Guest Post by Robert Burnier
Whence this creation has come into being; whether it was made or not; he in the highest heaven is its surveyor. Surely he knows, or perhaps he knows not.
Â From the Cosmology Hymn of the Rig Veda, c. 2000-1700 BCE
In the initial remarks of his recent lecture at Northwestern University, Tim Griffin offered as foundational that there is no timeless or natural state for art. G. Roger Denison, in his polemic on the Museum of Modern Artâ€™s exhibition, Inventing Abstraction, employs a cyclical view of history to reel in some of the statements made by that exhibitionâ€™s curators, suggesting that a â€œRe-â€ in front of the title would have gone a long way to calm his nerves. Richard Kalina writes of painting born from its perennial destruction, calling the prevalent cross sectioning and boundary exploration not a â€œstasis, but rather a new kind of growth.” These discussions can feel quite esoteric in a way, and yet if one pauses to consider the Sistine Chapel, for instance, and the way it sadly and slowly deteriorated over time, only to stir up an outrage at the garish colors produced after itâ€™s restoration, it becomes apparent that the public is constantly wrestling with its own expectations of artâ€™s duration. Additionally, Griffin spoke of a compressed, lossy JPEG image â€“ seemingly complete and yet missing most of its original information â€“ as a metaphor for spontaneous creation by art viewers and art historians; the radical necessity for reconstruction in the mind of someone observing. Denison takes a somewhat formalist approach as he draws comparisons among the art of differing eras, but nonetheless produces striking examples of historical syzygy, such as when he aligns the distant planets of Tantric and Supremacist painting two centuries apart or points out the sleek â€œmodernâ€ character of a Cycladic head carved perhaps 2,500 years ago. Kalina, for his part, seems compelled to fashion an outline of historical typologies as a kind of deck the artist can shuffle. He calls for â€œa non-judgmental format for viewing painting, and to allow for growth and expansion in a non-linearâ€ way. From this I take the author to mean that nothing is entirely off limits form the standpoint of art history and time; that we should think instead terms of consolidation and dispersion, linking and decoupling. Similar to what I said in an earlier essay about craft, when I suggested we look for â€œusage before material specificityâ€, we should look for the usage of an historical precedent in present terms. All of these views are reconstructions of history â€“ welcome ones for me. Even as the historical lines they push against are themselves constructions, they revitalize an openness in how a single work of art endures. But this also points toward how contemporary art production can have access to this shifting ground as a generative source. As things have come back around in the past, they can do so again for us â€“ the same but different. But this is not a merry-go-round, nor is it a journey toward some definite horizon. It is a widening field of activity expanding around us even as it reverberates and echoes the waves of the past. We can observe the freedom art and artists have had to loop and interact with, and not necessarily march through, history, even as they exist for the present and point toward the future.
Aside from any categories we might apply to our work, I like to think in terms of how things move; what dynamics keep us in the search, trying to create something, and trying to look critically at what is happening. There are aspects to life around the artist that change, like technology, politics, social tension and geography. These kinds of things morph at very different rates, some daily while others are fixed for millennia, which can create openings to explore as currents slide past each other. The artist can also look back and find a great deal unresolved, perhaps seeing something that was abandoned that could bear a lot more exploration. Alternately, in light of present circumstances, one can seek new meaning through an old, established idea. So in view of the approach to grappling with these issues as suggested by Kalina, I submit a few observations to consider in addition to the framing devices he offers us. I will touch on a few of these notions here, mainly focused on examples in painting and photography, knowing that they are only sketches or pointers toward a deeper investigation of these dynamics in future writing.
One steadfast source of change, as mentioned above, has been technological development. But as art observes this change it will necessarily index what came before as well. We can look far into the past, such as to the innovative oil painting of the 15th century Flemish master Jan van Eyck if we want to see the effects of a new technique or technology. He achieved a fidelity in surface and light that greatly added to the visual depth and presence of his paintings, enhancing the experience of story, idea and imagination in subjects that were themselves very well established. His Virgin of Canon van der Paele (1434â€“36) contains many of these innovations in the myriad facbrics, reflective surfaces and patterns, all bathed in a convincing light. And however utterly familiar the subject of Madonna and Child may have been, it is instructive how the artist could bring so much to it through his particular technique and vision, drawing it closer to the viewer than previously possible. And the cultural expectation to illustrate such subjects as the Passion of Christ, as exemplified in the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych (c. 1430â€“40) is fulfilled with new urgency and impact. The subject is reborn.
In our own day we can look at the work of an artist like Cory Arcangel, who has also tried to chisel something out of art history through new technological means. Although it got some mixed press, I thought there were a number of things to take from his 2011 Whitney exhibition, Pro Tools. There we saw a series of his Photoshop prints, which present themselves initially as machine-perfect geometric abstraction and color fields. On this level they speak plainly enough about modern art history, but more deeply they are conjugations of the character and limits of that digital medium on a most basic level. They seem to point toward a repeating, overarching pattern in history of medium exploration and technique discovery; of finding uses for them and expanding on the possibilities. Itâ€™s also worth considering that many of the functions and terms in Photoshop are themselves borrowed from other traditions that just werenâ€™t worth changing, so they stayed in the software. Iâ€™ve also always thought of Arcangelâ€™s work as both â€œfastâ€ and â€œslowâ€, liable to be obsolete in a year or sooner and yet connected to ideas that are truly glacial. An example would be his Paganiniâ€™s Caprice No. 5. It is resolutely about the way change affects us as we strive to remember who we are or were. Paganiniâ€™s romantic era composition is cut to ribbons by a software program that auto-tunes and selects the notes in the musical composition from a pool of amateur musical videos of mainly dudes on their couches playing guitar. The extremely short clips are reassembled back into a â€œsongâ€ of a decidedly estranged character.Â This double-facing view â€“ an old thing strained through new means â€“ is essential to the way the work speaks of loss (or lossy-ness) through a distorted nostalgia, but also issues of the democratization of esthetics through a DIY impulse and the technological dispersion of information, for better or worse. In the end, as with van Eyck, our relationship to a cannon of art has been forever altered, but not erased.
Besides generally contrasting with something prior exists the possibility of flowing with and redirecting it. Chicago artist Jeremy Bolen takes a position that mimics some prevalent aspects of the post-industrial age but draws radically different conclusions. He essentially hijacks the scientific method, but collates his â€œresearchâ€ in a way that produces more questions than answers. His alternate use of such a tried medium as photography â€“ whereby, in his words, he makes it additive rather than subtractive â€“ continues this line of redirection. The photographic plane is thus a base on which he accumulates rather than frames. Specifically, the images result from visiting the sites of particle accelerators throughout the world, and capturing echoes of the energy nearby on sensitive photochemical paper. It problematizes institutional research in the sense that it is not necessarily authorized (the scientists at the research facilities arenâ€™t always aware of where Bolen is working or what heâ€™s doing) and that the energy particles heâ€™s captured are arriving at locations they werenâ€™t ideally â€œmeantâ€ to go â€“ they are traveling beyond their preferred targets, such as in the series 350 Feet Above the Large Hadron Collider #1-4. Bolen not only captures the stray energy in these images, but re-situates them in a displaced representation of the location by layering a â€œconventionalâ€ photo of the site beneath. This also causes a rift in how results are obtained, as his are essentially esthetic, provocative and non-deterministic. It is as if heâ€™s running behind the scientists plucking out the seams of everything they try to sew up. Bolenâ€™s work not only expands on the possibilities of photography with his alternative approaches of imprinting an image but broadens our thinking about empiricism and knowledge acquisition in general.
Even going back to using some method of photography to simply record something, we can see how photographic reproduction causes shifts in meaning based on its place in time. Veroneseâ€™s The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563), now at the Louvre, Paris, was recently painstakingly scanned, duplicated, assembled and â€œreinstalledâ€ in Palladioâ€™s refectory at the San Giorgio Monastery in Venice Italy, where it originated.Â The reproduction of Veroneseâ€™s work is an expression of a longtime trend to â€œoriginalizeâ€ works of art from the past, either by restoring them to a location nearer their origins, in proximity to their original people, or by providing a context for them to be seen in a way somehow closer to what people in their time might have. The process by which this was achieved is fascinating enough; but almost like an artificial appendage, it is provocative to think about how it both provides a useful, educational facsimile even while it underscores loss and speaks to shifting world political power as a kind of prime mover.
If weâ€™re not necessarily breaking new ground all the time, does that mean weâ€™re only fussing with details and adding adornments, or is there another way to see this? As Kalina says, we can draw from these accumulations to â€œmake new spaces between existing areas, [and] reference new subject matter as the world around us changes.â€ I think of Robert Smithsonâ€™s Spiral Jetty as a fitting metaphor. He was very interested in the idea of entropy, but instead of focusing on its implications of dissolution and decay, I prefer to think about how a crystal forms by the same process of lowering its energy state and yet arriving at more structure than before. The jetty seems to disintegrate slowly, even disappears and reappears as the water level changes, but it is in fact also accumulating accretions of salt crystals. To this we could add more earth, continuing the outward spiral. From any point we are free to look toward the center or toward the open sea, but weâ€™d always be standing on its shore.
Â Formerly the editor-in-chief of Artforum and currently the Executive Director and Chief Curator of The Kitchen, a non-profit, interdisciplinary arts organization.
Â Critic, essayist, novelist and screen writer living in New York City who has written on art and culture for Art in America, Parkett, Artscribe International, Flash Art, Bijutsu Techo, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, and numerous other international magazines and journals.
Â Colonizing Abstraction: MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction Show Denies Its Ancient Global Origins, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/g-roger-denson/colonizing-abstraction-mo_b_2683159.html
Â Painter and critic. He is a Contributing Editor at Art in America and is represented by the Lennon, Weinberg Gallery in New York. He is Professor of Art at Fordham University, where he teaches art history and studio art.
Â The Four Corners of Painting, The Brooklyn Rail, December, 2012, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2012/12/artseen/the-four-corners-of-painting
 Operations like cropping were, of course, previously quite physical undertakings with scissors or blades. Masks were just physical barriers to light in a photochemical process, and layers were simply layered negatives. The list could go on.
 Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through Its Facsimilies, Switching Codes: Thinking through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, ed. Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover (University of Chicago Press, 2011), pp. 275-97
ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago.