Copyright © 2011-2013 Barry Ross Smith
My practice engages with the intimacy of paint to depict relationships, and specifically, investigated the welfare and nurture of dependents. It was predominately focused upon the hierarchical relationship between human and animal (where the animal was a source of food for man). In the painting, The Works (left), the burden of the value of a life is held up for appraisal, with the offered sacrificial calf in preparation for the dinner table. For me, it prompts questions regarding personal integrity, responsibility and an acknowledgement of the esoteric elements in the food chain. The technical execution of the artwork was derived from a photographic reference source. I desired to break free from what I felt was a submissiveness to the authoritarianism of the photograph.
Halfway through the Masters program it was required that I have an eye test to renew my driver’s license and I was surprised to discover that my visual experience was no longer 20/20 and for the first time, I needed an aid to see accurately. I promptly had an eye test and purchased a pair of glasses and was again shocked by the degree of negligence that my vision had succumbed to. The sharp focus I was now capable of, after years of slow degradation, forced me to contemplate my personal relationship to visual ‘reality’ and the correlation between the image and the actual, the relationship between what I had believed and what I was now capable of distinguishing. A slight indistinctness had become an everyday attribute of my vision. This new directness and dependability of my eyesight undermined any faith in the authenticity of my previous visual experience. But it also invited me to explore anew the nature of the visual. In this re-examination, photographs revealed their own neglect as blur and optical distortions, in their failure to represent reality. And I decided to expose these inconsistencies in ways, as a painter, that would display the unfettered image (an image knowledgeable of its distortions).
I decided to source photographic content that was ambiguous, thereby assaulting photography’s authority and aligning it with paintings inherent connection with illusion, in a strange way, its own contemporary failure in the face of photography. My method was to emulate the camera’s eye, removing the perception that I was performing an idealization by adopting the indexical nature of the camera lens; for the painter to assume the attributes of the photographic medium, as stated by Gerhard Richter “photography by other means”. This was achieved by imitating the shake of home movie stills, blur, flash, viewpoint, cropping and such strategies of the camera.
With Oxymoron (Fig. 2), the painted overexposed camera flash highlights the emotion displayed in the image content. But this agitated state cannot be contextually verified between an exhibition of pleasure or of pain and the viewer must conspire to make their own interpretation, in the face of an unknowable lack of resolution. I also began looking at inconsistencies in the English language, in order to expose its incomprehensibility, and I conspired to somehow reveal this in paint.
I found a way to activate these ambiguities using the oxymoron. These idioms are slippages of language, combinations of two opposite words creating a vague meaning, such as ‘pretty ugly’, ‘friendly fight’ or ‘together alone’. By selecting an oxymoron, each disparate word in the pair undermines the meaning of the other, while retaining its own associative meaning, and this juxtaposition creates an irresolvable tension from the amalgamation of opposed meanings. Interpretations vary greatly, even seeming fluid depending upon the emphasis that the viewer places upon each of the coupled opposing words.
The oxymoron was fed into public Internet search engines (Google and Flickr), so that I had modest control over the image content. I selected everyday snapshots in order to reduce the image’s professionalism (perpetuating further incomprehension) and over-exposed photographs, utilizing the built-in camera flash to emphasize photographic transgression. I found that this polar word pairing also created indeterminacy in the content of many of the resulting images, opening and facilitating the viewer’s subjective response. Important to the work was privileging the camera flash, an aesthetic emphasized in the painting to aid the detection of the snapshot photograph as the image source. The final criterion was intuitive, where the image’s ambiguity intrigued me.
The Oxymoron series illustrates pictorial slippages of representation by employing the idiomatic slippages of language. This series attempts to undermine the idea that an image represents what is directly observable by devising an art practice through a deconstruction of its very material. It attempts to establish that a photograph’s content and relationship to ‘The real’, which I investigated with the work of Richter and Tuymans in chapter one of my MFA thesis, raises more questions regarding its veracity, than supplies answers.
In Pretty Ugly (Fig. 3) the failure of the title (its label) to make comprehensible the image content and the referencing of the photographic properties of camera flash in pictorial form, all conspire to contest meaning. The aim was to disrupt, or frustrate, the scope of understanding and resolution for the viewer. That the underlying meaning of the work becomes unknowable from a dialogue between its title, content and attributes, conferring the authority for the interpretation of the work to the viewer.
This interpretation, or personal meaning siphoned from the image by the viewer is explained by critic and lecturer Douglas Crimp, as a desire to perceive reality. He states, “the picture is an object of desire, the desire for the signification that is known to be absent. The expression of that desire to make the picture yield a reality that it pretends to contain... it is an obsession that is in the very nature of our relationship to pictures” (Crimp, 1977, p.20). By painting an unreliable photograph, I destabilize each medium and frustrate their representational value.
As claimed in chapter two; a photograph’s strength lies in its associative attributes of reality, and a paintings’ of illusion, even when rendering obvious photographic qualities. The “photo-painting” can create a long enough pause for the viewer to reconsider the image critically and create doubt around the veracity of what is represented. Notions of originality, authenticity, and presence remain disrupted by a photographs translation through painting so that each medium exposes the other’s nature. Just as the arrival of photography supported painting and then amplified paintings limitations, painting’s continued life both references and contests photography’s boundaries.
Both question the nature of the image. Painting the photograph, without supplying answers as such, creates a pause for this to become a subject of critical reflection.
In Friendly Fight (Fig. 4) the image demonstrates confusion through the oxymoronic title, the aggressive body stance (the posturing of the two combatants), their friendly smiling faces and by painting the overexposure of the flash camera, fracturing the photographic and painting contexts. A confusion created by amalgamating the polar opposites within the title, content and the disparate media of communication.
What was also evident was the perception that I was performing a painting, from a photographic viewpoint, and I wanted to blur the immediate indicators of each particular medium. So that the viewer was not sure of what it was they were seeing upon initial contact with the work. I looked at an enlarged scale to redress the perceived painting vernacular, adapted the colour tones to the artificial camera flash and modified brush marks. I understood that photography has emulated painting’s historical language but has also introduced new strata of representation and expression; new structures of signification (like authenticity and validity) that I wished to reveal through painting.
This process lead me to Jeff Wall’s photographic constructions (studied in Chapter 1), of which he says: “It is possible that the fundamental shock that photography caused was to have provided a depiction which could be experienced more the way the visible world is experienced than had ever been possible previously. A photograph therefore shows its subject by means of showing what experience is like; in that sense it provides “an experience of experience,” and it defines this as the significance of depiction” (Wall, 2007). This lead me, within my painting practice, to reclaim my residual and optimistic humanism, to reclaim my subjectivity more overtly and share this capacity for reflection with the viewer, much as Wall invites.
By this point I had concluded that painting such unreliable depictions both embodies the image and challenges its veracity, and had begun to see that this endgame did not have to stop there. In seeking to explore ambiguity further but refine this tension and invite critical reflection, I found one series of images haunted me, that of convicted murderer Mark Lundy.
I expanded the content and contextual parameters of my image selection by selecting a criterion of provocative performance in front of the camera, such as the photojournalistic news images taken of Lundy at his funeral. Selection relaxed to a sifting of loaded performance, with contestable readings, where a diametric tension remained evident. This allowed me to suspend image interpretation, to make it the viewer’s responsibility.
I realized that I had become interested in the authority of the image and how I could reveal my own lack of control over image interpretation in my performance as a painter. By imposing new criteria designed to reveal my own subjectivity and slippage in the implementation of the painting, I hoped to translate the lack of coherence inherent within an image.
This strategy involved a time factor of one day to complete the work (as is usual for Tuymans, to destabilize any temptation towards over-exuberance in the execution of the painting) as well as a palette of three predetermined colours to translate tonal range and depth. This limited palette and time frame was an attempt to frustrate and deteriorate my own painting process to reveal slippage and encourage polar and complex readings from the viewer. I found that the outcome was poor and conceited with my involvement being too revealed. I was initially attempting to reduce my involvement and had instead, emphasized it. I felt that this revealed itself as a proud practice of painterly virtuosity or of failure (depending upon viewer judgment) and I decided to review my strategy.
the End of Innocence
By reassessing the work in my own practice, I realized that what was consistently important to the practice was an interest in, and comparison of, the specific indicators of media. I devised a series of works that could play visually with the transition between the photographic and painting languages, not only by media, but in a material way, in the viewer’s spatial relationship to the artwork. I also wanted to utilize photography as a mnemonic device; the viewer’s visual history attached to the specific content of ‘loaded’ imagery.
In Stain (Fig. 6) I saw potential in developing this articulation of digital manipulation as a way to expand upon human relationships represented within new media. As I argued in chapter two, I do not understand digital photography as a restoration of any traditional photography, but as an extension into a new mode of expression. It contributes its own and distinct dialect, such as, the ability to comprehensively alter image content, and by doing so, to confiscate histories. This work subverts the traditional photographic attribute (a verifiable artefact of the real) and subverts the image content of the family portrait by displaying a subliminal narrative of exclusion and manipulation. I sought to portray the family dynamic with its undercurrents of esoteric anxiety, below a performance of harmony before the camera.
A further criteria of this series of works was to create a split between painting and photography, by utilizing the distance the artwork was viewed from. From afar, as might have been recorded through the camera lens, the initial appearance of the work is of a photograph, with all of the attendant associations that we hold for that medium. But once the viewer approaches, the language used to interpret the image, (the photographic indicators and attributes) change and the viewer recognizes it through the materiality of the painting. The intention was not so much to fool the eye or to deceive as in a feat of trompe-l’oeil, but for the viewer to become aware of their own visual baggage; how the medium conditions vision. This illustrates the lessons I learnt from chapter two; that the viewer anticipates the medium of what is being seen, impelling their perceptions. It reveals that, the device used to record the communication has distinctive characteristics (which may not be immediately evident), and these ‘imprecision’s’ indicate the medium’s form of conveyance. This meant a balance between each medium. The photographic indicators of the painting, retain its residue attachment to the real. And the painting is materialistic enough (upon close inspection), to disrupt the photographic suggestion. Thereby asserting its own language of illusion. Both implicate the viewer’s body through its direct physicality. The image remains unchanged, so its recognition as double modes of information creates ambiguity.
I chose a group portrait of the Lundy family, Family Man (Fig. 7) to extend the psychological readings of traditional family portraiture, to expose an undercurrent not evident within the image itself, but conditioned upon viewer knowledge for its subversions. Outside appearances display family unity, yet recognition of Mark Lundy adds a contextual narrative of failed performance and of loss. A viewer may remember his hyperbolic performance of innocence, at the funeral of his wife and child who were both brutally murdered. His display before news cameras in 2000 condemned Lundy in the arena of the public consciousness, long before he was convicted for his crimes in the courtroom.
This Lundy family portrait completes, for me, the fixation that I had with the imagery surrounding his killings, trial and conviction. It is a parody of his staged performance for the photojournalists and news cameras. The content of the entire End of Innocence body of works is concerned with anxiety, an uncertain future, the inability to categorically state anything, an incapacity to make pervasive change as well as the impermanence of life, time, meaning, regret and acceptance. The images were selected that I felt were intrinsically charged with esoteric emotion or knowledge, amplifying the ambivalence I now find inherent in the image. Collectively and singularly the associations across the works and their scale assists in the blurring of the medium by being small enough for the eye to capture numbers of paintings simultaneously. The scale was also successful in that it was unusual to both painting and photography: not very big for a painting and large for a photograph.
A photograph reproduced as a painting, changes both its meaning and its information content. September 10 (Fig. 8) displays a pretty landscape of city lights at dusk, but becomes pretence when amalgamated with an acknowledgement of its time and specific location as a view from the observation deck of the World trade Centre before September the 11th in New York City. The date 9/11 is now infamous for its heralding of global war - a war against an abstract enemy with invisible clandestine and global operations; the war on terrorism.
For the next body of work to continue the theme of contextual information surrounding the image, I looked at the mediated re-contextualized image. I was drawn to ‘found’ photographs and slides bought in second-hand stores or garage sales. These images have taken a journey until they have become lost from their time and place. Having being initially shot, they are sometimes disfigured, lost or held by strangers, bought and sold. They are scanned and broadcast online in WebPages and Blogs, hand-painted by myself, until finally considered by a viewer
In the selection of photos I was looking for images displaying intimate everyday situations but infused with unreliability and failure in the image content or context, to connect them to the slippages of painting and photography. Conceptually, I wanted to engage viewer participation by including images that were empathetic and had resonance within image culture. I chose family portraiture for its conventional performance of frontality, accepting that the physicality of an artwork, its ontology, is to be `considered by a viewer’. Therefore the theatrical nature of an artwork, the assumption of an audience, is emphasised by the confrontational bodily presentation of the subjects.
Although unreliable, the images appear familiar. They establish a sense of nostalgia by the recognition of similar images in our own family albums packed away in closets and attics and by the account that these discarded images represent, in a sense, the valuing of the unvalued. Found photographs are the personal images of strangers appreciated and shared amongst the population of strangers on the Internet. I created a community of these discarded family portraits, foreigners to myself, the viewer and to each other. But all with a common thread related by posture, performance, fiasco and loss, and also by disjunction ( separateness in all other connection), including their moment in time and place.
It appears that an aspect and attraction of photography in relation to the family portrait is the assumption that the factual authority of the camera creates a validity of real life experience; a reminder and authentication of personal history. These photos are fragments from these mappings that are misplaced and disjointed. They are anti-portraits in the way that they have failed in their goal to capture likeness, place, atmosphere, or by their inability to signify a moment and are deemed no longer necessary, irrelevant or forcibly removed from personal history (absent/lost/discarded).
The voyeuristic nature of their content implicates recognition of the messy disposition of the family dynamic with its esoteric anxieties below a surface of performative harmony. A lecturer at the University of Central Florida, Barry Mauer (2001), states that: “The original contexts that anchored their meaning have been severed from them; found photographs foster a new and valuable "reading" disposition, one that sharpens our inferential skills and reflects upon our ordinary habits of perception. The best conclusions we can draw from found photographs are conclusions about ourselves; when we interpret and react to found photographs, we reveal our own perceptual processes” (Mauer. 2001).
By painting photographs, the painting grounds this subjectivity back in the body, which allows the viewer to tolerate the construct by gaining authority over it. Where photography holds the viewer as witness, painting creates a role of participation. This is because painting’s rhetoric of illusion, grounded through its materiality, means the image is more open to dialogue and less threatening than a photograph.
My painting of photographs neutralizes some of the voyeuristic elements of private family memories, because the actual and the illusionary become the suppositions of the viewer. The viewer is made aware of this lack of image authority by a combination of the attributes of two distinct forms of representation, combined within a single image. The endorsement of the interpretation resides wholly with viewer discretion, simply because the variables are overwhelmed with ponderables, inexplicitness and ambiguity. With the painting Leaning Towards What Isn’t There (Fig. 9) the actuality of the photographic reference is present, but without any contextual information and a removal of one figure the viewer is liberated to create a narrative from the formal information of the content. The lack of resolution expands the possibilities of its descriptive interpretation. The removal of one subject of the portrait both emphasizes this unknown person and elevates them to the role of either ignominy or the esteemed, neither supplies resolution. Because the image was mediated by this action after the creation of the photograph, a narrative of unknown events is suggested, again with little formal evidence or determination.
My position in selecting and painting these photographs also remains unpredictable; the viewer can only surmise the degree of my modifications from the different stages of mediation, so that evaluating the image becomes increasingly unreliable in the Chinese whispers of each conversion.
Fish Wife (Fig. 9) displays an ambiguous relationship hierarchy, where the dead fish maintains a prominence that the holder of the fish is denied (by their decapitation from the scene). Nothing regarding relationships may be validated, as this is a discarded picture and perhaps done so because of this unfortunate beheading.
Where a portrait painting concerns itself with resemblance, a photograph concerns itself with context and photography’s attribute of reproducing a person’s likeness is not questioned. According to Peter Osborne, Gerhard Richter “uses the objectivity or givenness of the photographic image…to counter the perceived subjectivism of painting at two distinct levels: extrinsically, by taking away the responsibility for the representational content from the painting and displacing it onto the photography, and intrinsically, by thereby predetermining the compositional form of the picture and reducing its representational task to that of the apparent replication or simple reproduction of the mechanically produced image, in painterly mimicry of the aspiration to objectivity of the naturalistic representational function itself, usurped by photography from an older tradition in painting” (Adams, 2007).
One of the ingredients in the execution of the paintings is household enamels, which implies for me, everyday domestic life. It is also a highly materialistic medium, flaunting its glossy brush stroked surface, with any grit in the slow drying process disfiguring the paint coat and the smooth colour tone. An artist’s quality oil colour is used to define detail in an expressionistic way and dries to a matte further blemishing the gloss surface. As the viewer approaches the subject of the painting and the illusion of the photograph, the person’s likeness dissolves into the materiality of the painted surface. The content is the usual, the banal and the everyday and I agree with Richter when he states: “I used the so-called banal to show that the banal is the important and the human, the people whose images we see in the newspaper are not banal, they are only banal because they are not famous” (Richter, 1988).
ConclusionAs I have investigated in chapters one and two, by examining the genre of photography through paint I have established that the traditional photograph is now redundant in its service to reality, and attempted to lift the viewer from unconscious seeing into questions of belonging. By an examination of photography’s putative claim to truth through this process, I have found that the photograph as a medium has become susceptible to critical scrutiny, to be reassigned with something similar to paintings personal record or to an apparition of the real.
When reminded of the screen of our vision the particular dialect of the information appears and I have scrutinized these attributes through their exposure to one another. This has revealed a dialogue between the image content and the attributes of its medium. My practice concerns itself with a comparison of the vernacular of painting and of photography in order to expose all visual representations as unreliable fictions, and thus to make this the point of critical reflection. A respite from the image saturation of visual culture may be realized in this low tech of the hyper-real, where the mediations are materialistic, exposed failures in their service to realism, and where the representation abandons any rigorous attempt at deception. In so doing, I invite the viewer to consider them as technologies employed to represent the real, but a real that is inherently contentious and provisional.
Advances in technology to capture time and place with greater accuracy may produce superior clarity, colour and depth of imagery, the actual experience still evades capture by any device, and superior technology simply provides us with more sophisticated depictions. Moreover, because of its variable and contestable nature, the proprietorship of the interpretation of the work (and adopted associative directions any appraisal may take), are an empowerment of viewer authority. A viewer has a personal relationship to the attributes of a medium (the associations they hold are unique to them, as is the contribution that they make to their understanding).
All forms of representation strive for clarification through the acquisition and reconstruction of past knowledge and information in order to articulate a comprehensible lucidity. Just as Richter alludes to painting as “idiotic” (1995), it seems to me a ridiculous (even catastrophic) pursuit to paint the slippages of a medium, to openly expose these failures and to push towards incomprehension. To firmly remain within the boundaries of realism and not digress into abstraction is a form of pedantic niggling, of fraying the edges of representation. For me, this quest must encompass an acceptance of the failure to articulate a resolute outcome, a resolution that encompasses doubt and fuses coherence with incomprehension in an attempt to clarify my lived experience of contemporary life.
In the words of Baudrillard (2000, p.83):
"Here, however, lies the task of philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic".
ReferencesBaudrillard, J. (2000). The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press.
Crimp, D. (1977). Pictures. Essay for exhibition catalogue. Published by Artists Space. Reprinted by X-TRA, Volume 8 Number 1, Fall 2005. Retrieved on 8th October from www.clubblumen.at/media/crimp.pdf
Mauer, B. (2001). The Found Photograph and the Limits of Meaning. Retrieved 12th December 2012 from:
Richter, Gerhard. with Obrist, Hans-Ulrich (Ed.). (1995). The daily practice of painting: Writings and interviews 1962-1993. London: Thames and Hudson.
Richter, Gerhard. (1988). Zwei Liebespaare. Text from Neff,loc.cit. p.47. quoted from Christie’s catalogue. Retrieved 24th November 2010 from: http://alaintruong.canalblog.com/archives/2008/02/07/7860220.html
Wall, Jeff. (2007). Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or As, Conceptual Art. In Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, edited by Ann Goldstein and AnneRorimer, 246-67. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995. Reprinted in Wall, Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews, 143-68.
IllustrationsFigure 1. Barry Ross Smith. The Works. 2008. oil on linen. 91 x 91 cm
Figure 2. Barry Ross Smith. Oxymoron. 2010. Household enamel on canvas. 107 x 60 cm
Figure 3. Barry Ross Smith. Pretty Ugly. 2008. Oil on canvas. 107 x 84 cm
Figure 4. Barry Ross Smith. Friendly Fight. 2008. Oil on canvas. 115 x 110 cm
Figure 5. Barry Ross Smith. Stain. 2010. Household enamel and oil on board. 70 x 21 cm
Figure 6. Barry Ross Smith. Family Man. 2010. Household enamel and oil on board. 45 x 60 cm
Figure 7. Barry Ross Smith. September 10th. 2010. Household enamel and oil on board. 18 x 30 cm
Figure 8. Barry Ross Smith. Leaning towards what isn’t there. 2010. Household enamel and oil on board. 30 x 30 cm
Figure 9. Barry Ross Smith. Fish Wife. 2010. Household enamel and oil on board. 30 x 30 cm
most of the artworks included in this essay can be found here.
Copyright © 2011 Barry Ross Smith