Painting on Photography: Photography on Painting
Eddy De Vos
Moni K. Huber
The Surface of Seeing
Since the introduction of photography in 1837, photography and painting have had an alternatively hot and cold relationship. Even before 1837, a series of lens-based drawing aids—camera lucida, camera obscura—recently brought into popular culture by artist David Hockney, introduced what we now would call lenticular vision to painters. But the high points of the relationship after 1837 are still very much with us, such as Edgar Degas’ inclusion of the limitations of photography in his paintings—over- and under-exposure, scale distortions—and later double exposure experiments with his own camera. Later photographers would learn to animate their images by imitating Degas’ habit of dividing his images with posts and columns. Around the turn of the 20th century Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Gustave Caillebotte all painted from photographic sketches, a fact left out of art history books until recently. Another period of active exchange occurred in the 1950s between American Abstract Expressionist painters like Franz Klein and Robert Motherwell and photographers like Aaron Siskind and Minor White who adopted both gesture and abstraction from the painters. But these gestures also entered non-abstract photography through the work of Louis Faurer, Lisette Model, Robert Frank and others of the New York School in the 1950s. They remain embedded today, though highly evolved, in the newer work of Lee Friedlander.
The current contact between photography and painting, explored by this exhibition, includes this history and an additional set of factors. During the past two decades the photographic image has nearly made complete its escape from the single image in a frame. As an art form, it is now much more commonly combined with other media, transformed fully into another medium, or part of time based sequences and video. But photography has not escaped another of its’ confines—the debate as to whether it is just another picture making tool or an as yet not fully understood cultural language. Our association with it is so intimate and conservative in this latter regard that we still hesitate to accept translations or transformations, hanging on to the photographic until it disappears. We generally have no objection when language artists remove everyday language from the street or the bedroom, or wherever it presumably gains its meaning and power, and recombine it into a new metaphoric idiom, poetry. But we don’t trust language as much as we trust the photographic image. Seeing and reading may be believing, but seeing a photograph is knowing. Digital manipulation has considerably weakened this, ironically blind, faith in the public mind, but it remains.
Many of the artists in this exhibition have turned this seeming limitation to their advantage, and engage photography from a variety of angles: painting directly on the photographic surface (Moni K. Huber and Gerhard Richter); painting from but altering a photograph image (Eric Fischl); creating a tableaux drawn from the history of painting to photograph (Joel-Peter Witkin); arranging a scene to include a painting as an integral part (Gregory Scott); fragmenting a known image from the media to the edge of its photographic identity (Eddy de Vos). What these artists also accomplish is to cause us to become self conscious when looking at both photographs and paintings, and to understand that what we see in both is a flat field of elaborately but narrowly represented information that combined may lead us to truths not present in either individually.
In the series Zero Sum Game, Michael Fajans (American, born 1947) reproduces with paint the distortions in photographs he made of four politicians with fast film and a telephoto lens. The grain of the film, the strange breakdown of color within this grain, the lack of separation of shapes in the shadows, the over-exposed highlights, and the occasional failure of focus all have become characters in a drama he directs on the canvas. In order to approximate the grain, he spray painted through screens of various mesh size that coincidentally replicated the rosettes of color half-tone printing.
Through all of this, we still recognize the politicians, even the face of President Clinton in very deep shadow. The body language of the four men combines in a strange choreography: Clinton always smiling, Mayor Rice in constant motion, Congressman Dicks always clapping, and Governor Locke frozen from one frame to the next. What is going on here are three layers of image that may conflict in informative ways: the political self invention of the four men; the formal and technical construction of the photo-based painting; and, somewhere between those two, the murky area of rallied social energy that is not fully controlled by either Fajans or the politicians.
Randy Hayes (American, born 1944) painted from photographs for many years before he began painting directly on them. He learned early on that certain gestures in the photographic image don’t happen in the imagination because they don’t need to and don’t happen in the eye because they are either too fast to notice or too unexpected to anticipate. He concentrated on these and learned to combine them suddenly in his viewer’s field. When he now paints on a grid of photographic prints tacked to the wall of his studio (and later tacked to the wall of an apartment or museum) he is careful not to completely obliterate the underlying imagery. The larger painted image is often derived from one of the photographs. This tends to create an analog for memory: in real time he saw a very large array of things, but the memory of the experience is defined by a single image superimposed on the field of choices.
Unlike Hayes, Terry Turrell (American, born 1946) has only recently worked with photographs, painting directly on but not from them. His imagery is drawn in part from his childhood memories and experiences growing up in his father’s salvage yard. On an obvious, practical level, his painted surfaces are reminiscent of the layers of lubrication and paint on old car bodies and frames. These layers communicate the passing of time, and perhaps hidden realms of previous experience, that once revealed will trigger a new story, new possibilities. The addition of photography to this mix has obvious advantages. Tiny camera details emerge from the painted image to snap memory into focus.
- Rod Slemmons, Director
Images brought to life
Photographs and paintings usually operate within the confines of two-dimensionality, stillness, and silence. Photographs have the added burden of being conceived of as revealing mechanisms that uncover information normally hidden within the fluidity of experience. Since the emergence of the medium of video in the mid-1960s, however, artists have been experimenting with the concept of duration as a strategy for uncovering details that are impossible to elicit from still images, creating experiences that have unusual perceptual effects.
The time-based works of Wafaa Bilal (Iraqi, b. 1966) and Sam Taylor-Wood (English, b. 1967) underscore links between painting and photography in terms of the concept of stillness. In his Midwest Olympia (2005), Bilal uses digital video to update Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting, Olympia. Bilal’s obese contemporary Olympia reclines on a chaise lounge in her cluttered real-life living room in Normal, Illinois. A clothed male figure stands in a doorway behind her. The uncut video lasts for over an hour, during which time the man and woman remain almost completely motionless. A cat, who appears from time to time in the frame (and must be thoroughly confused by its owner’s comatose behavior), is the only lively participant in the scene. The stillness Bilal requires of his sitters is reminiscent of historical portraiture, when the methods of painting and long exposure times needed for early photography obliged subjects to remain unmoving for extended periods of time. It also demands the attention of the viewer who at first will most likely read the image as static.
Similarly, Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life (2001) takes its inspiration from historical painting, in this case the tabletop paintings of Caravaggio. At first it appears that the illuminated image of peaches in a basket is still, but slowly it becomes apparent that through time-lapse technology a period of weeks has been reduced to minutes and the fruit is actually rotting very quickly in front of our eyes.
Clearly Bilal and Taylor-Wood are interested in something more than having the viewer simply decipher the referential information of their images. In their temporal manipulations there is an implicit invitation to stick with the images even after they have been decoded. Even though initially nothing seems to happen, with attention the viewer realizes that the artists have brought still images to life.
The moment of recognition that there is something else going on—that both attention and inattention are required to fully experience a piece—is often what gives artwork its impact. This process of slow revelation and sense of time manipulation is crucial to the work of Rob Fischer (American, b. 1968), who craftily paints on photographs in his series Accidental/Intentional (2004/05). Fischer makes photographs of trailers and shacks in rural settings, often rapidly seen from a car window. He then paints the prints to make the simple dwellings appear to be on fire. This causes a strange shift in the sense of time imparted by the images. What initially were placid landscape photographs have now acquired some serious drama. Painting, typically best suited for still scenes, and photography, typically better at freezing movement, temporarily occupy each other’s domain. The presence of both mediums, in fact, forbids either from being transparent—having to shift between the two codes, the viewer becomes acutely aware of the process of looking, of the reconciliation required between sensory and cognitive understanding. Painting and photography accomplish this union in different ways.
- Karen Irvine, Curator
Ordinary but unique
Tim Gardner (American, b.1973 resides in Canada), Lordan Bunch (American, b. 1967) and Marc Lüders (German, b.1963) are all painters who depend greatly on vernacular photographs as source materials. Each paint in a photorealistic style with rough watercolor or fine oil brush strokes and elevate their mundane subject simply by choosing to paint them. In each case we are required to examine our expectations and assumptions about what both photography and painting are best at conveying. This is accomplished in part by the fact that much of the imagery is very ordinary.
Tim Gardner’s source materials are ordinary snapshots taken by his brothers, his friends and himself mostly of young men goofing off, partying during spring break, or standing in front of a tourist destination like the Grand Canyon. Gardner uses watercolors like Winslow Homer or Thomas Eakins, particularly in his renderings of dramatic sky backgrounds, but his subjects fall more in line with artists like Nan Golden or of a less sinister Larry Clark. Ultimately his pictures are about almost energetic banality.
Lordan Bunch collects photo booth photographs from the 1920s through the 1940s and creates small to midsize meticulously crafted photo-realistic oil paintings. Unlike Gardner’s close relation to his subjects, the sitter’s anonymity in these found black and white pictures is important to Bunch as he adds color to give these forgotten people a sense of dignity and life. There is often a slight awkwardness to the sitter’s expression as he or she stares into the reflective glass separating them from the booth camera. In one a boy smirks, trying not to laugh; in another, part of a man’s face is cropped by the edge of the frame as if he had shifted when the shutter was released. There has always been a mystique around photo booth pictures, which might come from the fact that there is no photographer and no negative. The sitters are performing for themselves and even self-conscious people let their guard down behind the curtain.
Marc Lüders combines painting and photography to create a complex interplay between reality and illusion. In his Figure series, Lüder takes photographs of generally desolate spaces: construction sites, abandoned parking lots, an occasional pastoral landscapes. He then paints standing human figures directly into the scenes. The figures are derived from photographs are furtively lifted from crowded city life—street corners, crosswalks and sidewalks—which explains the self absorbed stance. Lüder plucks these figures out of their urban space and drops them into a new context. He depends on photography’s inherit tendency to make each image believable, but there is a disturbing suggestion that these figures are not comfortable in either environment.
- Natasha Egan, Associate Director