CLOSER STILL is an exhibition, which brings together artists whose paintings enlarge upon a photographic source and as such may be conceived as images of images. Exposure to the photographic material forms an impression in these paintings, a shadow of the original image rather than a direct representation of it. Stoichita, in A Short History of the Shadow, describes Pliny’s story of the origin of painting as a discourse of love and loss. A young woman draws around the lamplight shadow of her beloved who is about to embark on a journey. The representation has its origin in the interruption of a relationship, in a separation. The image is an index, it ‘stands in’ for the source or original, rather than – in the Platonic tradition – taking on the mimetic function of the mirror. We are thinking about semblance rather than likeness.
This trail of copying has been filtered through a relationship to loss which frames painting itself as an act of mourning. This work asks the question: if representation in itself most fundamentally implies the absence of the object, does the act of making arrest the process of loss? The works here manifest our desire to retouch, revise, reinscribe the image through process, and they show a recognition of the space of mediation. The indirect relationship between event and its document, document and painting, is a central concern for these artists. What happens to the image when it is made in paint? How is meaning formulated differently through process and material? Does thought have a texture? The traditional demarcations between the physical and the metaphysical, thing and idea, get blurred. What we are concentrating on here is not the likeness between painting and its source, but the difference.
“It is perhaps disturbing for us to recognize that the truth of a painting is not at a distance from the painting but is inseparable from the painting’s material reality, from its ‘means’; that its glory resides in the presence of pure matter arranged in such a way as to capture absence”. – Blanchot
The works in this exhibition vary in the modality of their relationship with the image. Each way of making is itself invested with meaning. Like Duchamp, we may “make a picture, of shadows cast… the execution of a picture by means of luminous sources… simply following the real outlines projected…” or perhaps subject ourselves to the often tortuous pleasure of meticulously copying, remaking. We may choose to use processes of conceptual projection [the light of ideas as distinct from the phenomenon of light], or invoke drawing systems that should perhaps be redundant in the face of digital tools for image manipulation and replication. We photograph the screen, extemporize on the press photograph, allow ourselves to indulge in the facture and faktura (the signature and production) of painting. A painting takes place as surface and depth together, a single structure; like a hinge, infinitely reversible. In its silent reflection, it is paying attention to the surface of the world. Painting, in this exhibition, is characterised as a constant form of remapping, a movement, crossing surfaces and screens; a process in passage. It encounters image and thought, source and copy, historical dialogue, to find an economy of representation, a distillation; avoiding the temptation to over-articulate the image.
“Images and signs assume a double-tongued character: on the face of it minimal and taciturn, they speak without pause about the processes of their making. Nothing is depicted without referring back to the act of representing. A gap is prized open between seemingly austere, laconic signs and the volumes they speak about states of feeling and mind, the inner world of hesitation and dilemma”. – Maharaj
The moments or events that these images describe are brought into a new proximity through their remaking in painting. In attempting to focus or scrutinize the event we become aware of how nearness shifts into distance and back again. In this sense, the apparatus of attention provided by the lens, its focus or lack of it, the close-up, or overexposure, allows us to rethink a relationship with the event.
“Photography, with its devices of slow enlargement, reveals the secret. It photography that we first discover unconscious…” – Benjamin
The unseen or unremarked leaves its trace in the print for us to recognise and potentially reconstruct.
Conversely images in our memory have a potent generality that cannot be examined or corroborated but, in their tangible quality resemble photographic images. “Is history a cable? a telephone? a faded memory? a painting we keep copying?” – Phelan
In John Dougill’s paintings, something incidental through the lens becomes momentous through a process of selection. As the artist says: A tendency to notice the unnoticed and make some visual configuration or construct out of it often reveals something quite powerful, like scanning aerial photographs and finding a weapon site. In this series of paintings events at the threshold of sea and land come close to view past the beached foreground; like the exquisite landscape that draws attention past and beyond the Renaissance portrait sitter. The resulting blow-up retains much of the impenetrability of the long shot, reminding us that technology cannot always overcome the uncertainty of distance.
“Man puts the largest expanses behind him in the shortest time and thereby brings everything before him at the shortest range. Yet the rushed abolition of all remoteness brings no closeness; for closeness does not consist in the reduction of distance. What is least removed from us in terms of expanse, through the image in film or sound in radio, can still remain remote. What in terms of expanse is unimaginably far removed, can be very close to us. Reduced distance is not in itself closeness. Nor is great distance remoteness.” –Heidegger
The duration of a painting may reinstate expanses compacted through the lens, unfolding time again and attending to the crumpled traces left behind. It is not a sharpening of the eye’s technology, but perhaps an extension of its field of vision; painting as a form of looking.
“What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be.” – Benjamin
Reinscription brings distant events into the herenow, negotiating the complexity of time and the still image, questioning how history and experience become image. How do we inscribe a relationship with the past? This may require acts of painstaking reconstitution, slowing down, squaring up, and close focus on the simplest detail. Whilst working at a remove, the photocopy multiplies, enlarges and remarks the singularity of the far off, the singularity of the event.
Beth Harland’s series of paintings revisit the events of 3rd August 1944 in which the Santa Trinita Bridge in Florence was bombed, fragmenting four sentinel statues, the four seasons, into the River Arno. The source images are the official documentation of the fragments lying in wait behind closed doors, for attempted reconstruction. This moment, seen by few eyes, an extraordinary yet banal sight, reinscribed in a different time, inflects loss: the fractured body; separation. The paintings follow the movement of relation from the event, to the documentation, to the suggestive encounter of the image when reinvested with a ‘body’. In the process of remaking, the object is returned to its corporeal status, but is at the same time elsewhere.
“The Image, the Remains. The image does not, at first glance, resemble the corpse, but the cadaver’s strangeness is perhaps also that of the image. What we call mortal remains escapes common categories. Something is there before us which is not really the living person, nor is it any reality at all. “– Blanchot
The provenance and uses of the images chosen are a subject of attention for these artists. Their work exposes us to the contingency of both document and representation. Andrew Grassie’s portraits of astronauts, made from images downloaded from NASA’s website, contain all the traits familiar from corporate, press photographs, the stream of often banal images we scan over breakfast. Yet within these images we read the remnants of the great portrait painters; from Velasquez and Holbein we recognise the attributes of authority, trophies of the trade. The vestiges of painting permeate the way we frame the world. Similarly, the work has a generic relationship to the historical event: the moonshot, Apollo 13, Challenger – the triumph and disaster implicit in the great endeavor. “We came in peace for all mankind” trickles via satellite into the cold war. This relationship with history, with the event which has passed, even the recent event of making the painting, is also linked to prefiguring: the thing which is always about to happen. Recognition, which sometimes happens through noting down, through making, relates to pre-cognition. We look at the past with energies oriented towards the future and trace our collective histories through processes of remembrance and forgetting. The subject in the present is distinguished by anamnesis.
The images themselves and how we perceive them change over time. Rita Donagh’s works, relating to events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s themselves become documents, witnessing for the witnesses. How do we read them differently in the light of the recent closure of the H -blocks? As our perception changes over time, so in the making of the work, our relationship with the event is given a space. In these works, the means of production has a precision and clarity which in its formal economy focuses but cannot contain the complex and emotional subject.
“The newspaper images of the H-bLock cells at Long Kesh Prison in Belfast are emotional triggers but practically devoid of precise information. They form the central reference point in a series of pictures about the prison, which revolve around issues of clarification, measurement, exactness, within a context of deliberate unclarity, one which is inevitably ambiguous.” – Collings
Implicit in the relationship between photography and painting is the play of presence and absence. In the movement from the source something of the images disperses or is altered. This movement between inscription and materiality is worked through in Louisa Minkin’s three paintings Solve, Coagula which relate, through the poet Paul Celan, to alchemical process. The image, a detail from an alchemical engraving of clouds, gets closer and closer, but instead of revealing the trace of an event, as happens in Antonioni’s film, Blow-Up, it disperses, apparently into the field of abstraction. The familiar blotches of an over-scale photocopy are recorded awkwardly and painstakingly: some sort of flawed spectral analysis. The original and the reinscribed form a relationship between two palimpsests, reading them is like discovering, through X-ray, another picture beneath the skin. The notion of the series informs the activity of all these artists. It is implied in the still frame: what came after and before? The particularity of painting as a practice resides in the potentiality of stillness, the resonance of the immanent. These works halt the roving eye, jam the projector, steal the video frame; they isolate from the flood of images which inundate us, slow down to look more closely “… and while looking very very closely, 1 copy” – Cixous
Simon Morley returns to the books which informed his thinking, tracing and enlarging the frontispieces, returning to reconsider the event, the Doors of Perception in motion. William Fox Talbot, in a notebook entry of 3 March 1839, described photography as “words of light”. In Morley’s work, word is image. If the tense we associate with photography is the past perfect, this work implies a continuum, a spillage into the present, staining the sensitive surface with a script of traces.
“The presence of written words in the media of the visual arts blurs and reanimates, confuses and provokes, challenging our fundamental preconceptions about how languages – verbal or visual – construct what we call ‘reality’.” – Morley
In these works surface and inscription combine; their subtle variations of tone refuse clear differentiation; figure and ground hold uncertain positions. The history of a relationship with words is uncovered; the history of a book, its objectness; the history of the thoughts inscribed within it. Questions about the links between photography and history run through Walter Benjamin’s writings: the impact of technology on historical thinking; reproduction and mimesis; remembering and forgetting. It is because, as Benjamin says, historical thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well that photography can offer a model for the understanding of history. In presenting his thinking in and through image, Benjamin identifies the visual quality of thought and comes close to the project of the artist.
Each of these artists employs the medium of photography, which we associate with looking back, an index of the moment in its contingency. With the translation into painting, something other is being explored, beyond the moment; something more than the this of a photograph, something closer still.
Essay © Beth Harland Louisa Minkin
I. Stoichita. V.l. A Short History of the Shadow, Reaktion books,1997. p.12
2. Blanchot. M. Friendship. Stanford University Press, p.36
3. Maharaj.S. Rita Donagh. exhibition catalogue. London Institute. 1989
4. Benjamin.W. One-Way Street, Verso, 1979. p.243
5. Phelan. P.Mourning Sex. Routledge. 1997. p.1l9
6. Heidegger. M. The Thing, lecture. 1947
7. Benjamin. W. Ibid. p.250
8. Blanchot:M. The Space of Literature, University of Nebraska Press.19H2, p.256
9. Collings, M. Painting Photography. exhibition catalogue. Hollywell Press. 1985
10. Cixous. H. Rootprints. Routledge. 1997. p.1
II. Morley. S. The Collective Works of George Orwell and other Paintings, Utopia Press and Percy Miller Gallery. 2000