Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Santa isn't always bad

A Greater Plan: Works on Paper. Gow Langsford, Auckland. 11 December 2007 to 2 February 2008.

I detest most dealer gallery Xmas shows: they seem so grasping, so transparent. I hate in principle the idea of galleries behaving like shopping mall retailers. And while group shows can be innocuous and reveal surprising connections between normally disparate items, most of the time they seem to compromise the integrity of solo works, works that would be more comprehensible surrounded by others made by the same individual in the same series. At Xmas time when all the stylistic smorgasbords suddenly materialise, the commercial vulgarity of the art world is just all too much.

Yet some Xmas shows are thematically focussed and surprisingly restrained, even containing….(gulp)..rigorous works of quality. Items that are not overtly easy to sell. This Gow Langsford show of five artists is an interesting example. No tacky junk here. The prices are not cheap, but the product is excellent. Some works could be better – as I’ll explain – but damn good nonetheless. Some of it is very expensive. You have to ask to find out the price of a dazzling Frank Stella print (a hybrid screenprint, aquatint and etching), and the very unusual Maddox of gridded crosses painted in oil on a scroll map of Matakaoa is 38 grand.

The stuff that really interests me in this exhibition is in the three mini shows by Martin Ball, Judy Millar and Simon Ingram.

Martin Ball’s graphite studies render three strips of paper sellotaped to a larger sheet. They are a meditation on representation and manual dexterity that follows a tradition of such illusionistic image making (painting and drawing) in Auckland that includes John Lethbridge and Ross Ritchie, and often depicts simple objects such as drawing pins holding tightly stretched string against the flat plane of a wall.

I personally don’t warm to these drawings, preferring in this genre images with more nuance and sense of the infinite - like those by say, Vija Celmins, who is famous for her renderings of the sea, spider-webs, and the night sky. Nevertheless in this show, Ball's drawings do provide some lind of strange foil to the other works in their examination of the papery picture plane.

The paintings on paper here by Judy Millar feature finger painting where a top coat of dark paint is wiped off to expose a highly saturated undercoat. These seem less holistic than earlier works, having a dynamic pictographic quality that alludes to not only the Roman alphabet but also to Chinese brushed characters. These 'negative marks' hover in front of a field of horizontal bars. Millar here seems to be edging slowly towards a new sort of narrative in her work, hinting at something we normally don’t think of as occurring in her practice: spoken and written language and its codes.

Simon Ingram’s group of small gridded paper works are surprisingly loosey goosey and gestural with their use of thin paint. The best mix regimented order with chaos, with patterned sections that might have been painted by a slightly tipsy Gordon Walters, alongside middle portions that disintegrate into randomness. They are not as courageously challenging as Ingram’s robot painted works, but they are nevertheless beguiling. The black and white works are especially intriguing. They really improve the more you examine them.

Despite this I tend to think it is a shame Ingram doesn’t limit himself only to the latter projects, especially the oil on linen paintings. The hand painted works conceptually compromise the programatic /anti-manual/anti-improv ideology of his cybernetic project. (Imagine if Billy Apple started exhibiting his private working sketches after all the years of hiring craftsmen to make his paintings.It would pull the rug out from under his fanaticism.) It irks me Ingram’s practice has no hardheaded rhetoric that disdains hand-applied marks because of their overtones of visionary individuality. Instead of dabbling in cliches of painterly expressivity (even within the tiny modules of graphpaper) he should be severe. Tough uncompromising stances are a European phenomenon that is, alas, utterly unknown in this country.


John Hurrell said...
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John Hurrell said...

Thanks Simon. I'd be interested to know more about the Automata Paintings, the processes there, and why you say that they 'hold a machine at a lower level, in amongst the sediment layers of paint...'? Obviously here you are thinking of your own body and mind as some sort of 'machine', while in the Painting Assemblages the machine becomes some sort of 'human body and mind'. Is that right?

John Hurrell said...
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John Hurrell said...

I've reposted Simon's initial comment:

Dear John, I read your piece on the Gow Langsford show, some interesting points... Can't help but think though that your critique of my project being weakened in critical value by a series of 'sissy' gouaches is compellingly octoberist-moderne-conceptuo-masculinist (something I have shown a weakness for my Spirit Level Paintings) seems to me it
lacks nuance. While this is not a huge problem, it's still a problem...mainly because I imagine such commentary would close down the project's meaning production in a reader/viewer...and because that trajectory is perhaps too easily explainable and knowable and isn't really about knowledge in terms of experimentation and research - which is what interests me.

So, a few points, both my paintings and my painting machines have a machine in them, so to was never one or the other, but both: paintings that internalise a machine and paintings made by a machine, that sit alongside one another producing a dialogical space
where quite a bit of knowledge or new meaning in and around painting/
humans/organisation might potentially develop. The machine I have in mind is not a simple machine, it's a complex one, and it's made complex by the way (at least since the enlightenment) technology has actively
changed tradional notions of the difference between machines and living things. This difference is sharpened in late c18 automata in Europe and the conversations of late C20 artificial life and these contexts have more or less ended up as my intellectual neighbourhood.

It's reasonable for you to not know any of this, to my knowledge you've never seen both in one room, or had a conversation with me where I've outlined my proposal for where this all goes to... If you are interested in my rationale. have a flick through something I wrote 2 years back...:

Introduction: Painting As Machine.

The major component of the Painting as Machine project comprises two distinct ‘lines’ of work, the Painting Assemblages and the Automata Paintings. At the level of generality each anticipate a dialogue of painting and machine. At the level of particularity the difference
between them can be characterized in terms of a machine’s proximity to the painting support: the difference between a machine being ‘on’ and ‘in’ the painting. The Painting Assemblages contain a machine in obvious terms. They keep a machine at a distance, holding it close while keeping it at bay through its suspension above the support in plain view. The Automata Paintings hold a machine at a lower level, in amongst the sediment layers of paint as a clearly delineated set of operating procedures.

The Painting Assemblages and the Automata Paintings conceptually
buttress each other. Because the Painting Assemblages could invoke
characterization as a whimsical mockery of painting, the Automata
Paintings declare a full commitment to painting through complex painterly vocabulary. Because recognition of the machine in the Automata Paintings is important to their meaning production the Painting
Assemblages show their machinery in plainly visible terms. They want to talk to each other, to articulate how the other is occupied by a machine. Both the Painting Assemblages and the Automata Paintings are situated in painting and specifically in painting as an experimental practice. From different perspectives each develop a body of
‘painting-knowledge’ relating to machines and artificial life.

John Hurrell said...

As I said above,I'd like to know more about the Automata Paintings, and where the 'machine' resides in those works that seem totally gestural. Where is the 'Automata' there? Your audience will take them at face value.

I think you are trying to eat your and cake and have it too.

Ali Bramwell said...

It would be easy to be too literal about what machinic or 'a relationship to machine' can mean in this instance. I went to the same phrase that John did in his first comment, where Ingram says:

"The Automata Paintings hold a machine at a lower level, in amongst the sediment layers of paint as a clearly delineated set of operating procedures."

I read that, especially the phrase "clearly delineated set of operating proceedures" as meaning that the works are made to a code of instructions, literally a set of proceedures that cause the painting to exist. Painter as manufacturing machine. However I also read this as more nuanced than a simple transposition of Human equals Machine; rather a reference to programming presets.

Ingram has specifically qualified his interest in terms of AI painting 'machines', such as (one imagines) Harold Cohen's "Aaron", that provoke discussion around the simulacrum of life and sentience. In this context to look only at a distinction between the human limb and the mechanical one is unhelpful.

Gesture, at its most literal is the mark caused by a specific action, The AI painter Aaron also uses a set of gestures, where the marks it creates are determined by the limitations of its limbs, it's musculature if you will, and more relevantly to what Ingram is discussing, it's set of operating procedures.

The curatorial proximity of Ingram's Automata works with Judy Millar's work also becomes more interesting in this context.

John Hurrell said...

I totally agree with what Ali points out here, and did not intend to imply a literal 'machinic' ie mechanical level in the Automata Paintings. No, it is the nature of the 'operating preocedures' I'd like to know more about. How are the compositions decided in terms of placement of mark types? Are some 'unsuccessful' and abandoned or not shown? Is chance a factor? How can a non-gridded gestural field be an 'operating procedure?
It would be wonderful to hear more about the decision-making, the 'thought' behind the marks, as conceptual underpinnings in both types of practice. But esp in the human-applied marks.

Ali Bramwell said...

It makes sense if you consider the making procedures as algorithms...which you must in context of AI programming.

the analog (pun intended) between a human made mark and an algorithmic preset is only possible if you move beyond the idea of sequential decisions made one at a time. instead think of the set of actions as a single (non-absolute) equation where the sum is an art work. Judy Millar can be used as a bridge here (whether the curators intended or not) because she clearly follows an algorithmic process...each work is individual but has a structural similarity based on the set of procedures used to produce the work.

there is an algorithmic logic in the Ingram works also. IMO. one that leverages an expressive/mechanical opposition deliberately (and playfully) from what I can see.

I would be interested in his response?

John Hurrell said...

I'm puzzled why you suppose Judy's process is related to Simon's. Her use of variations on a theme is a standard modernist procedure as developed by lots (if not most) innovative artists from Monet,Picasso and Matisse onwards. It is a standard modernist modus operandi to have each work 'individual' but with 'a structural similarity based on the set of procedures used to produce the work.'

Ali Bramwell said...

And you think that Ingram doesn't work in the same way? Of course there are inheritances. But you began and perpetuated this discussion by wondering how gestural work can also be considered machinic (without using a grid, even!). this business of who is or isn't using modernist tactics is a red herring.

I used the algorithm in an attempt to undo your fixation on process as mechanical. mechanical is not the same as machinic.

There is a difference, a finer distinction to be found in the difference between a mechanical procedure (process as one act following another, each decided discretely) and an algorithmic framework. Algorithmic process is less literal and more autonomous. The difference between rules and parameters.

you asked about decision making within the works and the nature of the procedure: when applying an algorithm there is no need to go back to the 'mainframe' for more instructions before making its next move...all the limitations and variations are in the equation already as presets. I am making a number of assumptions of course, basing them on Ingrams response to you. It would be good to get his take on this.

This kind of discussion would be helped by a background understanding of New Media philosophy ...which is where Ingram has located it. an interesting move for a traditionally analog process (I mean painting obviously).

Algorithmic painting may be oxymoronic, but that is where the work becomes playful. The redundancy is even directly acknowledged (he has used Lego to make 'machines' in the assemblage works for instance...)

John Hurrell said...

My point about modernism is that I thought you were saying something about AI and moving beyond sequential decisions made one at a time, but your defintion of algorithmic process didn't help clarify the discussion. What might help is this section of an earlier drafted comment Ingram sent to me. He changed his mind about initially including it as the comment got too long. Now however is a good time to get the context of his ideas clarified.
He wrote:
Each of the two written sections that follow has a specific function: to build an historical-theoretical framework that situates the object of their discussion in an intellectual neighbourhood in order to release
its potential. “Section 1: The Painting Assemblages” articulate a
‘productive ambivalence’ lying in the difference between humans and
machines and asks whether choosing not to dispose of this difference and invoking painting as a ‘frictional remainder’ is a potentially ethical move. “Section 2: The Automata Paintings” addresses a convergence between formalist painting and the self-organizing systems of artificial
life and as such represents a reconfiguration of the proposal made in Section 1. This differentiation is part of a strategy to enable the Painting Assemblages and the Automata Paintings to engage a strictly
limited line of enquiry that becomes intellectually expansive by virtue of its being threaded through painterly complexity.

The critical germ of the project lies in my response to evaluations of painting’s relationship to post-industrial technology as articulated by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime) and Warren Sack (“Painting Theory Machines”). Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe makes the case
for contemporary painting’s “fascination with [the] look of contemporary technology” and of painting as a “surface without depth.” Whereas painting had been a surface made of “openings, interruption and
conjecture … of morselation, made out of adding up and layering and even reconsidering” it is now built to match the “contemporary blankness” and inscrutability of the surfaces of technologized objects: “The surface does not give way to what supports it, it is if anything extra skeletal and needs no support from within or behind.” Rolfe’s configuration of painting along these lines is part of an overall project to situate painting in a privileged position with regard to a technological sublime.

While I respect Gilbert-Rolfe’s thesis and in general regard his
negotiations as having contributed enormously to the possibly of
visuality as a critical value in contemporary art—and not simply a
delivery mechanism for art theory—what I propose is nearly the opposite.
I am less concerned with the “look” of post-industrial technology than I am in its methods, less interested in painting’s relationship with a
technological sublime than in its relationship to a gritty materialist ambivalent machine, less interested in the idealist aesthetics of Kant or Greenberg than in the mechanist-biology of La Mettrie or evolutionary
biology of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.

Gilbert-Rolfe argues: “through [a] fascination with the technological … painting can escape the humanism manqué of historicism.” Yet I find no good reason to escape the missed opportunity or disappointment in humanism for the “iron cages of rationality” that information technology
arguably makes pervasive. Where Gilbert-Rolfe announces in relation to
painting, “if you’re historically preoccupied then you can’t do very
much with technology,” I would argue that artistic engagement with
technology must engage history if it is to resist the “flesh eating”
imperatives of post-industrial technology. To avoid sliding into an acritical endorsement of “the logic of capital” in its various
technological guises, better that a painter maintain the
techno-skeptical position implicit in painting which among other things means seeing information technology, which includes painting, as part of an historical continuum.

If one were to write such a history it would run from the clepsydra or water clock of the ancient Greeks, the geared planetarium in the time of
Archimedes, the Antikythera Mechanism (87 BC) which mechanised the cyclical relation of the calendar. It would include seventeenth century inventions such as John Napier’s logarithms and his Napier’s Bones with
which one could perform complex arithmetic operations, Pascal’s
Pascaline widely considered to be the first digital computer. It would include seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century automata and Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine (1822). It would also include Alan Turing’s theoretical computer (the Turing Machine, 1937) on whose logic
modern computers are based, and John von Neumann’s EDVAC (1946) with its “von Neumann architecture” as the basis for the stored programme computer. Each example is of methodological interest to the Painting as
Machine project.

The second position, from which I distinguish mine, is articulated in
Warren Sack’s essay “Painting Theory Machines.” Sack’s essay speculates on the success of painting’s recent engagement with the post-industrial technology of computation. The part of Sack’s argument of most interest is where he thinks it unlikely that one could successfully reverse
engineer a sequence of painterly flow and come up with a set of machine instructions that could be run as software. Sack writes:

The software engineer will object at this point. If we were able take the flowing paint that breaks an underlying grid (in the manner
that Valerie Jaudon’s or Marien Schouten’s foregrounded marks break a “background” grid) and try to “reverse engineer” it (i.e., to search for both the machinic “interpreter” or “compiler” and the idiomatic
sequence of machine instructions which would allow the paint to be seen as a computer program) our efforts would not produce a machine that “works” in the opinion of the software engineer.

Sack’s comments anticipate a further set of doubts about the convergence of Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of machines and complexity theory. In order to understand natural processes, complexity theory attempts a
systemization of indeterminacy and is thus characterized by “strategies
of containment, isolation, and control.” These strategies differentiate complexity theory and Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of machines to which Sack wants to connect painting. The reader might conclude that attempts
to link painting with post-industrial technology by establishing computational rules for painting’s viscous morphology are bound to fail and that the genres of computation and painting are fundamentally incommensurable.

While my position builds on Sack’s, it chooses not to agree or disagree with it. It is more interested in binding the affects of such a problematic in a painterly substrate, as a productive ambivalence, where an internal constricting agent pushes up against painting’s
indeterminate logics. In this project, control, containment and
isolation are precisely why the folding over of a computational machine into the sediment layers of painting is important. They help articulate a tipping point between what Jean-François Lyotard describes “as the philosophy of the intellect … our occupational willing, our philosophy
of the will” (the sort of will Descartes’ exhibits when he writes “I have described this earth and indeed the whole invisible universe as if
it were a machine” ), and what is indeterminate yet able to be
established as something of value.

singram said...

The line Ali is following sits well with my project.

The notion of algorithmic logic, something artifical life types refer to as 'the bottom up', is part of the method I've been working on since 2005 with the /Automata Paintings/.

Another aspect of my method have been use of givens or standards (e.g. cmyk colour), together with the adoption of a relatively Duchampian 'freedom of indifference' when it comes to what's left over when painting.

Ali's talk of Judy Millar interest me because just as some writers, including me, have sought to see a 'machine', or a programme or algorithmic method, in Pollock's drip paintings, I think it's possible to see one in a Judy Millar. I feel the same way about Ryman. Fifteen or so years ago, Yve-Alain Bois wrote that Ryman 'paints that he paints that he paints' ... that sort of description of a method is more or less the same as those found in reflexive systems that model self organisation or emergence (cellular automata).

Talking a different angle on this, the assertion of someone like Stephen Wolfram seems interesting. Wolfram considers that all complex systems are actually made complex by a simple reflexive programme. In fact Wolfram considers that that the entire universe is the result of a couple of lines of algorithmic code, and that all any given expression of randomness is, is something for which we have found no 'shorter description' than the actual physical expression of that randomness. Once the tools we use to reverse engineer or 'know' our environment become more sophisticated then, he might argue, what seemed random would actually reveal itself as the manifestation of a very coherant structure. So, /if/ he is right, and whether he is or isn't doesn't seem like the point really, then the difference between modernist painting moves and those that come after seem relatively trivial. Because when we see so-called gesture or randomness or arbitraryness, all we're looking at is something for which we have no shorter description than what we're looking at.

I guess a proposition I would make is that what remains special and interesting about painting, and I suppose I ought to say especially so-called 'abstract painting', is that its specificity provides a good opportunity to wonder about shorter descriptions.