Alta Bates Medical Center Art Gallery, October 23-December 4, 2000
Commentary by Loren Means
Photography is a chemical process in which light causes silver halides to darken. This darkening is then acted upon by other chemicals which stop the process of chemical change. Photography was invented in the mid-19th century, coincidental with the onset of Modern art. Photography was a threat to the realistic tradition of painting, because it produced a form of realism instantaneously, without the necessity of the hard work and skill that painters had to bring to bear. Painting moved into abstraction in the 20th century, while photography continued primarily on a realistic bent. Now a new generation of artists is emerging who are combining the non-objective esthetic of abstract painting with the chemical-based, mechanically-reproducible elements of the photographic medium. What all of these artists have in common, to a greater or lesser degree, is a desire to form an interaction with the outside world of elemental matter to find a mode of expression that is more than simply self-expression.
There is an avant-garde tradition in photography, embodied in such pioneers as Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, and Surrealists like Dora Maar, and that tradition is based primarily on working outside the confines of imagery created inside a camera. (An exception to this is photomicography, which uses a camera as an adjunct to the machinery of the microscope and colored filters.) People have been applying paint and dyes to photographs from its inception, though usually to try to remedy a perceived deficiency: its initial inability to reproduce the world’s colors.
Painting went through a crisis in the second half of the twentieth century, and the elements that were rendered problematical in it were elements that are fundamental to photography. Space is perhaps the most problematical concept in painting, in that flatness was mandated by Clement Greenberg as an alternative to illusion, then repudiated as a limiting factor by Frank Stella. The photographic plane of a negative is fundamentally two-dimensional, and a provocative aspect of photo-based experimentalism is the overcoming of this two-dimensionality. A canvas or even a drawing can be built up by bas-relief or collage, but the photographic negative has to be flat to work.
Still another aspect of the issue of flatness in regard to photography is the fact that the photographic negative, and often its positive print, are transparencies, to be looked through and for light to shine through, as a reality, not an illusion. Light is another problem in painting, since it is not a real element of painting, as it is a real element in nature, and so it must be depicted in painting as an illusion. The depiction of light and shadow is a monumentally important concept in art history, but it is been fundamentally rejected in the twentieth century. Light, however, is one of the two most basic elements of photography. Without the application of light, the silver halides are not acted upon, and the photographic process does not take place.
Color is problematic in the photographic sphere from an esthetic standpoint, since there is in many critical circles a prejudice in favor of black and white. Such photo-based artists as Adam Fuss have found immense potential in the interaction of natural materials with the dyes of color photo paper, as in his work with rabbit entrails and animal livers.
Motion can also be an aspect of photo-based work, especially when a camera is involved. The shutter of a camera is designed to operate with greater or less rapidity of action in order interact in the most favorable way with the motion of objects in the objective world. If this optimal relationship is violated, through extreme motion on the part of the subject, the camera, or both, shapes can be captured which are not visible to the eye. (The eye/mind tends to filter out such information.)
The upshot of photo-based experimentalism is the primacy of the interaction with phenomena in the outside world of objects, chemicals, machines, and natural structures. This is opposed to the intentionality of painters, who master the medium for the purpose of expressing their inner world of ideas, desires, feelings, and unconscious turbulence. This is fine, but it is limited in a way that photo-based work is not, if the photo-based artist can find ways of liberating the immense creative power of the phenomenal world.
Computer-based creation is a form of photo-based work, in that its products are disseminated into the world outside the computer through the medium of realization on photographic paper. Digital work differs from other photo-based work in that it can make use of the power of mathematics, which is another powerful manifestation of the phenomenal world, and a primary component in scientific cogitation. Mathematical computation of fractals have revealed a new form of structural conceptualization that was inconceivable before the widespread availability of powerful computers. The computer’s innate ability to generate random numbers, coupled with its ability to learn rules, make it a powerful collaborator in the creative process, allowing the artist to decide how much control to take at a given time, and how much to allow to the computer. Programs such as Photoshop have components which are capable of creating satisfying works of art with only a small amount of coaching from the artist-partner.
In his novel Solaris, Lem writes of an alien planet which is creative, constantly manufacturing structures of entrancing beauty. The planet is able to affect the lives of the humans hovering over it, but they are not able to affect it. He could, of course, have been speaking of the creative ability of this planet and its phenomena, and its availability to use for ecstatic interaction and contemplation.
The contemporary crisis in easel painting seems to manifest itself in terms of a renunciation of the possibility of painting having validity. The photo-based experimenters, besides their unity in the medium of silver gelatin, permit themselves to be avant-gardists who are allowing themselves to bask in esthetic pleasure.
Whereas the art of the late Twentieth century was primarily concerned with the nature of art, the art of photo-based experimenters seems to be concerned with the relationship of art to nature. In turning a lens on the natural world, the camera with its magnification and adjustable shutter transformed our perception of the nature of nature. The photo-based experimenters, who for the most part are not pointing a camera at the natural world, are finding themselves engaged in a fundamental way with forces outside themselves, and express themselves through their relationship to and manipulation of these forces. Rather than seeking to subdue nature, these experimenters are forming creative partnerships with the will to form of natural matter and the longings within themselves for images of worlds yet unseen. As Gordon Onslow Ford recently put it, “You yourself are also a part of nature.”
Though he works strictly in the realm of computer-based creation, Steve Aubrey’s work reflects a preoccupation with what he terms “biomorphic” forms. Aubrey worked for a time as a medical illustrator, a unique profession which thrives because in the medical field analytical drawings by humans are found to be more efficacious than photography. Aubrey uses two computer monitors to generate a staggering multiplicity of possible images, often merging them and sliding them into position, from which he selects those forms which most satisfy his quest for “organic” shapes. He selects the images which most closely correspond to a conception of what constitutes a satisfying dynamic pleasing to his psyche. These images are then processed using topographical software and framed using a 3-D lenticular screen. The effect is of a world which the viewer can enter and explore. Aubrey is a master of photographic illusion of the most palpable and technically sophisticated kind, where time becomes an element of the viewing experience, like sculpture.
David Berg began by applying paint to clear mylar film, and manipulated the paint through motion of the mylar, thereby creating the images strictly though chance operations. Neither camera nor computer were employed. When the resulting images were printed on photographic paper, the viewers of the work very strongly identified the images with forms of nature, to the extent of being convinced that they were viewing photographs of actual scenes. In fact, Berg’s work was shown with landscapes by Ansel Adams, and audiences were convinced that the two artists had photographed the same locale. This phenomenon has gained Berg widespread acceptance of his work, but is a byproduct of his approach to creation, which is simply the manipulation of paint through chance operations. As a response to this ambiguity about his relationship to photography, Berg began conceiving of his works as negatives, and printing them as such in his darkroom.
Mark Erickson is a painter, much of whose work could be identified as abstract-expressionist in that he is concerned with chance-taking in his creative process, and with the integrity of individual brushstrokes. But Erickson differs from traditional abstract-expressionists in his interest in illusion. He will meticulously paint bubbles and other bas-relief shapes on a canvas, often in juxtaposition with actual raised surfaces. He also paints over imagery already laid down and then scrapes at the surface to reveal what is beneath, so that the shallow space involved combines illusionary and actual space. When entering into the digital realm with his collaborator Bart Trickel, Erickson’s work is transformed into another dimension. Erickson and Trickel tend to start their digital compositions with images which are scanned into the computer, including Erickson’s paintings and photographs of people and objects in the real world, which are juxtaposed upon and within an abstract environment, combining actual and illusionary space.
Andrew Haynes photographs natural phenomena with a camera, which makes him unique among this group of creators. However, in the process of photographing crystals through a microscope, Haynes manifests his own personal predilections in palpable ways. He selects the chemicals that he will cause to crystallize, often combining more than one reagent in the process. He applies heat to speed the crystallizing process, and applies it judiciously. The crystallization process creates an environment of continuous imagery on the microscope slide which Haynes then browses, looking for the particular imagery to which he responds. When these images are discovered, they are photographed through polarizing filters to enhance the color contrast. So, rather than passively recording forms that pre-exist in nature, Haynes brings the forms into existence and photographs the ones that correspond to his inner vision. He must do this with speed and alacrity, as the crystals which he brings into existence die very quickly, and then live in his photomicrograms.
Loren Means started out as a filmmaker, but became fascinated with the concept of film as a fine art medium rather than as a purveyor of narrative or recorder of the natural world. In the process of exploring alternative ways of creating imagery in the film medium, Means began applying paint directly to 8mm film stock. Since the film is too small to be viewed with the naked eye, Means was strictly passive in regard to the resultant imagery. However, in ensuing painting sessions he applied concepts of chemistry and physics to his paint palette to introduce more color and shape variation. In viewing the resultant imagery, Means realized that it differed profoundly from his more simplistic abstract canvas-painting style, and that it seemed to depict a world of forms which was autonomous and ultimately more satisfying than the canvas-painting. It is hard for Means to feel directly responsible for the creation of this world of images, except that it would not exist without his agency bringing it into being.
Daniel Shulman-Means uses the computer’s ability to generate random numbers and Photoshop’s ability to generate forms automatically to create environments of imagery which he augments until the environment is replete with possibility. Then he roams the environment looking for images which correspond to his concept of the “organic”. He saves these images and puts them on his web page, classifying them under the heading “digital organics”. Shulman-Means believes that mathematics is a part of nature. Occasionally he will incorporate an image from the real world, such as a scan of a human brain, into his digital environment. The image is usually of the kind that cannot be perceived with the naked eye, and is available only through the use of a computer, such as the image of a brain scan used in Trauma, a detail of which is pictured on the other side of this brochure. The resultant images are manifestations of elements of the organic world transformed to create a new organic object with a life of its own.