rock abstract --archives

From the archives: an abstract  that would have been made around 2001-2, before there was the ocean of  digital images in social media where people  consume  and discard images so rapidly.  Before the emergence of our image-heavy world,  where it is  no longer  enough to simply ‘make a photograph'. Photography now needs  some concepts or ideas.    

This looks back  to that time, when as  argued by photo historians such as  Lyle Rexer and Carol Squires something happened to photography in the 1960s/1970s that made it impossible to look at art photographs  in the traditional way. What shifted with this event,  it is argued,   was the emergence of an assumption that photography never did simply open a window on the world. Photography  as a window on the world was the  traditional view of photography, but there  had also been artists who had been experimenting with and redrawing the boundaries of traditional photography for decades. 

That event was conceptual art, the movement that saw a gravitation toward language-based art, a lo-fi aesthetic   and an understanding of  art as primarily a way of exploring ideas--then  anti-commodification, social and/or political critique, and ideas/information as medium  Although it often yielded nothing more than ephemeral events or experiments, its impact is all over the art world. Conceptual art introduced to the art world various types of photography that had been excluded or ignored, while calling attention to the fact that even photographs that seemed straightforward often demanded a second look. 

sea abstract #7

As a concept, abstract photography is often seen as  a contradiction in terms. Photographs, after all, always represent some trace of physical reality, even if it is not immediately recognizable. The medium's inherent knack for representation paradoxically makes it an ideal instrument for probing and challenging the language of abstraction.

Consequently, abstraction has never been anything like orthodoxy in photography. It’s always been peripheral to the medium and  dropped in and out of vogue and critical prominence.

Abstraction in  photography generally refers  to  the Abstract Expressionist style and high seriousness of the non-representational photographic  work from the 1950's by Aaron Siskind, Minor White and others (including Harold Edgerton, Stan Brakhage, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy  and Gyorgy Kepes).  

Is there a movement of contemporary abstraction in todays art photography? Art photography has been  dominated by a factual, relatively unemotional work: water towers, suburban developments, and austere portraits ruled within the prevalent movements of New Topographics and the Dusseldorf School of photography.

Is there a  movement of non representational  photography that makes make visible the tension between abstraction and camera representation,  and which has it  roots in  post-modernism? What is over, after postmodernism, is the narrow view of photography — the idea that the camera is a recording device, not a creative tool, and that its product is strictly representational — not manipulated, not fabricated, not abstract.

interpreting a theme

I'm finding this project hard. It's not coming off very well. Things are not coming together.  Whatever I try doesn't really work or fall into place. The improvisation  on a theme is  off key.  I'm just going to have to practice more. Thank heavens for digital technology. It allows me afford to make mistakes.

Music is a good way to understand the photographic process.  So we have composition, tonality improvisation, motion, rhythm, interpretation as well as  light and colour.

This places an emphasis on the interpretation of a score or theme as distinct from originality,  genius and masterworks  of the modernist tradition that placed  on photography as an artistic medium, which has specific properties and representational problematics. Once art was liberated from representation (realism) it had to justify its existence as the search for its own essence.

Formalist modernism held that  each art medium must determine, through rigorous self-examination of its own operations and effects, those specific qualities unique to itself. Hence the modernist reading of an image that rejects context and meaning and places an  emphasis on purity, the self-sufficiency of the photograph,  and photography's inherent  nature as a medium. We end up with disembodied self-closure of pure visuality.

 Improvisation not coming together brings the idea of formless into play---the improvisation goes no where. It just winds down and becomes disorder.

Photographic Abstractions: an exhibition

I have come across a group exhibiton of abstract photography in Australia  curated by Stella Loftus-Hills and Stephen Zagala at the Monash Art Gallery in Melbourne in 2012. It was entitled Photographic Abstractions,  and  it involved  the work of 33 Australian photographers comprising over 200 photographs. 

These range  from modernist geometric abstraction and the psychedelic experiments and conceptual projects of the 1970s, through to recent explorations of pixelated pictorial space The majority of works in the exhibition are held in the Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection. There is little text  and no catalogue online. 

Some of the images of the exhibition can be seen on this post by Marcus Bunyan at Art Blart. He draws attention to the lack of a text that places the work in a socio-cultural context. All that is offered, he says,  are five short paragraphs on a wall as you enter the space.  Bunyan precises these thus: 

*Photographic language engages the senses and challenges the way we "look" at the world; 

*Through the use of cropping and obscure angles the familiar is made unfamiliar;

*Colour, shape and form (geometric patterns) are important;

*Some artists eliminate the camera altogether through photograms, scanner, collage;

*Use of multiple exposures, distortion, mirroring;

*By drilling down into the substances and processes of photography  we can reflect on the very nature of photography itself; 

*Exploring geometry and patterns found in nature and the built environment or alluding to more intangle themes such as time, mortality and spirituality. 

Bunyan says that there was no serious theoretical inquiry or educational component offered to the viewer  by the curators, even though Stephen Zagala,  a Curator at the Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne, is a writer with training in art history, philosophy and anthropology. 

The artists are: Andrew Browne, John Cato, Jo Daniell, John Delacour, Peter Elliston, Joyce Evans, Chantel Faust, Susan Fereday, Anthony Figallo, George Gittoes, John Gollings, Graeme Hare, Melinda Harper, Paul Knight, Peter Lambropoulos, Bruno Leti, Anne MacDonald, David Moore, Grant Mudford, Harry Nankin, Ewa Narkiewicz, John Nixon, Rose Nolan, Jozef Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski, Robert Owen, Wes Placek, Susan Purdy, Scott Redford, Jacky Redgate, Wolfgang Sievers, David Stephenson, Mark Strizic and Rick Wood.

An Australian abstract tradition?

In his A Secret History of Australian Art (2002) Rex Butler says that no account of abstract painting in Australia has yet been attempted. He says:

the moment for  the acutalizationj of this history has always been forestalled or disavowed. The pioneering constructivists (Balson Crowley, Hinder) were at the time ignored ... the so-called father of Australiaan art history Bernard Smith argued in the first edition of Australian painting that a 'truly non-figurative constructive tradition cannot be said to hacve existed prior to 1965'. The well-known and much discussed 'The Field' exhibition was largely passed over at the time, and was soon to be  superseded  by the conceptual art and happenings of the 1970s and the pop-based and neo-expressionist styles of the 1980s.

Butler adds that even today  a generation of museum curators abd critics remain largely unaware of the abstract tradition in Australia, preferring to see the work of the local practitioners in terms of more recent concerns or as deriving from overseas.

We do have the 1998 Geometric Painting in Australia 1941-1997 shown at the University Art Museum, University of Queensland, Brisbane. This exhibiton was premised on the curator's exclusion of paintings that derive their inspiration not from the medium of painting, but from something external to it. David Pestorious, the curator,  limited the exhibition to paintings that were about the materials of painting itself---colour, shape, form--- and it was concerned to explore the internal development of these cut off from all outside influences.

It was an attempt by Australian modernists to define painting's own specificity by excluding all that was not proper to the medium. This is about flatness, purity and aesthetic autonomy.