Sunday, 20 September 2009
A MEDITATION ON REALITY
This is not an exhibition about ‘Realist’ art, as will be immediately apparent from some of the works included. Instead, it is an exhibition that invites the spectator to consider what his, or her, vision of reality truly is.
The philosophical debate about the nature of realism in art began in earnest quite late in the history of Western painting and sculpture. The trigger was the invention of photography. When Louis Daguerre announced his new process in 1839 there were many people who thought that it might, in due course, make the visual artist superfluous. This feeling was particularly strong in Protestant countries, such as Great Britain, which was than in the throes of a religious revival that had its roots in several places – among them in John Wesley’s reaction against the torpor and corruption of the official Anglican church, and in horror at the human cost of the Industrial Revolution.
Protestantism had always lad great emphasis on the worshipper’s personal relationship with God. Photography seemed to give the deity a new way of manifesting Himself directly, by mechanical means, yes, but essentially without human intervention. When the British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot announced a rival process to that of Daguerre, one that enabled multiple copies of a photographic image to be made upon paper, he publicized his discovery with a book entitled The Pencil of Nature.
Thought the practice of photography soon made it clear that any good photographer had a recognizable personal style, the idea lingered that photographs set the standard for what was truly realistic, and that images independent of photography did not qualify. This split in perception continues to haunt art today, not least because the photograph and its derivatives, such as video, have become the lingua franca of visual communication, used in circumstances that are innocent of any form of artistic intention.
The birth of Pop Art in the 1960s confused the situation still further. In the first place, it broke down the barriers that had been established in the early 20th century between art and what had come to be thought of as ‘photographic art’ – a wholly separate category. And in the second place it tended to ask the spectator to focus, not on the actual subject-matter of a figurative image, but on how that image was encoded. Good examples of this shift in perception are Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings based on enlarged frames borrowed from comic strips. Because of the limitations imposed by mass-marked printing processes, comic strips had evolved a kind of visual shorthand based on heavy outlines and areas filled with dots – the latter being used to suggest modeling. Lichtenstein re-used these conventions to ask the spectator how he or she actually processed visual information. Using a deliberately coarse and imprecise silk-screen process, Lichtenstein’s rival Andy Warhol did much the same thing.
At the same time, however, the progress of abstraction in art raised further questions about the human reaction to images, and the human need for images, that are very relevant to the subject that is my focus here. Virtually all forms of early Modernist abstraction suggest the underlying presence of a figurative text. This is particularly the case with the universally recognized father of abstract art, Vassily Kandinsky, whose paintings go through a transitional phase where figurative representation dissolves before our very eyes. In a later generation, Jackson Pollock offers a very similar case – the fantastic mythical forms of his earlier Surrealist work are still faintly visible under the veils and skeins of paint of th later drip paintings, and if you stand at some distance from the drip paintings you can still perceive them.
The ingrained human impulse to read recognizable figure imagery into purely accidental markings was well understood by Leonardo da Vinci, who recommended that the aspiring artist gazed at marks of this kind in order to find inspiration for his work. Artists who aim to get rid of figuration altogether have had to take increasingly drastic measures, culminating in the Minimal Art of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s which consists of unmodulated unitary forms, sometimes presented in isolation, and sometimes in series. An early example of the former is Die  by the American sculptor Tony Smith – a simple cube, 182.9 cm x 182.9 cm x 182.9 cm constructed from sheet steel, and reputedly ordered over the telephone from a firm of fabricators, without any physical intervention on the part of the artist.
Art historians now tend to see the Minimalist movement as representing the point at which Modernist impulses exhausted themselves, and could develop no further. All artistic movements since them can be characterized as Post Modern. The vast majority of them employ figuration.
These new impulses, often very different from one another, have benefited from rapid technological development, and in particular from the evolution of video and of digital imaging controlled through the computer. Video has enabled Fabrizio Plessi, the leading Italian artist in this field, to incorporate aspects of reality into his work – flames or flowing water – presenting them in what appears to be ‘raw’ form, but within a disciplined technological framework. To venture a paradox, one can say that Plessi paints with video. Looking at Plessi’s installations one sees that they incorporate the real – direct representation of national phenomena – without falling into the category of ‘realism’ as most people would perceive it. In this sense, he is the direct descendant of the early Cubists, who used fragments of newspaper in their work, as deliberately jarring references to a world of visual perception that Cubist analysis of form was otherwise concerned to challenge.
The computer has given contemporary artists the power to blend different kinds of reality together, as can be seen in the work otherwise as different from one another as the Russian Genia Chef, the Greek Viktor Koen, and the Chinese video artist Qiu Anxiong. Each of these makes use of cultural references, but the result in each case is wholly individual. What they share is not a single unitary system of imagery, but the conviction that the audience they are addressing is already accustomed to cultural pluralism and moves easily from one set of references to another, quite different one. This pluralism is, of course, very largely the product of contemporary technology, as exemplified, for example, by television and still more so by the growth of the Internet.
In addition, the weakening or actual failure of the Modernist impulse has redirected the attention of artists – they are now willing to look once more at the achievements of the past. However, the Modernist adventure has also given them a feeling that they can never wholly reconnect with the world of art as it existed before the rise of the Modern Movement – there must always, now, be a certain self-consciousness, even perhaps a certain involuntary detachment in their approach to the achievements of pre-20th century culture.
What the rise of Post Modernism has brought with it is the realization that what we call ‘style’ – by which we mean the choice of a particular vocabulary of forms - is itself a language, a language through which the artist’s understanding of what is real can be conveyed to his or her audience. The artist takes what is observed, and inflects it in a certain fashion, and in this way offers a commentary both on the nature of the surrounding world and on his own relationship to it. One can see this impulse at work in artists otherwise as different from one another as Bruno Chersicla and Jean Rustin. The artist attempts to correlate what he observes in the physical, exterior world with his own inner psychological state.
Of course this approach becomes subject to an almost infinite number of variants. The creator images tries to situate himself through different strategies – for example, by referencing the past [Paolo Borghi, Ubaldo Bartolini, Mersad Berber], or by considering the, or by noting the unreliability of perception itself [Davide Coltro and MarcWayland]. Interesting enough, the two latter employ photography as their basic tool – that is to say, a medium initially celebrated for its literalism is now employed to produce images that are deliberately ambiguous, where ambiguity is in fact the subject of the art work.
In a general sense most of these strategies can be referred to Symbolism, the rival art movement that the Italian Futurists, founding fathers of Modernism, so cordially detested. This Symbolist influence is, for example, clearly apparent in the work of the Argentinean artist Ricardo Cinalli, and in that of the Italian Alberto Abate. What Symbolism taught was that the reality of the inner world was inseparable from that of the exterior, physical world. In other words, no representation of the external world can ever be entirely objective, and the notion of realism shifts according to the individual. Each artist here has his own reality. That is the paradoxical truth that this exhibition has been designed to explore.
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