Abstraction, through the window
An Essay by Dorothée Deyries-Henry, April 2017
In the collective consciousness as well as in the dictionaries, abstraction is a non-figurative representation, which no longer evokes any sign of observed reality or of the external world. The abstract movements of the 20th century , as well as experiments in the field of photography and cinema, through totally different visual and theoretical projects, explored the possibilities of new forms, arrangements, rhythms  and even the possibility of a pure form, which, freed from figuration, became its own object, referring only to itself (for example, through the Suprematism of Malevich). Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock (to name but a few of these great figures) have made abstraction a way of expressing the invisible or an inner necessity. However, when Picasso says “there is no abstract art, it is always necessary to start with Something ”, it is not a provocation, there is some truth to it. So, what is this something? While insisting on the polarity between representation and abstraction, Kandinsky was inspired by external reality for his Impressions (1911), and he established a conversion system between music and his formal language (Compositions, Improvisations, from 1909). Is it not by practicing landscape painting that he developed unexpected, new, abstract visual solutions? it is through painting that these solutions arised in his practice – the work on forms between reality and abstraction -, in the intimacy of the studio.
Today, is it still representation that leads to abstraction or the handling of a medium that gives rise to abstract forms? How does abstraction develop?
A quick glance at the works selected for the exhibition show that abstraction is rather a mean to bring the world into the studio than to ban it in favor of exclusively abstract forms. The participating artists, from Franz Ackermann to Toby Ziegler, with their extremely different practices and visual identities, not only share some approaches that make abstraction emerge from representation or images, but also consider abstraction mainly in its relationship to reality: landscapes, cities, daily environments, travels, analogical supports and digital images, so concrete in our contemporary world.
The works directly reference travelled landscapes and spaces, Franz Ackermann’s trips around the world, Patrick Bergeron’s journey through Asia in Night Waves, Jacques Perconte’s digital ride on railroad tracks in Corsica, between Corte and Ajaccio, in Après le feu or tracking shots in different areas of Burgundy, Rome, Paris, London, New York in Scott Hammen’s Place Mattes. These passages, which are the subjects of the works, sometimes take an immersive form in a new environment: the residence of Thomas Tronel-Gauthier in the Marquesas Islands is directly recorded on the surface of Carte Postale des Tropiques; the one of Josephine Halvorson at Moly-Sabata (Sablons, Isère), during which she painted Porte Bleue, Câble on-site, in the former ceramic studio of Anne Dangar; or the stay of Emmanuel Lefrant in Africa in 2003, where he worked on his film Parties visible et invisible d’un ensemble sous tension. In Retrograde Premonition, Leighton Pierce films his surroundings, records moments and captures short-lived gestures of people moving in an apartment. Most of Dan Browne’s films are also inspired by everyday life and domestic scenes. For Dennis Loesch, Matan Mittwoch and Jacob Kassay, images and digital technologies are considered as actual objects of the contemporary reality, as a mean to access or to hinder reality. Toby Ziegler also develops a body of works in which the practice of painting and the abstract image arise from opposite and yet compatible sources: classical composition, digital manipulation and art reproductions, altered by successive transformations in image processing softwares.
The use of filters, through analog processes, overlapping or on the contrary erasure of layers, puts into perspective our digital visual culture, and probably also our experience of the world. The works are at the junction of perceived reality, representation, source image, physical object and dematerialization. The work, this production, then appears as a perpetual transition, promised to an unknown future, that of its reception, because “it is the viewer who makes the picture ”. The word work has several meanings: one related to the notion of effort, another one to the result of this effort (the art work). If we consider the art work as a transition, a passage, a threshold, then the word work refers to the first meaning, to what is precisely active, to what operates in it, memories, mental constructions, creative processes, in other words, an abstraction .
One of the rooms of the exhibition brings together works that are far from being unconditionally abstract, works that express the hovering, the visual and material uncertainty, the confusion that can overcome the viewer. Thomas Tronel-Gauthier’s Carte Postale des Tropiques is an hybrid installation which central element is a recent photograph of Gauguin’s Workshop of the Tropics printed on watercolor paper. The picture is washed down by running water and projected by an HD video projector on an old TV set. Photography, the relationship to Gauguin and to his related imaginary are challenged by a cycle of disappearance-reconstitution-deletion-reappearance caused by the hydraulic deterioration of the water. Similarly, in the series on Matisse by Toby Ziegler (Utopian Surgery, Nociception without tears, Post-human paradise…), the already dematerialized image of Matisse’s Grand Nude (1935, Baltimore Museum of Art), we can even say its memory, has continued its degradation (the paintings are sanded) and it is this subtraction, this dematerialization transposed on the canvas that ultimately animates the work. In Dennis Loesch’s The Fat Photo (Pixelate Mosaic), the huge picture of a personal photo is migrated to a huge wooden memory card. Where fragmented images flow in vertical bands (The 2010er) or dissolve in diffuse colored light like that of a screen saver, the definition of data is lost here in an oversized, abnormally sculptural and strangely floating object.
The looped screening of Carte Postale des Tropiques highlights both the persistence of representations in our imagination and in that of the artist, and their inevitable dissolution, illustrating by this combination the fertile back and forth of the creative process. Porte Bleue, Câble of the American Josephine Halvorson faithfully reproduces an old door, which no longer closes and which opens on nothing, disconnected, leaving a glimpse of a hanging cable. Is it still a door? Yes as a passageway towards the materiality of painting. But, in its transposition into painting, it turns into a simple surface to be painted, punctuated by spots, drops, traces of projections, all signs of a typical studio life. This work is literally a threshold, a transition in fact from abstraction to representation, which I consider here as a reversal of the legacy of “American-Type Painting ” embodied by Abstract Expressionism.
A reversal also takes place in Hannah Whitaker’s analog photographs, who uses slow and meticulous processes to create simple, fragmented and abstract forms, rhythms recalling a musical score, the language of painting, the silhouettes of Saul Bass, the gouache paper cut-outs of Matisse. Similarly, for Index, Matan Mittwoch transposes on paper the image of a touch screen and the gesture associated with its use. This fingerprint on a tinkered support makes as much reference to the digital tools than to the artist gesture in the studio, a subtle indication that artistic work, backwards from industrialization but in connection with the world, consists in fabricating things, by hand. Franz Ackermann has named a number of the works that have made him famous Mental Maps. Whether we think of his small-scale mental maps or his monumental installations, his paintings feature vertiginous gaps, tunnels, labyrinths with saturated colors, fragments of architecture, organic forms that blossom into an endless vortex, combining abstraction, figuration and personal photographs. These works not only echo but also are an actual image of the megacities of the world, their networks, the saturation effect they generate with continuous flows, their creative energies and their dreadful forces. Like “endless spaces” that grow from a heart of painting and forms, they are compelling, constrained and excessive at the same time. And, as in a science fiction, they propel the viewers into the artist’s head.
Ackermann invites its spectators into an accelerated journey that defies the laws of painting, canceling its flatness, its timelessness, its apparent stability, making it a transitional space, a space in motion, somewhat like a film. In my opinion, the paintings, films and photographs of Images at Work have more in common than their relationship to reality, the processing of images as objects, or the displacement of their sources into another medium. The idea of the work as a moving and therefore unstable zone supposes that it conveys phenomenon that are themselves unstable: perception, experience, the world.
Thomas Tronel-Gauthier, Tahiti-Moorea, 2012 / HD video / 2’00 loop. © Thomas Tronel-Gauthier, Courtesy Thomas Tronel-Gauthier and 22,48m2.
In homage to Marcel Duchamp, Dan Browne reinterprets Nude descending a staircase n ° 2 of 1912 in Nude descending (after Duchamp). The succession of vacillating forms which are arranged and decomposed slowly echo the different static positions of the nude that Duchamp describes in the act of descent. Browne explores the mechanisms of sensory perception and shares with Duchamp the same mistrust of so-called objective vision. For Untitled [shattered touch-screen], an image of the broken glass of an iPhone, Mittwoch superimposes a hundred sharp images without ever being able to reveal depth. As in Duchamp’s Large Glass, unintentionally broken, the gaze cannot penetrate the cracked surface and access is denied to the depth of things. In Tahiti-Moorea, filmed on his return journey, Tronel-Gauthier finds a solution to shift the vision of the water surface towards the density of the ocean. Similarly, when Jacob Kassay uses his camera to account for the standardized nature of artwork picture taking (so that the resulting images are eye-catching and tailored for distribution on screens), the painting work he carries out on the surface of the canvas destabilizes this standardization. The appearance of the paintings changes and varies according to the distance at which they are observed. By becoming a floating space, they escape fixity and vision, pushing the viewer to move in the exhibition space to perceive them.
Patrick Bergeron also appeals to the senses. He brings the spectator into Night Waves through his soundscape: recorded city noises that sound like the sea. From this busy and loud nocturnal world, Bergeron extracts visual resonances, luminous and hypnotic forms that recall the bustle and the rhythms of the city in the paintings of Auguste Chabaud (about 1907) or in László Moholy-Nagy’s color-photography experiments of traffic lights (1939-46). Through the manipulation of images and sound, Bergeron organizes back and forth movements between the quasi-documentary vision of the city and its underlying abstraction that derives from his gestures: “The camera movements gives a new geometrical structure and a wavelike rhythm to the city lights ” Bergeron explains. It is this gesture that is also reflected in Scott Hammen’s filmed diaries since the first Log Abstract in 1985. These “digital travel notes” taken from railroad tracks (Travel Log) or from tracking shots (Place Mattes) are visual compositions at the crossroads of the colored and fragmented worlds of Ackermann or Whitaker, and of the relief and detailed effects of Halvorson’s paintings. His movies transfigure the familiar environment of the filmmaker: the traversed landscapes mutate into ornamental, architectural and graphic characters, and take on the appearance of colored planes, geometrical shapes, materials, and scroll, abstract, like a roll of celluloid.
What emerges here is the desire to record the world. The degree of abstraction that is contained between the world and the images expresses this desire. When he films an African landscape, Emmanuel Lefrant knows that his images will not allow to fully express the place that he contemplates from his window nor to account for its DNA, its material, temporal and geological dimension, so he decides to register them as abstract forms on the ribbon of celluloid that he simultaneously buries on location. Parties visible et invisible d’un ensemble sous tension mixes these two types of images and traces. “These landscapes in fusion are the logic of a world that reveals itself,” he tells us. Lefrant’s action unfolds the complexity of reality, its strata, shows what is here and cannot be seen and what is no longer here but archived in vestiges, in the earth and on the film, like Josephine Halvorson’s objects from another age. In this aspect, the film relates to the definition of archive proposed by Arlette Farge: “what is missing, a hole, a loss ”.
The works relay these chemical, visual and sensory experiments, in other words a phenomenological experience of the world.
As Jacques Perconte writes, “I leave the cold, digi-objective beauty of what I shot ”. Perconte’s relationship with his subjects – landscape, nature – is very intense, probably because their contact can provide very powerful sensations. Hence, how can the resulting emotions, the ensuing wonders and the subsequent internal reversal be reported and passed on?
Digital writing allows Perconte to translate the intensity, the rhythms and the immensity of nature, for this writing is the source of an abundance of visual and material possibilities, for this writing is “at the service of density and transience ”. He transposes the notions of errors and interferences that are attached to analog film, but also relies on the characteristics and inherent disturbances of the digital medium: the compression of files, the almost infinite visual material provided by the data, the errors that generate new images (a process used by Bill Viola in 1973 with his Information video, and twenty years later by glitches in music and art). This sensory radiant universe, which is built, reversed and decomposed, produce images “that do not lie” for Perconte, because they are equivalent to his experiences.
Photographer Alfred Stieglitz named a series of cloud shots Equivalent (from 1922), as they constituted “an external equivalent of what already took shape within [his] mind ”. Retrograde Premonition of Leighton Pierce is a sensory experience. Outside noises, breathing whispers and body sounds are echoed by slow movements, deformations, stretching of forms. The blur and the slowness of the image puts the viewer into a receptive state of dreamy consciousness, open to thoughts, emotions, sensations and memories activated by the film.
A few kilometers from Ajaccio, the scorched earth ruptures under the weight of color.
The ground opens up and frees pictorial energies that take over the sky.
I see the horizon disappear, but I try to keep it in sight.
The train keeps on going… 
Notes 1 Cf. the history of these different movements: Cubism, Suprematism, Futurism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Colorfield Painting, Hard Edge Painting, Minimalism, Concrete Art, Tachism, Abstract Impressionism, etc. 2 In the 1920s cinema for example, with Hans Richter or Viking Eggeling. 3 Complete quote (from Pablo Picasso to Christian Zervos): "There is no abstract art, you always have to start with something. You can then remove all references to reality, there is no longer any danger, as the idea of the object has left an indelible trace". Cahiers d'art, numbers 7-10, Paris, 1935, p 177. 4 Marcel Duchamp. 5 Definition: The selection of a certain aspect of a concept from the whole, in order to consider it for itself and in itself. 6 Cf. American-type Painting (1955) and other writings by Clement Greenberg, that state in substance that Abstract Expressionism was the first genuine American art. 7 Except where otherwise noted, moviemakers quotes are from the Light Cone website. 8 Cf. Arlette Farge, Le goût de l’archive. 9 Jacques Perconte, Mistral, cat.exp., Collège des Bernardins, 2014. 10 Ibid. 11 Alfred Stieglitz, New York et l’art moderne, Alfred Stieglitz et son cercle, 1905-1930, Paris Musée d’Orsay - Réunion des musées nationaux, 2004. 12 Jacques Perconte, notes for Après le feu.
Main illustration: Jacques Perconte, Après le feu, 2010 / video / color / w. sound / 7'00. Courtesy Light Cone.