Corner of the Studio (1993)
El Taller (1993)
A DESCRIPTION AND REFLECTION UPON TWO RECENT WORKS
The theme of the studio has appeared constantly in my work since 1969 when I began documenting my workspace in a way that related the intellectual aspects of conceptual art with direct references to the material production of the art object, a self-consciously modernist strategy which still informs my work. As the space of production the specific location of the construction of artwork in both the material and intellectual sense, as the place where the idea is produced as an object for con-templation and distribution the image of the studio functions as a pictorial grounding of the concep-tual aspects of my work. From the beginning, this objectivication of thought was established also as an intellectual montage, a link between literary material and a physical, technical process associated with objectness. The image of a random assembly of books and writing materials on a table occurs throughout the subsequent development of my work: this can be seen in Summer Script (1973) , Image / text (I979), Art Work (1983), In the Studio (1984), Studio / Museum / Street (1986), The Idea of the University (1990), and in most of the works of my Hotel series in which hotel rooms became a workspace while travelling. The theme of the studio also acts as a personal chronicle and self-reflection on the work itself in relation to the objective social space of the other two recurring the-matic locations that appear in my work: the museum and the street.
But in the more recent work, particularly Corner of the Studio and El Taller, references to questions of production has signalled a shift in my work from an emphasis on questions of subject matter and signification to the aesthetic, ideological, and technical relations between painting and ph-tography. Corner of the Studio and El Taller were made especially for Galeria Tomas March of Valencia in 1993 and are related to each other in a specific way. Both works are of identical dimensions and formats. Both works consist of an arrangement of four canvases that combine photo-graphs of my studio with rectangular sections of inked impressions of plywood on acrylic.
The first work, Corner of the Studio, was completed in march 1993. Although in fact in the spring of 1987, at the time that I photographed it, I was producing several large canvases (for instance, My Heroes in the Streets), none of this work is visible in the image. Therefore, what is represented in this earlier work is more a space for thinking than production itself. In contrast, the second series, El Taller, was photographed in the same studio space (to the right of the windows visible in Corner of the Studio) and is in effect a reprise, a correction of the intellectual ambience of the first work by emphasizing the physical fabrication of the work itself, and thus the studio as a working space (in spanish, El Taller).
Furthermore, in the earlier work titled Corner of the Studio, the image represents the studio as a place for intellectual production only in an indirect way. Unlike other works of this type (eg. the Hotel series), there is not even any paperwork in evidence, only boxed musical and recording equipment, and a single open book on the divan. Yet the various objects and furniture in the image do indicate potential activity: the forementioned book, musical equipment, an ashtray and a case of beer. Industrial buildings can be seen through the window. The open book, on the edge of the divan next to the chair (largely obscured) where I had been sitting, is in fact, although indecipherable as such in the photograph, Un Coup de Dés by Stephane Mallarmé, a book which, over the past twenty years, has functioned for me as a cipher for abstraction as a poetic concept, for the concept of the unreadable at those moments when there seems to be nothing to say.
The actual taking of the photograph involved an interruption in the act of reading this book. As for the interruption itself, I do remember that it was the unexpected arrival of Paul Arbez, a friend who documents most of my wok on large-format transparencies. The production of this image then was an enfolding of this interruption into my passive act of reading and daydreaming so that my absent-mindedness was intersected with another kind of purposive activity: the positioning of the camera, taking light readings, and so on. The technical operation of photography thus functioned as a self-conscious witness to my private act of reading, as well as providing a concrete spatial reference for an abstract conceptual activity, a document of a specific, narrative autobiographical moment, an objec-tive preservation of an abstract instance of time. The photograph was then put into the archives until resurrected five years later.
This photographic element of Corner of the Studio is in fact a single image cut into four parts. The photograph was first cut in half, after which a rectangular section was then cut from each half, thus providing four segments that were then laminated onto separate canvases, all of which were arranged to approximate the coherence of the original photograph. The specificity of each segment, which is identified by its photographic information, is also determined by the dynamic spatial contrasts, textures and colours of the abstract sections of the canvas area which replace the areas of the cut-away section of each part of the original photograph, and thus this excision of photographic space has provided a catalyst for a latent painterly practice.
These abstract sections are the dynamic, hot, shifting part of the canvas as contrasted to the cool, more inert quality of the monochromatic, black and white photographic element, and thus they make a figurative effect against the pictorial ground. Other than the fact that they are all rectangular segments cut from the whole, they are limited in number and are clustered together so that they replace the approximate area of the canvas in which the photographic segment is missing. Yet despite the limits that this almost systematic function might seem to place on the spontaneous ges-ture that could be suggested by these painted (actually impressed) elements, they do in fact produce a sensuous and pictorially expressive reciprocity with the work as a whole. The contrasts of colour and tone between the painted ground and the woodblock impression, between the chromatic and textu-ral contrasts of the abstract segments themselves, and in the interplay between their rectangularity and the rectangular forms that shape the architectural features of the photographic portion of the images, characterizes what I would identify as painterly in the classic sense; that is, as representation primarily concerned with the construction of pictorial space through gestural mark-making.
However, by giving the painted sections a more active part than its previous metaphorical function as the ground to the figurative or signifying function of the photograph, I have reconfigured the painted segments to now function as the figure, with the photograph as the ground. Some impli-cations of this inversion will be elaborated upon later in the discussion of the subsequent work, EI Taller. This raises some theoretical questions that have yet to be fully answered. What, for example, are the implications of this for the relative hierarchical relationships between painting and photo-graphy as it has evolved historically? Is this a repositioning in my work of painting as a signifying gest-ralism in itself? Until this point gesturalism has always been repressed in my work and is, in my opi-nion, the most problematic aspect of painterly technique. In more general terms, does this constitute a fundamental shift in my work?
Whatever the case, the hermeneutic substance, the significantly readable aspect of the subject matter given by the photographic element in these works, assumes a new relation to abstraction. Even though the theme of the studio references the production of the work itself, the absence in these works of the human figure, the artist as actor, protagonist, and producer, sublimates the figurative function of the photograph as a signifying representation to the relatively more dynamic painterly per-formance of the abstract segments. The author as producer here is present not as a self-legitimizing hero, but as an absence looking back through the space of production, reflecting on work in the process of its self-definition.
Self-reflection on the process of production, which is a testimony to a form of modernist pathology, is even more accentuated in the second work of these related works, El Taller. Although it is a reprise of the first series (it consists of four canvases of the same dimensions and of the same studio photographed six years later) there are some fundamental differences: the photographs are in colour and the abstract segments in black and white, a reversal of the system in Corner of the Studio; there are four distinct photographs, while in the first series a single photograph was cut into four parts; and the imagery shows the actual process, materials and production of the canvases themselves, while the first showed only the space of future production.
The four photographs of El Taller, taken in the summer of 1993, document the space of the studio in a precisely determined structure, with distinct angle shots that combine to represent a unified space, specifically work tables and a wall, against which stretched canvases are propped. These canva-ses are the very same ones upon which their own photographic images are laminated. The four dis-tinct photographs, each laminated onto a canvas of identical dimensions, were shot from slightly different positions but clearly describe a continuous space, a coherent geography of objects and architecture. This structure in itself is not necessarily significant from an interpretive point-of-view, but does involve the attentive spectator in a comprehension of the unity of the work through close observation of the photographic information. The self referencing of the photographic ground is also effected by the referencing of the tools of production (ladder, tables, stretcher bars, canvas, plier, stapler, etc.) and their relative positions in the image so that the topography of the photographic space can thus present these objects as figurative emblems that refer to a particular stage in the production process, that is, in the preparation of the canvas ground only, for in fact neither the photographic nor the painting process in itself are represented. There is an emphasis on the ground then, that draws attention to the problematic of figure-ground relations that are central to this series and all works on canvas related to it.
There is an ironic effect produced by the fact that this emphatic reference to the canvas support as pictorial ground is conveyed specifically by the photographic element that covers most of the sur-face of each canvas. Since now the photographic surface has becomes the ground for the pain-terly figuration of the woodblock impressions, the history of photographic practice which has provided a competitive and often opposing force to the traditional dominance of painting and the materiality of the canvas support, now ironically acts as a reifying and affirmative reference. Just as text subscribes image, here photography subscribes paintings: it confirms its existence through mechanical representation. However, it would not be entirely accurate to say that this reifying and affirmative effect ceases to be critical of these relations. Rather, through the displacement of the ideal ground of painting (the white, virginal space of the primed canvas) by the vulgar' specificity of photographic representation, this ironic reversal provides the opportunity for reflection upon the relative status of the pictorial arts and what we might call the idea of the picture, the discursive logos of modern thought as represented in the image. The referencing power of photography has returned to the deconstru-ted materiality of painting and its canvas support the possibility of representation that was lost when painting, and especially its gestural rhetoric, was superceded by the industrialization of pictorial representation through mechanical reproduction such as photography and film. Now painting in its idealist dimension is ironically affirmed, and its reductive material dimension fetishized, through the intervention of photography.
But the point that must be acknowledged here is that painting, even in its most idealized and essentialist aesthetics is not immaculately conceived: it is itself a technical invention, materially and manually produced to function as the dominant form of pictorial representation throughout most of the history that established its privileged position as the horizon of meaning in western high culture, that is, as the idea of the picture; and that photographic representation continues this logos in a modernized mode of production. In the historical displacement of its representational function by the mechanical means of representation (photography, film, video, etc.) painting fell back on its histori-cally-evolved status as the ideal essentialist space of meaning that of modernist abstraction. These works in part are shifting this idealist space of painting over to a technical, material discourse and thus to an expressive discourse filtered through mechanical process.
This displacement produces a critical reference to the problematic relations that still remain between the legitimacy of painting and photography as constituted in the discourse of high art. My particular position on this issue is briefly stated as follows: that the ideal space of painting as an historically produced space of potential meaning, as the ground of signification, can be itself also a material effect that is, that the poetics of painting, rendered apparently obsolete by the vulgar specificity of the mechanical representation of the real, can be recuperated, needs to be recuperated, as a functio-nal element in the construction of significant, historically compelling meaning. This recuperation of the conversion of the ideality of painting into a material effect is carried out through the dialectical and critical (and ironic, for what is given away is also taken back) contestation of representational function of both painting and photography (its arch-rival in the static visual arts at least) in the field of the picture.
Yet to continue questioning the logic of this displacement: if photography now assumes the position of the ground of representation in the horizon of the pictorial field what becomes of painting now that it is pushed out into the foreground as figuration, but still stripped of its representational capability? A description of how this functions in the abstract segments of the canvasses of El Taller follows.
In each canvas of El Taller the abstract painterly elements are composed of an arrangement of only two rectangular sections, or elongated bars, one of which has an impression of a plywood texture in white ink on a white acrylic field, and the other of a plywood impression in black ink on a white acrylic field, forming a syntax of contrasts. The textural fields are monotype impressions taken by rubbing the canvas directly onto inked plywood. These rectangles are not in fact (although they might at first appear to be) superimposed over the photographic ground, but instead the photograph has been physically cut away at this point, revealing the canvas texture, and allowing the abstract sections to make an intrusion into the photographic field so that they project aggressively into the space of the image, charging it with a dynamic potentiality.
There is in this movement a residual rhetoric that flows from the relations between these figurations. It is possible that this rhetorical element stems from the sublimation of painterly gesture to dominantly mechanical processes in the photographic (printed and laminated in a laboratory) and wood monoprint (directly transferred without any intentional gestural articulations) elements. And because there is almost never any painterly gesture as such in my work, rhetorical figuration emerges indirectly and at the extremes of the pictorial vocabulary, both in the general organization of theme and form, and often in apparently incidental details of the photographs. Even the textures of the natural grain of the wood impression is produced by pressure of the feet, but for the most part the rhetorical drama of what is latent as painterly figuration is contained in a dynamic but controlled equilibrium between the abstract sections and the spatial unity of the photographic ground, which, as the more potent representational field, already has a superfluity of gestural movements on its own. The visual thrusts and parries, the luminous textures, the contrasts of tone and chroma; all contribute to a painterly vocabulary latent in both the abstract and photograph elements. But overriding all those movements that carry a figurative function, there is the opticality of the work the illusions of virtual space carried by the material difference between the photographic imagery and the woodblock monoprint; both of which articulate space in a forceful but distinct way. This opticality is reinforced by various contrapuntal spatializing deuces in both the photgraphic and abstract sections. Thus the eye is trapped into plotting the logic of virtual space, the mirroric simulation of actual space that is the essential opticality of the photographic domain.
What is important to me in these works, as the outcome of a formal experiment in effect, is that this optical complexity derives from a few direct, opaque, almost granular (in the sense that the illu-sion of deep space is, upon close inspection, confounded by the clearly visible grain of the canvas sur-face) technical devices a self-reflexive, theoretically problematic visuality produced by an economy of means This opticality engages the devices which produce it. This is a process of seeing which invites the spectator to become an optical producer as well as spectator creating a theater for contemplation upon the act of seeing and the mechanics of representation. This interactive drama plays out what is essential to all radical pictorial art, not the formulation of frozen iconic emblems that illustrate ideas, but the active recognition (I stress the dynamic aspect here seeing it new) in the minds eye during the contemplation of pictorial art of our own comparative experiences of the visual complexity of everyday life. New pictorial art provides the codes for experience. It tunes the eye. This fundamental function is the grounding of experiential rationality. As such it is truly classical, but also modern in its experimental self-consciousness, so that the process of seeing itself comes again under examination as a subject for pictorial art as it did during the experiment with linear perspectival systems of representation as formulated by Alberti in the 18th century, and the dissolution of these perspective systems in the evolution of modernist abstraction, in particular during the early years of cubism.
Corner of the Studio and El Taller, and other works related to them, apart from their co-nection to the subject of the studio as a place of production, are part of a digression in my work as a whole, a digression from thematic models of subject matter that still dominate most of my work, towards an experimental reflection on technical problems and a theorization of means essential to modernist art of all kinds. Yet there still remains an unresolved problematic in this work, which can only be answered in time and through the development of new work: that of the limits of the aesthetic as well as the technical models that inform these pieces. That is to say, the models of vision provided by both painting and photography (the static visual arts) have been substantially superceded by new technology: cinema, video, television and computer generated imagery. Nevertheless, the aesthetic dimension, the grounding of the medium itself in an idealist or essentialistsignification that transcends the spectacular power or the new media, remains, in my view, an indispensable element in the legitimacy of contemporary art.
(January 1994, revised March 1995)