of painting, photography and filmmaking are brought into proximity.

*(Slide : desert) In his Natural History series from the 1990’s we are presented with a visual language based on the mode of juxtaposition and comparison. Differing things are brought together: the photograph as a recording device, fields of monochromatic colour made up of a multitude of repeated brush strokes, and numerical and alphabetical orders which serve to suggest that a form of measuring and categorization is at hand.

*(Slide : Ocean) The frame marks a transitional space between appearance and disappearance, between the concentration and dispersal of our attention, as well as bringing us into awareness of the process of seeing the world through a distinctively different set of visual conditions.

Gagnon has been described as an artist who makes pictures “which seem to be more about the act of framing than the creation of something to be framed”, and where, the “act of painting [is] not so much [about] the formation of an image as a metaphor for a process of containment, forcing a gap in our visual field.” (Contemporary Canadian Art pg. 80)

This “gap”, or separation, is made evident through the juxtaposition of individual discrete elements. The gap that marks the edge of the frame, and our visual field, is also the threshold between what we see and what is not yet revealed. It marks a contingency, the possibility of something relevant though perhaps not yet realized just out of frame. The framing of something hints at the something else: a before perhaps, or, an after.

*(Slide : clouds) In this work we are presented with a series of linked images. Linked yet clearly demarcated in an interesting way. The first two photographic images are visually linked through the continuity of the subject matter (clouds) yet divided by a temporal gap in that the images were taken one minute apart. The third panel, at first appears to be more unique and disconnected than the first two, by medium (paint on panel), but also by approach. There is no attempt at easy continuity by rendering through paint another image of clouds, but instead finds its connection through the act of painting, as much an index of time as is the photograph. In a sense, the photographic turns into the material.

b). Oscar Munoz: Seriality and the Image’s Undoing

The work of Columbian artist Oscar Munoz brings to bear a causal chain of events, an unfolding series of linked transitions between the concrete image and its gradual dissolution into material residue. While not self-consciously bound up in the conventional oppositional terms “figuration” or “abstraction”, (which indeed one might recognize as appropriate to his work at their extremities), his work instead carefully considers the fugitive nature of “the image” and its in/ability to hold onto its own likeness.

*(Slide : Biography) The process used in the two works of his that I will show are similar. They both involve the use of a common sink or basin, filled with water, which onto the surface he “prints”, (and I use the word loosely), by forcing charcoal powder through the mesh of a photographically generated silkscreen stencil. The charcoal is held suspended on the water’s surface in tact, until the drain at the bottom of the sink is opened up causing the water, charcoal powder and image, to be emptied out leaving only its residue. Photographic documentation records, in successive images, the momentum of this process.

*(Slide : Narcissus) There is, in these particular works that employ photomechanical documentation, an interesting double pull between something that is captured (the photographic image) and something that is lost (the original screened image on water).

His unfolding images speak as much to memory as to the material instabilities of a medium and its relative ability to hold a fleeting moment. For while the form of a face is gradually dissolved we still remember it as a face, as both memory and perception. What we behold is a relation to the image that is simultaneously of the past and of the present moment. We encounter the face as being immediately perceptible because we carry it with us as already perceived. His time based, photographic and materially fugitive based works highlight the fragile status of an image’s relation to the present. They are images that are both fully formed and already dispersed.

Here, material and medium are barely able to hold an image’s “likeness” together. As such, the loss of its referential capacity in favour of its material veracity is in a sense to return it to the world. It is a returning to the world through a sense of its own impermanence.

Within his serial based work the image establishes something that “is” (the face) only to lose its certitude through a gradual “unbecoming”. It is both one thing and another, then another, and so on.

c.) Ben Reeves

This relation between the temporality of the photograph and the materiality of another medium, of bringing these two things together at once takes on an interesting tenor in a recent series of paintings by Vancouver based artist Ben Reeves.

*(Slide : smoking) In girl smoking the viewer is presented with what can be called a frozen moment, one commonly associated with photographic capture. Yet instead of ephemerality, or photographic lightness we are presented with a thickening of the moment, a thickening through the material language of paint. To quote Reeves: “At what point do we agree that paint is merely paint, and at what point is it a picture of something?” (from artist, in Now magazine)

The interesting thing here is the fact that the artist is using paint in order to render an image likeness (one presumably derived from a photographic moment) but also that the paint is the stuff which gets in the way of the image being visible.

d.) Eric Cameron

Abstraction is often thought about in negative terms, “non-representational”, it refers only to itself, a self-referential construction. And abstraction is thought of as being removed from life (literally abstracted or taken out of life). Eric Cameron is an artist for whom abstraction or the distancing of a subject from its common familiarity, use and likeness is less a withdrawal from life but rather is to instead intensify and restore it to life.

For almost 30 years Cameron has painted objects, quite literally. He started a practice of selecting common, ordinary, sometimes personally significant objects (such as a book, a bag of brown sugar, a rose, etc) and began a process of painting them daily with a layer white, sometimes toned or coloured gesso, adding a layer each day for years and years. He calls these works “Thick Paintings”. Two separate collaborative projects involving his process of Thick Painting and its engagement with the image, through the use of exposed and undeveloped photographic film are of particular interest here.

*(Slide : Exposed/Concealed: Laura Baird.) The first is from the early 1990’s titled Exposed/Concealed: Laura Baird. In it Cameron photographed close up views of the nude female body on 35 mm film. The resulting exposed images were left undeveloped and rolled up in their film canisters in order to receive their successive layers of gesso. (Slide : Exposed/Concealed: Laura Baird.)

In a similar, *(Slide : Fidelity Elite 1) yet more elaborate project that took place between 2002-2003 at the Nickle Arts Museum, Cameron collaborated with photographer Arthur Nishimura. Nishimura provided three 4 x 5” Fidelity Elite film holders that similarly contained exposed yet undeveloped film which Cameron proceeded to paint daily in the gallery over the month duration of the exhibition. *(Slide : Fidelity Elite 2) This process continued after the exhibition closed for a year at which time they returned to the gallery to remount their installation to see the project to its completion. *(Slide : Fidelity Elite 3) Parallel to Cameron’s process, Nishimura staged and photographed the progressive decay of a pear and squash, as well as his own willful destruction of an old camera, all housed and displayed under glass bell jars. *(Slide : Fidelity Elite 4)

While Oscar Munoz enacts a serial based process by which an existing concrete image is emptied out of its form and likeness, Cameron’s Thick Paintings reveal a similar process of loss, yet, through material accumulation. It is perhaps the difference between erosion and sedimentation. Yet with both artists there is way that the image is held in suspension between appearing and disappearing, between being a concrete likeness and becoming very much unlike itself. This process brings to the fore the material fact of its formation and dissolution, where, in Cameron’s words “The process of art is like the process of life” (Ann Davis, pg. 32.)

In conclusion I will end with a quote from Ann Davis, who elaborates on Cameron’s work and process:
“He wondered if the loss of real-life associations in the everyday objects was denying meaning. He concluded quite the opposite. Rather than hiding or obliterating reality, Cameron found he uncovered or exposed reality…. The forms the Thick Paintings took were not an invention of art, of imagination, or of intellect. Rather these forms were inevitable (my emphasis), exposing what Cameron called “the residue of nature in the materials of art” (Ann Davis, pg. 31.)

An Unlikely Image: or; a face becoming unlike itself
Panel: The Optical Outskirts of Abstraction 2