Been a while since my last post – but have been thinking. Changing my mind even, and that takes time.
I went to the very splendid Polke/Richter Richter/Polke show at Christies in Bond St soon after it opened. These two were once close now hanging together again at last like a great band reunited for a farewell tour .
But I had never felt anything for either of these artists. To me they represented a detachment, an anti-art and debasement of visual culture. I spurned that approach – I wanted unity in a picture. The fracturing of the image, the use of found imagery and stencils, of photographs was a dilution of painting. The idea that Richter has latterly pursued that you could somehow paint a painting of a painting seemed somehow to remove the artist so far from the battlefield – his pictures for me were often drone pictures flown over the enemy held territory of mass media reproduction. Polke seemed to me incomprehensibly casual and devoid of focus. And yet…
In of my work (in visual effects) I am dealing with imagery every day. Some is photographic and some is synthetic, and the job usually involves bringing the two together. This mutable reality was anticipated by Richter and Polke working in the pre-digital age. But they are not trying to imitate a retinal reality; rather they are pointing out how weak those imitations are.
Photography was briefly a shared visual currency of truth. For most of the 20th century it held an unprecedented position as a factual record of an event. But just in the last quarter of the century something strange began to happen and now that Photoshop has taken hold and the practice of altering photographs is almost universal, the truth is out. A photograph is a mere shell of appearance and it does not represent the truth of an event. It is a skin of pixels, as it was once of emulsion, that is held together only by our brain’s willingness to make an arrangement of dots into a meaningful pattern.
Was this a tyranny that was overthrown or destabilisation of a legitimate authority?
Polke seems to suggest that the photograph is just another piece of raw material, as he blows it up it emphasises the halftone pattern in a kind of inverse impressionism. There the dots become the image; here the image becomes the dots. He is retaking the ground won by mechanical image making at the expense of artists at the end of the Nineteenth Century – but stealthily, by undermining it. Literally undermining it like a termite eating a tree trunk from within. What is left still has the surface appearance of the original photograph, but the original meaning has been hollowed out so its shapes can be used in a sensual admixture. Polke’s haphazard marks now appear rich and sensual to me. Where he has painted on both sides of a surface that too offers a unique interplay of light with the material. They seem rich and varied, the approach not limited. The varnish that was once a meretricious eye catching glossy surface now seems to add depth. It excites me to look at in ways I never expected.
Richter is a little different, He seems to have started out with some kind of photorealist idea in his mind – to paint the photograph not paint from a photograph as if it were like any other object. But he seems to have gone somewhat beyond that. By choosing a mixture of imagery, some provocative (his uncle Rudi in Wehrmacht uniform) and some undemanding and picturesque (the Daydream Nation candle) he challenges us to see the painting as a mere surface – linking photography to Jasper Johns’ use of flags and targets The dragging of the paint seems to aid this, as if he is mentally defocusing his images as he paints them.
These termites have denuded pictures of the kind of meanings we were expecting, maybe the structure was rotten in any case…but they are offering us something different. Image making without preconceptions. I still have work to do to look without preconceptions.