The Changing Image

Claudia Gian Ferrari Arte Contemporanea, Milan

November 14, 1996 – January 18, 1997



Oil on canvas

65 x 72 inches; 165 x 183 cm

Glendale Boulevard


Oil on linen

37 x 57 inches; 94 x 145 cm

Art of the end of the 20th century faces the challenge of reconciling opposing goals of conflict and contradiction and of unity and reconstruction — oppositions often played out in art through the dichotomy between abstraction and representation. The art that attempts to reconcile these oppositions is concerned with the pursuit of practical and formal, as well as speculative and philosophical ends. When seen together, the work included in this exhibition is revealed to be the product of a group of artists who share an awareness of art's recent avant-garde past, but who seek to address issues in which confrontation and opposition is not everything. Like many of their colleagues working within conceptual art practices, they have taken up the challenge of making their art accessible, yet they maintain an umbilical cord to the beauty and sublimity of a private, painted world. The work presented here attempts to navigate between these opposing goals, in a continuous state of flux and subtle metamorphosis. While each of these artists is working within a unique visual arena, all share a common desire to reflect this precarious equilibrium; thus the images they create do not simply reflect change, but appear to be in a state of transformation.


Transformation without violent upheaval is perhaps the central theme of this work. All these artists question the relevance of postmodernist historical quotation for the survival/revival of painting by calling into the shadows of their work traces of the vast vocabulary of modern art while maintaining a distance from modernism's specific aspects. Seen in this light, this work is vastly important for its celebration of diversity. While postmodernism rediscovered a warehouse of images, its analysis of painting, made largely by way of theories surrounding collage, proved inadequately retrograde. These artists reinvest familiar images with expressive power. Through the use of some of the most overused images — the landscape or portrait, for example —they attempt to underscore their cultural and social roles as makers of expressive images. Confident in their role, they reject the tired abstraction/representation dichotomy in favor of what can now be seen as an inclusive, organic way of creating images consistent with the contemporary flow between the psychological, spiritual, and intellectual worlds, and their images occupy the ever-changing space between the natural and the cultural. While this work might initially appear familiar, it is in fact very different from the kind of historical quotation associated with the postmodern.


Each of the works in this exhibition attempts to create diagonally shifting dialogues; in Peter Cain's automobiles, David Deutsch's and Joan Nelson's landscape, Jane Hammond's collection of self-portraits, and Daisy Youngblood's portraits of animals, for example, the representational aspect has been deliberately sabotaged, so the works are distanced from their subject. This distance becomes emblematic of the contradictions within contemporary culture; the artists mine these non-parallel dialogues of conflicting styles, histories and programs to express internal contradictions and conflicts. Through such expression, this art represents a state of metamorphosis. The result is a pliant, flexible sensibility that attempts to value the affinities, rather than the differences, between abstraction and representation. Pliancy here implies an internal flexibility and an ability to integrate unrelated elements within new continuous mixtures, instead of the collage-like accumulations of the recent past.


Cain's images of automobiles, gas stations, or convenience stores appear as if they are undergoing a technological metamorphosis as they simultaneously call to mind Surrealism and American photorealism of the `70s and Surrealism. Deutsch has used aerial photographs to create paintings that initially read like monochromatic cloudy abstractions; upon further inspection, however, fragments of recognizable landscapes emerge out of the painterly red, green, brown, and gray images. With these works Deutsch creates a poetics around his conflicting styles or programs. Hammond has been working with a visual vocabulary of 276 found images, and through an open, pliant mental process she manipulates unexpected mixtures of these images to create an ever-changing body of painting about psychological and formal metamorphosis. The glossy surfaces of Nelson's subtle landscapes seem almost alive with atmospheric changes. Like Deutsch's, Nelson's work shifts between representation and abstraction but the shifts in her work call to mind the constantly evolving conflict between nature and culture. Youngblood only partially animates lumps of her lowfire clay to create what suggest half-finished portraits. The spectral presence of her subjects gives one a sensation that the remainder of the image is yet to evolve and, as in Hammond's work, empowers her materials with the ability to embody change.


Hammond's use of a finite number of images might initially seem limiting, but her work is in principle infinite, open and uninhibited. Deutsch's work can be seen as having neither top, nor bottom, nor center; it does not establish elements as either fixed or mobile, but instead establishes a continuous variation. This notion of constant transformation can be applied to all of the work present here as it forces us to rethink certain assumptions about the way images are created and how those images are read to create a context. All of these images are composed of disparate, unrelated elements that are equally considered to become intricate parts of the whole. Deutsch's use of red wash and brushstroke, for example, maintains no direct relationship to the complete image of the landscape that is finally presented. Likewise, the force that adheres these elements, that makes out of them a coherent mixture of visual information, is seen as being external to the individual elements.




Unlike art of contradiction and superpositions, the flexible systems represented here are capable of engendering surprising connections with contextual, cultural, and programmatic contingencies by vicissitude — the quality of being mutable or changeable in response to both favorable and unfavorable situations that occur by chance. Vicissitudinous events result from actions that are neither arbitrary nor predictable, but rather seem to be accidental. Flexibility and pliancy in the work does not result from and is not consistent with a logic of contradiction, yet it is capable of exploiting conflicting combinations for the possible connections that lie there. While the postmodern exploited external forces in the name of contradiction and conflict, this work exhibits a more fluid logic of connectivity and pliancy.


In all of this work both abstract and representational contexts provide rich sites of difference in which the artists superimpose relationships to nature, to that which is familiar or already known, that exploit multiple lines of connections rather than lines of conflict. These affinities cannot be predicted from the contexts that are suggested but occur by vicissitude. Abstraction or representation in itself has no value or meaning beyond the connections that are made within it. Distinct from earlier abstract codes, these works develop complex personal and cultural systems of assimilation and integration. There is no general abstract strategy visible, only a sort of tactile mutability. The mixtures and consequently supple Forms of the abstraction used are neither indifferent to, nor do they defy their contexts, but rather they exploit them by turning them within their own twisted and curvilinear logics. Cain's supple forms, for example, are neither geometrically precise nor arbitrarily figural. The curvilinear Figures of automobiles are anything but decorative, but they also resist reduction to a pure geometric figure. Cain's supple tires, taillights, or roadside constructions exhibit a logic of curvilinearity as they are continuously differentiated according to contingencies of abstraction.


The sense of change within these works is manifested through an internal conflicts between representation and abstraction and the desire to create something new while retaining a link to the past. Here disparate programs come together organically: in other words, the various elements create unity out of disparate elements. Traditional representational systems have a distinct character, but once they have been exposed to the metamorphoses taking place here they exchange fixed coordinates for dynamic relationships across the surface and depth of the image. This state of flux — or illustration of cultural and personal metamorphosis — can be seen as a manifestation of a contemporary need to achieve a state of heterogeneity.


The mixing, integration, and metamorphosis of styles presented here is not superfluous, but rather it results from a flexible, non-linear logic that seeks to internalize cultural and contextual forces within the work. In this manner the interpretation of this work becomes intimately involved with particular rather than ideal forms — for example, the landscape, the automobile, the gorilla, or the self-portrait. The flexible presentation of these Forms is not merely the representation of differential forces within a work of art, but an illustration of how these forms become distorted and evolve because of their environment. What begins to define itself here is a logic, rather than a style, of visual fluidity and metamorphosis.