Abstraction in Photography
Von Lintel Gallery
555 W 25th Street, New York
February 6 – March 22 2003
I would venture to guess that your average person regards photography as the instant capture of reality simply because real places and things are often photographed, and because the resulting image is documentary in nature. But the document is not necessarily real. Once the picture is taken, time moves on, thereby making what was real the past and the now-the real real-something else entirely. Thus, photography can be described not as the capture of reality, but rather, as an abstraction of time and place. What may have been real now only exists on paper in the swirl of chemicals and fixatives that hold it in place.
What then of the photographic image that is in itself abstract? What if the abstract real (as I have just defined it) is really abstract? Does our focus (no pun intended) shift from the recognizable, indexical form, to composition, tone, line and the intent of the artist? More than likely. But what if the photographer gives us both? What if the artist presents a real, recognizable form in an abstract presentation? The results are much more complex than in abstract painting because the eye is conditioned to read photographs by their surface, to take it for what it is, and therefore not question more than what the eye can see.
These are the questions and assumptions I had in mind as I wandered through “Abstraction in Photography” at the Von Lintel Gallery. Using the works of sixteen artists, the show was subtly divided into three sections deemed as “general paths to abstraction.” The front gallery was dedicated to photographs that captured recognizable subject matter in an unusual way. A good example is Andres Serrano’s Bloodscape V (1989). The slick, plastic red surface is actually a Cibachrome image of a pool of blood, taken close up so that it is abstracted into not only a rich study of line, but also a heavy viscous wave of damned if I know what.
The middle gallery is given over to non-objective abstract photographs that derive their imagery from a non-recognizable subject. Roland Fischer’s Lucas Ave. L. A. (2002) from far away looks like small gray and black squares generously spaced in series across a large white surface. Grays fade into strips of black at the bottom of each rectangle, the rectangles dot the surface in a grid. Up close, the pattern starts to make more sense, and it is obvious that this is a wall somewhere. The high-key white of the wall surface contrasts sharply with the shadows of the rectangular holes, giving the image a sunny feel. The serial pattern of the squares conjures up notions of the digital, blinking cursors on a computer screen. This brings it into the present, but combined with the twelve-part Sean Scully piece Art Horizon III (2002) on the adjacent wall, Fischer’s work calls to mind the seriality and cleanliness of minimalist abstraction.
In the final gallery, we are offered works that eliminate the use of the camera altogether. Winfred Evers dominates here with Master Altar and Moving Still, both from 1998. These gelatin silver prints have gelatinous, biomorphic shapes created by merely manipulating the surface of the paper. Like jello that has been wiggled, the images move by their own sinuousness, their black and white shadows creating contrasts that evoke the architecture of roller coasters. Very classy, and very fun.
Vik Muniz’s After Yves Klein (From Pictures of Color) by far outpaces all the other images in its double capacity to capture both the abstract real and real abstraction. For that reason, I will dwell on this remarkable image in some depth.
By way of Klein, Muniz calls authenticity to task and in different ways projects a very mindful artificiality with a slight twinge of dishonesty. This Cibachrome image of little blue Pantone squares is in reference to Klein’s own ultramarine blue-I.K. B. or International Klein Blue. Klein used the blue to connote the boundlessness of space and the spirituality space evoked. The blue’s powdery texture (created with the use of a special binder) expanded its optical qualities. Klein painted his monochromatic blue canvases with a roller-just as one would apply your run-of-the-mill house paint-a nod to the commodity culture burgeoning the 1950s and its repetitive nature, which in turn, became a reference to both authorial presence (the hand of the artist) and the commercial nature of that which could be readily reproduced.
By using the medium of photography, Muniz draws attention to its optical qualities, namely, the idea that what is represented in a photograph is also an optical illusion-what you see is not real, although it appears so. Is it really monochromatic? The squares all look to be of the same hue, but if one reads the actual names of the colors, it is obvious that they are not identical. Reflex Blue U is not the same as Blue 072 U. Again we’re dealing with an optical illusion: the abstraction (or refraction) of light as it bounces off the surface of the squares, their perceived color actually a mixture of the colors Muniz lays out for us at the bottom of the image: Process Cyan U, Process Magenta U, Process Yellow U, etc.
Muniz’s photograph can also be interpreted as a play on Klein’s Yves Peintures an illustrated booklet from 1954 wherein the plates were not photographs of paintings, but sheets of commercially inked paper. In his homage to Klein, Muniz gives us a photographic reproduction of commercially inked sheets (again their repetition emphasizing their function as a commodity). Muniz’s presentation twice removes the viewer from the real thing. It is the abstract real (blue photographed) in an real abstraction (a photograph of a reproduction of blue).
Muniz’s image illustrates concisely what the exhibition as a whole was designed to prove: it documents the fact that distance between reality and abstraction is in fact, very minute.