Elena Kostenko – Elena Kostenko

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Digitized and degraded paintings. I sacrificed imitation in favour of immensity…

 

 

Dependence

Dependence began as a series of small-scale sculptures, produced during the first years after my relocation to France. These sculptures are made of tin, local clay and earth samples and other organic materials, which had been collected in 2010-2020 from different locations around the World.  Each element of the sculpture is shaped by hand and carries human imprints. That intimate engagement with the materials give rise to a certain tension – my strive to integrate and develop the roots as well as the impossibility to erase the past experiences.

elena kostenko
Dependence, tin made in France, mixed local clay and earth samples from different locations, 20×18 cm, 2021
Laurel wreath
Dependence, tin wire made in Holland, Laurel leaves from Bretagne, France, 32×38 cm,  2021
Dependence, tin from melted domestic items of unknown origin, mixed Limoges Gzhel porcelain, 15×16 cm, 2021

 

Les Parleurs

Les Parleurse is a series of sculptures made of fried black clay and tin. It came as a response to the intangible nature of Social Media, which today functions as a storage for personal and collective experiences and memories.  Being an active participant in that immaterial reality, especially during the pandemic, I had an urge to produce tangible artefacts of our days from the most ancient materials, such as clay and tin.

les Parleurs
From “Les Parleurs”, Black Clay, tin, sizes vary, 2021

towards post-portraiture

…northern light slightly touching the warm skin, our conversation floating on the surface and gradually dissolving in silence. Only the shutter of my mechanical camera disturbs it now and then. It is a demanding process of extracting meanings from chaotic reality and shaping it into physical artefacts of that moment …

towards Post-portraiture, sequence of 3 analogue photos, mat paper, 10×15 cm each piece, 2019

towards Post-portraiture, analogue photo, mat paper, 10×18 cm, 2019

towards Post-portraiture, analogue photo, mat paper, 9,5×16 cm, 2019

 

 

 

 

MOCT magazine

MOCT was developed within my graduation project ( 2011, MPGU, Russia), as a response to a lack of exposure to contemporary art among broad audiences, especially those who were related to the art education system. The project aimed to highlight the masterpieces from established Western and American museums with a possibility for further exploration via digital sources. 4 issues were released over one year, including a sub-project GENERATOR, which included some young Russian contemporary artists.

link to the project: http://moctmag.net/

(can be screened on a desktop/laptop, or downloaded here

MOCT #1

 

МОСТ #2

 

MOCT #3

 

MOCT #4

 

 

towards Post-scapes

 (scroll  down to see the description)

 

towards Post-scapes, analogue photo, mat paper, 20×30 cm, 2018

 

towards Post-scapes, analogue photo, mat paper, 20×30 cm, 2019

 

In my solitude, Bretagne, France, digitized film, size varies, 2016

 

In my solitude, Canton, China, digitized film, size varies, 2019

 

towards Post-scapes, analogue photo, mat paper, 20×30 cm, 2019

 

towards Post-scapes, analogue photo, mat paper, 20×30 cm, 2019

 

towards Post-scapes, analogue photo, mat paper, 20×30 cm, 2019

 

Metaphorical Glitch: Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene in the perspective of Media Studies

 

The smooth and pale skin of Mary in Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene (Fig.1) is partly covered with coarse clothes, and her transparent tears run off her face, which is raised to the sky in prayer. In the background, there are dark, rough rocks and an infinitely dramatic landscape. One step closer and the experience of this painting changes: the central elements of the composition convey even more detailed features and textures, whereas the rest of the canvas exposes the medium of painting and makes visible the physical engagement of the artist. Art History offers an extensive scholarship about Titian’s painting technique. His contemporaries discussed his works and defined his artistic. For example, Giorgio Vasari, writer of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550, 1568) coins Titian as one of the greatest artists of his time, comparing Titian with Michelangelo. In the 16th-18th century, the Venetian school and Titian’s technique: the virtuosity of his brushstrokes, the colour and compositional choices, influenced the development of British painting. The first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Joshua Reynolds visited Venice in the 1750s and his study of the masterpieces noted the sublimity and the dramatic qualities of Titian’s paintings.[1] The British painter and printmaker William Blake (1757- 1827) also wrote:  “Broken Colours & Broken Lines & Broken masses are Equally Subversive of the Sublime.”[2] Blake found that despite the greatness of Titian’s colours, the painting technique is lacking some attention to the drawing.[3]

Fig. 1. Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)  Repentant Mary Magdalene, 1560’s, oil on canvas, The State Hermitage Museum, Russia, 
URL: https://www.hermitagemuseum.org

In this essay, I will take a step beyond the chronological boundaries of Art History and discuss Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene from the perspective of Digital Media. In doing so, I aim to provide new interpretations of Titian’s practice and demonstrate its relevance today in the age of abundant digital technologies. I will approach painting as a source of information and consider the differences between fine and rough brushstrokes, examining Titian’s use of painterly technique and the experience he seeks to transmit to the viewer through such techniques. In order to bridge the chronological gap between today and the Early Modern period, I will study and draw parallels with ‘Three walking ladies‘.[6] Fig.2 by contemporary artist Vladimir Potapov (1980) and Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene.  The main focus of this comparison is to trace the artistic strategy of representing reality whilst simultaneously manifesting the material qualities of painting. The first chapter is devoted to a theoretical overview of the concept of glitch and how the application of the term has shifted from the technological realm to different media within the field of visual art. By establishing an overview of the existing discourse, I will discuss the exchange of the term and its operation outside of the technological context. Each aforementioned painting will be described with a focus on its respective material and pictorial qualities. These descriptions will also touch upon the historical and cultural contexts in which the works were created. 

Fig.2. Vladimir Potapov, ‘Three walking Ladies’, 2015, acrylic enamel on plywood, Private collection, image source: https://www.potapovvv.com/

 

Metaphorical meaning of glitch

During the 1940s-1950s, the term glitch was commonly used as a slang word, used by the radio and TV broadcasting companies in the United States. It referred to a mispronounced word or a technical interruption, perceivable by audiences.[7] In 1962, John Glenn, the first American astronaut, described the term in his essay, Into Orbit, as a simultaneous malfunction caused by a change of voltage in an electrical system.[8] Today, Glenn’s description frequently appears in academic writings in interlinked fields, such as Media and Cultural Studies, Social theory, Art theory and Aesthetics; however, its definition has become broader. In this chapter, I will trace the expansion of the term from its initial meaning to a more metaphorical one and will discuss its characteristics beyond the technical context. Alexander Galloway was one of the first scholars to reflect upon the creative applications of technical errors. In his PhD dissertation, “Protocol, or, how control exists after decentralization” (2001), Galloway describes glitch as existing beyond the normal functionality of data flow.[9] Galloway regards the artistic outcome of such practice as having marginalized features: it goes against the mainstream culture by employing alternative methods of engaging with technologies; due to this, it carries its own specific aesthetic language, which involves corrupted data.[10] Furthermore, scholars, such Michael Betancourt, Mark Nunas, Olga Goriunova, Elvira Zhagun, among others, discuss the ideological dimension of glitch, regarding such artistic interactions with errors as being a reflection upon social and cultural structures in network societies.[11] Zhagun clarifies that in our age of digital technologies, defined by increased performability, standardisation, medium transparency and high resolution of photo- and video imagery, there is less room left for variability. Artists, therefore, engage with errors in order to put forward critical reflections on how precise algorithms regulate society. Moreover, through manipulating codes, artists find new meanings for images discarded by standardized systems. Such images, despite their corruption, contain recognizable fragments of reality and make the medium visible to a viewer.[12] In this regard, a metaphorical glitch in visual art can be defined as a perceivable loss of information, which offers a new aesthetic language, which typically incorporates and often juxtaposes the reality represented with its carrier. Furthermore, artists who engage with glitches strive to escape the banality of mainstream cultural structures, to break the established logic and to reflect upon the status quo. It is noteworthy that since the 1970s technical malfunctions and errors have been an important part of the experimental practice of visual and sonic artists. Paul Panhuysen, Kim Cascone, and Christian Marclay, among others, were engaged with technologies in an alternative way; for example, reconsidering the functionality of devices and exploring new aesthetic opportunities. Later, with the development of digital culture, glitch exited the technical realm and became common in mass culture, appearing in domestic design and visual art.[13] One example is that of the Italian designer Ferruccio Laviani (1960), who is known for his finely crafted glitch furniture made of massive wood. Fig. 3. Gerhard Richter (1932) created pixelated stained glass windows for the south transept of the Cologne Cathedral. Fig. 4  Wim Delvoye (1965) translated software processed images of real objects into sculptures made of cast iron. Fig.5 Although these examples have a visible connection to digital technologies, considering glitch in its metaphorical meaning can also be traced in traditional media, such as painting.  In the next chapter, I will take a close look at the painting ‘Three walking ladies’  by the contemporary artist Vladimir Potapov and discuss what place metaphorical glitch takes in his artistic strategy.

Fig. 3. Ferruccio Laviani, from the project “Good Vibrations”, image source: https://www.laviani.com/good-vibrations
Fig. 4. Gerhard Richter, Cologne Cathedral windows, 2007, 2300 x 900 cm, Genuine antique glass, mouth-blown, Catalogue Raisonné: 900, Cologne, Germany. Image source: https://www.gerhard-richter.com


Fig. 5. Wim Delvoye, Le Secret ( clockwise), 2011, Polished bronze ( unvarnished), 50x50x116 cm. Image source: https://wimdelvoye.be/

Potapov’s ‘Three walking ladies’

 

Vladimir Potapov was born in 1980 in Volgograd, Russia, and is currently based in Moscow. In an interview, he mentions that he did not follow the traditional path towards becoming a painter, whereby the prospective artist gains realistic painting and drawing skills during five years of formal study. After spending a year at the Volgograd State Institute of Arts, he took private classes from a local, self-taught artist, Boris Mackhov (1937-2014), who had exceptional painting skills. Potapov continued his education at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Culture in Moscow and the Open School MediaArtLab. Although these two institutions are not formal art education institutions, they nevertheless facilitated Potapov’s entrance into the contemporary art scene in Moscow. Potapov is a frequent participant of national and international contemporary art exhibitions, including Russian Art Week and the Curitiba International Biennale of Contemporary Art (Brazil); furthermore, his are in the collections of Moscow Museum of Modern Art (Russia), Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow, Russia), amongst others. Apart from his extensive artistic practice, Potapov is also known for his research project Ne vos’mis (Don’t even try), in which the artist interviews key figures in Russia’s contemporary art scene, in an effort to locate the essence of painting. In this chapter, I will examine one of his works, Three walking ladies (2015) and will, by considering the aforementioned definition of metaphoric glitch,  contextualize his artistic strategy.

Three walking ladies (2015) depicts three young female figures in an urban environment. They are positioned close to one another, and the positions of their heads and posture give the impression that they are having a conversation. Due to the specificity of the painterly technique it is difficult to perceive their facial features; however, the high contrast between the shadows and light that fall upon on their faces emphasises their emotive expressions, showing a moment of joy. The background of the painting is reminiscent of a typical (post-)Soviet city with low concrete-panel apartment buildings, known as khrushchyovka. 

The composition of the painting, the posture of the figures, and the colour characteristics suggest photographic source material. The relation between the painting’s figurative elements are similar to those of a camera’s snapshot. British art theorethist E.A. Gombrich (1909 – 2001) describes such a quality as an arrested moment.[14] According to Gombrich, the technical capacity of the camera allows it to capture a moment that the human eye is not able to trace. Such a fragment of reality or an arrested moment allows one to depict more than what a human can perceive.[15] In Three walking ladies, that arrested moment is present in the frozen movements of the figures, which are captured in action. 

In the production of a photograph, the processing of the image within the frame does not depend upon what a human considers important or what he is capable of seeing; it is rather based on the photo-chemical reaction and the camera optics that allow the passage of light. It appears that the color characteristics of Three walking ladies, namely their intensity, tune and the relation between light and darkness, have a photographic origin. This can be detected by dark parts of the painting, which are not distinct from the depiction of shadows. For example, the ladies’ faces, their dresses, the ground on which they are walking, and the buildings in the background have the same colours and intensity, which is typical for photography. The same can be observed with the illuminated parts of the painting.

The French philosopher Roland Barthes (1915 -1980) states in his book Camera Lucida that the photograph is not separate from its referent and the depiction of an object is perceived equal to the object itself.[16] Roland Barthes continues: “Whatever it grants to vision, and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it what we see.”[17] It appears that Potapov is aware of these properties and incorporates them into his practice. Although the photographic nature of Three walking ladies is recognizable, Vladimir Potapov strives to move away from a photorealistic representation of reality. He literally breaks the painting’s surface and makes the carrier and the medium visible. The artist explains that he chooses plywood, which is made of multiple layers, and applies 15-16 coatings of different colours of acrylic enamel. After the paint dries he utilizes a sharp chisel to cut, both purposefully and accidentally, through these layers in a way that the friable wooden texture with its splinters and chips become visible to the viewer. Such physical interaction and manipulation creates some wounds that appear accidental.[18]

The previous chapter provided a definition of metaphorical glitch, in which the artist breaks the illusion of a perfect reality and emphasizes the material aspect of an artwork. Potapov’s strategy appears to be similar: he paints a photorealistic image, employing something which an eye preconditioned by mass culture would find realistic, yet simultaneously he destroys the carrier of the information, thereby rendering the materiality of the carrier especially visible. The recognizable fragments of reality in the painting, the scratches and the chips all become equally integral parts of the viewer’s experience. 

Considering the reactive nature of metaphorical glitch, through which artists reflect upon established mainstream culture, it is important to understand the response of Potapov to the environment in which he operates. In his lecture Zhivopis’: revizija, novye osnovy (Painting, its revision and new basis) he states that, “today in the age of digital technologies, standardisation, industrial production and the increase of digitalization, craftsmanship of painting appears to have a particular meaning. The first factories were completely dependent upon manual labor, and it remained this way for more than 100 years. Nowadays, the industry aims at excluding humans from the process. Earlier the industrial production required extensive collective labor, while today it is all operated by machines. Total automatisation and computerisation exclude the involvement of hands. The same counts for visual art, which strives to follow the most efficient and optimized way of artistic expression. Painting does not comply with those tendencies as an outdated and to some extent complicated medium. Therefore, contemporary painters are rather outsiders, who deny more successful strategies. However, painting is one of the oldest and most innate ways of human creative expression and can be compared with singing or dancing, thus it will remain an integral part of human existence.”[19]  

It appears that, for Potapov, to engage with paint and to work with such a conservative medium means to critically respond to the current state of affairs, namely the position of painting in contemporary art. He explores the aesthetic capacity of fractured images and makes materiality visible for the audiences. This analysis of Three walking ladies has shown that metaphorical glitch can be located outside of the technological realm. This raises the question to what extent the aforementioned characteristics of metaphorical glitch can be present in an artwork from different periods of history. In the next chapter, I will examine Repentant Mary Magdalene, the work by Titian, who was described by his contemporary Giorgio Vasari as one of “the most excellent painters” of his time.

 

 

Repentant Mary Magdalene and Titian’s artistic strategy

As was previously discussed, metaphorical glitch can exist beyond the technological realm. Taking into account that information loss can be a purposeful part of the aesthetic experience in figurative painting, this chapter will examine The Penitent Magdalene, a work by Titian, and the context in which Titan created his masterpieces. 

Titian painted The Penitent Magdalene in the 1560s. The work was stored in his house in Venice until his death in 1576. In 1850 it was acquired by The State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, as a part of the Cristoforo Barbarigo collection.[20] This artwork depicts a Biblical story, which was in high demand at that time, whereby the artist brings together two considerations of female beauty. Its attributes were supposed to be simultaneous chastity and sensuality.[21] 

Upon close inspection, one can see that the face of Мagdalene and the uncovered features of her body, such as the neck, chest and her hands, are represented with such high precision and realism that when stood only a short distance from the painting’s surface one can still clearly perceive the texture of her skin and the clarity of her tears. Magdalene’s face and chest, covered by her arms, are central elements in the composition of the painting. Here, the brushwork is not traceable. Thus, the artist has rendered the medium transparent or invisible. In contrast, Magdalene’s face and her body, the painting’s most illuminated areas, are framed with rough brushstrokes. These brushstrokes represent various textures: glass, paper and some other materials, with each of them painted in a different way, thereby emphasizing their material characteristics. For example, upon close examination, Magdalene’s clothing in the lower part of the work appears to be light and soft; it is depicted with translucent paint and the texture of the canvas is visible. Also, the glass ewer is ‘sculpted’ with a thick layer of white pigment, which is sticking out from the surface of the painting and emphasises its hardness and its transparency. Titian achieves the work’s visual effect by contrasting his fine brushstrokes, where the medium is completely dissolved by the depicted bits of reality, with rough brushwork, in which we can trace each movement of his hand and the irregular texture of the canvas. He combines a highly detailed depiction with abstract gestures that carry reduced information. On the level of observation, this feature of the work, as well as the materiality visible to the audience, can be considered as one of the aforementioned characteristics of a metaphorical glitch. However, art history scholarship approaches Titian’s technique differently. The scholar Christopher J.Nygren mentions, in his article “Titian’s “Ecce Homo” on Slate: Stone, Oil, and the Transubstantiation of Painting”, with the references to extensive scholarship, the importance of the canvas’ materiality and the tactility of brushstrokes in the picture-making process in Titian’s practice after the 1540s. He states, that “…by the middle of the sixteenth century Titian had begun exploiting the striated surface of the roughly woven canvas to great pictorial effect; canvas veiled with scumbled paint produced a surface analogous to the flesh.”[22] Furthermore, Christopher J.Nygren sees differences in how Titian tackles different surfaces, such as canvas and stone, and how the artist adjusts his painterly technique, the quality of the brushstrokes and the way of handling pigment.[23] Such an artistic approach does not separate the represented matter from its carrier, despite the fact that the texture of the canvas is visible to the viewer. The same is noted by British scholar Tom Nichols: “The expressive life of the surface becomes part of the experience of the picture, the process by which the painting comes to carry meaning is partially revealed.”[24] In this regard, that realistic representation in Titian’s work is not limited to the fine brushstrokes and medium transparency but incorporates a variety of material textures. 

In the contemporary example discussed in the previous chapter, the artist voluntarily destroys the photorealistic depiction of reality, whereas Titian explores the expressive and aesthetic potentials of the material, deviating from the imitation of nature. Tom Nichols sees in that deviation a response to the cultural and intellectual climate in which the artist created his masterpieces. Although Vasari regards Titian as the greatest Venitian artist, according to Nichols Titian was separated from the Venitian artistic circle. He did not receive the same recognition as his contemporary Michelangelo’s in Florence was. He did not have an extensive workshop with pupils to pass on his skills to the younger generation, and his artistic approach did not fit into the established local canons. Giovanni Bellini (1430-1513) and Giorgione (1470s-1510) contributed to the Venitian canon, and Titian, who at the beginning of his artistic career was highly influenced by these masters, later prioritized his independence and self-expression over the family operating workshops.[25] 

Such an outsider’s position is similar to what Vladimir Potapov discussed about the status of painting in the contemporary art world. For an artist, to break with the established tradition is also an escape from its banality. Furthermore, it is a matter of audience expectations and what they anticipate of their experience of art, as well as how the artist acknowledges and responds to these expectations in his practice. 

There is extensive documentation of the responses expressed by Titian’s contemporaries on his technique.  For example, Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists reflects on the painting method in the period between 1550-1560 and implicitly describes the expectations of the audience: “. . . these last works are executed with bold, sweeping strokes, and in patches of colour, with the result that they cannot be viewed from nearby, but appear perfect at a distance.” Another of Titian’s contemporary,  Antonio Perez, a Spanish statesman and secretary to King Philip II of Spain, wrote in his private correspondence as follows:  

“One day the ambassador Francisco de Vargas asked [Titian] why he had turned to that style of painting… with broad brushstrokes, almost like careless splotches…. and not with the sweetness of the brushwork of the great painters of his time; Titian responded: ‘Sir, I wasn’t sure that I could succeed at the delicacy and beauty of the brushwork of Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio and Parmigianino, and even if I were to succeed, I would be considered less than they, or considered their imitator.”[26] 

It appears that Titian resisted the established and recognized method of artistic production, in which painting remained to be a transparent medium per the use of smooth brushstrokes. As Vasari, the ambassador Francisco de Vargas associated such smooth technique with extensive efforts. Titian, however, demonstrates to them an alternative way of engaging with the medium and makes apparent that the result of such an approach also carries an expressive power. Furthermore, Titian’s artistic approach was a response to the established tradition of painting. He escapes the banality of the artistic expression and explores the aesthetic potential of the medium by acknowledging its material properties.  In this regard, Titian’s practice in large extent is similar to the practice of contemporary artists who embrace errors, malfunctions and unexpected breaks in the established logic.

 

Conclusion:

In this paper, I have provided analyses of two artworks that, despite having been produced in distinct time periods and socio-cultural contexts, bear an alikeness in terms of how the respective artists have approached the medium. Through these analyses, it has been possible to situate Titian’s  Repentant Mary Magdalene  in relation to contemporary Digital Media.

In the first chapter, I provided a review of the existing discourse surrounding the concept of glitch. I first contextualised the historical emergence of the term, and then addressed the application of the concept as an artistic strategy in the field of digital arts. Drawing on this foundation, I proposed an expanded application of this concept, namely the metaphoric glitch. The metaphoric glitch can be understood as a strategy that applies not only to how the artist approaches the materiality and aesthetic properties of his medium, but equally how he responds to the established traditions and expectations that pertain to that very medium and the art experience in general. The metaphoric glitch sees the medium subverted, as much materially as culturally, whereby the subversion is detectable in both the work’s narrative and material content.

In the second and third chapters, I reviewed Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene (1560s) and Potapov’s Three walking ladies (2015). These analyses entailed a description of the aesthetic and material qualities of the respective works, in addition to further contextualisation with secondary and primary sources. In the case of Potapov, only primary sources were used, namely interviews, due to a lack of secondary sources.

By drawing a comparison between the works of Titian and VladimirPotapov, whose works have been produced almost five hundred years apart, I have demonstrated that the defining properties of the metaphoric glitch can be traced in artistic traditions long before the advanced digital technologies. Glitch is therefore not an exclusively digital concept, and the painting of Titian can be potentially understood as a forerunner of artistic strategies that we today associate with Digital Media.

The practice of painting has been and yet still remains a sustained discipline in the world of art, just as Vladimir Potapov elaborates in his research. Though we live in a digital age that necessarily has implications on contemporary artistic discourse, the discipline and materiality of painting yet still holds a place within such discourse, on account of how overlaps between digital and analogue strategies can be detected in painting practices.

 

Bibliography

[1] Mannings, David. “Reynolds in Venice.” The Burlington Magazine 148, no. 1244 (2006): 754-63., p. 757

[2], [3] Lee, Eric McCauley. “”Titanus Redivivus”: Titian in British Art Theory, Criticism, and Practice, 1768-1830.” Order No. 9731056, Yale University, 1997., p. 296-297

[4] Wood, Jeremy. Rubens: Copies and Adaptations from Renaissance and Later Artists: Italian Artists. II: Titian and North Italian Art. Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard; Pt. 26,2. London [etc.]: Harvey Miller, 2010., p. 25-27

[5] Nygren, Christopher J. “Titian’s Ecce Homo on Slate: Stone, Oil, and the Transubstantiation of Painting.” The Art Bulletin (New York, N.Y.) 99, no. 1 (2017): 36-66., p. 3

[6]  Initially the work has no title, with the permission of the artists, in this paper I named it as ‘tree walking ladies’.

[7] Zimmer, Ben. “The Hidden History of “Glitch.”, URL:www.visualthesaurus.com

[8] Glenn, Carpenter, Dill, Glenn, John, Carpenter, Scott, and Dill, John. Into Orbit. London, 1962., p. 60

[9], [10] Galloway, Alexander, “Protocol, Or, How Control Exists after Decentralization”, PhD diss., Duke University, 2001.

[11] Nunes, Mark. Error: Glitch, Noise, and Jam in New Media Cultures. New York: Continuum, 2011., p. 4

[12] Elvira Zhagun, “Glitch art – Aesthetics of the Error” YouTube Video, 1:14:53, URL: https://youtu.be/5-5vNcIw1oU

[13] Moradi, Iman. “Glitch Aesthetics.” BA [Hons], diss., The University of Huddersfield, 2004., URL:http://oculasm.org/glitch

[14] Gombrich, E. H. . Standards of Truth: The Arrested Image and the Moving Eye. Critical Inquiry, 7(2), 1980, p.237

[15] Ibid., p. 238-239

[16], [17] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida.New York: Hill and Wang, 1981., p. 5-6

[18] “Хроники изоляции. Мастерская Владимира Потапова. 5.04.2020” URL:https://youtu.be/rzHaRKd0b2I

[19] “Лекция “Живопись: ревизия, новые основы”, Владимир Потапов, ЦСИ “Типография” (Краснодар)” YouTube Video, 1:07:12, Accessed on 19.01.2022, URL: https://youtu.be/5RUjPbilTZ0

[20] The State Hermitage Museum, URL: https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/

[21] Phillips, Claude. The Later Works of Titian. 2007., URL: www.gutenberg.org/files/12657/12657-h/12657-h.htm

[22] Nygren, Christopher J. “Titian’s Ecce Homo on Slate: Stone, Oil, and the Transubstantiation of Painting.” The Art Bulletin (New York, N.Y.) 99, no. 1 (2017)., p. 19

[23] Nygren, Christopher J. “Titian’s Ecce Homo on Slate: Stone, Oil, and the Transubstantiation of Painting.” The Art Bulletin (New York, N.Y.) 99, no. 1 (2017)., p. 36

[24] Nichols, Tom. Titian and the End of the Venetian Renaissance. London: Reaktion Books, 2013., p. 9

[25] Ibid., p. 20, 25

[26] McKim- Smith G., Andersen-Bergdoll G. and Newman R., Examining Velázquez New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988., p. 24

 

The other side

This film is about a state in which experiences collide with imagination.

The layers of memories, internal dialogues, received statements merge into one dense flow and come as a whole visual and audial imprint.

15.03.20 ( with N. o. H. collective)

15 03 20 is the first publication of Notes on Hapticity Collective, published in October 2020 by PrintRoom, Rotterdam.

“This limited edition, riso-printed booklet reflects on the notion of the ‘haptic encounter’ — the permeative force of touch, as much physically as poetically — a subject that is both extremely relevant yet ever more alien. The booklets contents were developed whilst each contributor was experiencing the first ‘lockdown’ period in different countries — The Netherlands, France, Germany, Greece and the UK. It features artistic contributions from Hannah Dawn Henderson, Karolina Rupp, Elena Kostenko, Kees van Leeuwen, Grigoris Rizakis and Tomasz Skibicki, as well as two essays by Yindi Chen and Alexandre Richardeau. It was designed by Hannah Dawn Henderson and Cengiz Mengüç. The booklet can be ordered via N. o. H. website”

 

Towards a Forward is an exhibition associated with a launch of the first N.o.H. publication titled 15 03 20,

generously supported by Rotterdam’s Print Room.

Link to virtual tour

 

Between the decisive moment and a snapshot in Sepuya’s Dark Room (_2070386)

In this essay, I will seek to examine the works of contemporary photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya. I will elaborate on the conceptual and aesthetic components in his photographs, with an attentive review of their careful execution of the ‘metapictorial’ experience. So as to provide ample insight into Sepuya’s works, I will preface the analysis by first relaying a biographical assessment of Sepuya’s career to date, followed by an overview of the metapictorial concept, drawing on existing theoretical sources. Reflecting on the criteria outlined by such sources, I hope to generate a coherent analysis that concisely identifies the material strategies through which Sepuya stimulates concurrent exertions of self-referentiality, as much in the photograph as in the spectator and the artist himself.

In addition, I will address the significance of time as a defining component in not only the work’s production but also, just as prominently, the resulting content within the photograph itself. Again, this will be facilitated by the mediation and review of existing scholarly materials. The timely component reinforces the work’s status as metapictorial, hence the necessity to acutely examine it within the framework of this essay. In this vein, Sepuya’s sensibilities towards time enact a paradoxical interplay between the artist’s intentions, the logistical processes required to produce the imagery, and his agency in moderating that imagery prior to the spectator encounter with it.

 

Paul Mpagi Sepuya and his artistic practice

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, born 1982, is an American artist, based in Los Angeles, known predominantly for his series of studio nude portraits. Sepuya received his art education at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, acquiring his bachelors of fine art in 2004. Subsequently, he received his masters at the University of California in 2016. His photographs have been featured in exhibitions on both a national and international scale, including venues in Chicago, New York, Berlin, Paris, Toronto; further, his photographs are included in the permanent collections of museums such as the Guggenheim Museum (New York, US), Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, US) Arish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin, Ireland). [1] Besides an extensive array of museum and gallery exhibitions, his works and interviews have been published in multiple arts and cultural magazines, including Art in America, Flash Art International Magazine, ArtReview and ArtForum. [2] In many of these publications, Sepuya’s photography has been presented as an extension of the existing traditions of studio portraiture, in which he invites the audience into the otherwise private sphere of the artist’s atelier. This space can be understood as the site of production, the place where the object of spectacle is conceived, yet conversely, this site is rarely accessible to art spectators. However, by rendering this space as a defining component in his photographs, Sepuya enables his spectators to witness the creative process.[3] Essentially, the spectator is allowed to exert an almost voyeuristic gaze. Indeed, Sepuya’s models typically pertain to a circle of close friends, lovers, collaborators and other interlocutors in the domains of his professional and personal life. Moreover, Sepuya’s portrait photographs often contain scenographic elements that resonant with the work environment and production process, particularly in the form of details that would be conventionally cropped or hidden from the audience: tripods, holding drapery pegs and wooden constructions etc. ( Fig.1 )

Fig. 1. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (_2070386), 2017. archival pigment print. Image source: www.artforum.co

Paul Mpagi Sepuya has described in one of his earlier interviews that his works seek to iterate the relationship between the photographed person, himself as a photographer and the camera. The role of the camera apparatus can be equated to the role of a mediator, enabling the resolution of the complexity of this interwoven threads of relationality between subject and artist.[4] In his “Mirror Study” (2016- 2017) series he achieves such a trinity by being present in these photographs and by incorporating mirrors, generating a doubling effect that evokes well known photographic semiotics concerned with portraiture. As he personally delineates, for Sepuya the use of mirrors has a long history: in early photography, nude women were often photographed with a mirror so that the viewer could appreciate the beauty of the body from different angles.[5] In his works, the function of the mirror has a much more substantial significance than merely a visual trick to amplify beauty. Beyond this, Sepuya’s inclusion of mirrors serve both a material and conceptual function; they allow one to see multiple sides of his studio, yet further the reflections break the pictorial space, creating multi-layered collage-like compositions with fragments of the model’s and the artist’s bodies, juxtaposed with the hard fractures imposed by the mirrors. Sepuya’s “Mirror Study” departs from the traditional artist-model dynamic, whereby the latter is typically rendered as an object lacking any agency or mutual relationality between herself and the spectator. Quite the opposite, Sepuya brings to the forefront the choreography of the intimate relationship and employs this tactile, affective sensibility as a strategy of insisting on the subjecthood of those depicted.

As David Velasco has described in his article Project: Paul Mpagi Sepuya, photographic space for Sepuya is a craft of negotiating light in the dark.[6] The article is devoted to the recent project  “Darkroom Mirror”, a series of studio photographs of the artist, his models and the camera against a deep dark background made from a mirror reflection. This series, as in Sepuya’s previous project “Mirror Study”, also presents the choreographic interplay between the artist, a model and a camera, yet further enunciated and emphasized by the enclosing, dark drapery. Visually, the dark velvet drapery increases the contrast between the illuminated sides of the body whilst simultaneously softening and dissolving those parts that are sunken beneath shadowy, low lighting. This is observable in Sepuya’s Darkroom Mirror (0X5A9530), ( Fig. 2 ) which portrays two males, the artist himself and a model, holding the camera in front of their faces. The side of Sepuya’s torso that is exposed to the light appears to be even more outspoken, being against the dark background, whereas in the shadows the body gently disappears.

Fig.2. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, A Ground (0X5A1495), 2018., archival pigment print. Image source: www.documentspace.com

Sepuya’s “craft of negotiating light in the dark” is coherent with an older tradition of studio drawings. Many artists, especially during the Renaissance, worked with the interplay between light and darkness. ( Fig. 3.) The way Sepuya deals with the poses of his models or with his own body in self-portraits, in particular the role of the hands in his compositions, also correspond to the Italian Renaissance canon. For instance, Sepuya’s self-portrait Darkroom Mirror Study (_2110109) (Fig. 4.) and a drawing A seated male nude ( Fig. 5.) by Raphael. Both studio studies depict strong male figures from the back. Although the poses are not identical per se, the compositional choices, the emphasis on the body’s silhouette and the theatricality of the hands are similar.

Fig. 3. Pual Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (0X5A9530), 2017.,archival pigment print. Image source: vielmetter.com

 

As aforementioned, it is a recurring motif in many of Sepuya’s works that he depicts himself, whereby it is apparent that he is the photographer, given the presence of his camera. This in turn changes the relationship between the artist, the art object and the viewer. Such dynamics draw upon an extensive tradition and have been associated with the concept of metapicture. In the next chapter, I will delineate the metapicture concept, after which I will pursue an analysis of Sepuya’s photograph “Dark Room (_2070386) in dialogue with the theoretical premise of the metapicture.

 

Fig. 4. Raphael, The Prophets Hosea and Jonah, 1510, w20 x h26.2 cm, pen and brown ink with brown wash over black chalk, heightened with white and squared for transfer on laid paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC., image source: https://g.co/arts/DE93uVY5GfKVTRN4A

 

Fig.5. P. Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror Study, 2018., image source: www.parisphoto.com/Paul-Mpagi-Sepuya

 

 

The metapictorial Darkroom Study (_2070386)

In order to understand the metapictorial in Sepuya’s Darkroom Study (_2070386), I will initially define the metapictorial criteria by reflecting upon two complementary articles, retrospectively:  The meta as an aesthetic category by Bruno Trentini and What is Metapainting? The Self-Aware Image Twenty Years Later by Lorenzo Pericolo. Afterwards, I will introduce Darkroom Study (_2070386). Essentially, by applying these criteria I hope to demonstrate its metapictorial properties.

What is metapicture?

Lorenzo Pericolo, in his article What is Metapainting? The Self-Aware Image Twenty Years Later, defines the metapictorial [8] as: “…the whole gamut of pictorial devices through which painting stages its fictiveness.”[9] He continues by describing the range of strategies through which this premise may be artistically materialised: “Painting achieves this goal by different means: by partially uncovering its materiality; by hinting at, depicting, or putting on view its maker or making; by involving the beholder as an active or even indispensable component of the image; by incorporating a painting—or an image with an equivalent status—as an object of representation.”[10] In other words, a metaphotograph manifests its medium through a mechanism of self-referentially, acknowledging itself as being a photograph; thus, it may depict the artist in the process of its creation or otherwise have the effect of “mise en abyme”, in which the image depicts another image. These elements of the metapictorial, namely, self-referential qualities, along with the presence of the artist and concentric framing inside the frame can all be considered as criteria with which one can identify and demonstrate the metaphotographic properties of Darkroom Study (_2070386). 

Bruno Trentini, in his concept of metapicture, also described “mise en abyme” or a frame inside the frame; however, the role and affective response of the viewer in their engagement with work is, for him, central in understanding the conditions of the metapictorial. In his article The meta as an aesthetic category, Trentini states: “In order to realise the strangeness of the picture described as a metapicture, spectators have to distance themselves from their perceptions in order to collect these perceptions from the inside.”[11] Here, Trentini appears to reference the capacity of such imagery to evoke sentiments of disorientation, which in turn provokes the spectator to reevaluate what it is that they have encountered and are perceiving in the work. The spectator’s urge to comprehend the image, coherently and unfettered by this uncanny discomfort, becomes all the more pronounced. Trentini too describes the self-reflective mechanism that is involved in the process of experiencing the metapictorial, though he locates this self-reflectively not only in the production methods of the artist and the content of the resulting artwork, but further he proposes that this exercise of self-awarenesses is provoked in the spectator too, akin to a feedback loop between the artist, the work, and the spectator.[12] Such a mechanism is another important criterion, one that opens up a different perspective with a shift from the properties of a photograph to the cognitive abilities of a viewer. 

About Darkroom Study (_2070386)

Darkroom Study (_2070386) ( Fig. 6.)  is an image that bears the semblance of a portrait, doubled, whilst simultaneously referencing other photographic motifs beyond those typically associated with portraiture. The image resonates of an anatomical study, a formal composition, and a tonal study. The upper limbs of the one figure rest intertwined with the other one though not discernibly female or male. Both have a dark skin complexion. The face of either figure is not visible to the spectator, with the male figure’s concealed behind the camera that has presumably produced the image by shooting the mirror reflection, meanwhile, his accomplice’s head is turned in the opposite direction.

Fig. 6. Raphael, A seated mane nude, c. 1511-14. Charcoal. Ashmolean museum Oxford. Image source: Whistler, C., Gnann A., Aceto, A., Ashmolean Museum, Host Institution. Raphael: The Drawings. 2017.,p.122

 

The metapictorial in Darkroom Study (_2070386) 

What makes Darkroom Study (_2070386) metapicture? In order to answer this question, I will apply the criteria as discussed above. As Lorenzo Pericolo stated, the metapicture has self-referential features and manifests its medium precisely through explicating this referral to its own production. In Darkroom Study (_2070386) such criteria appear to be obvious: on the one hand, the photograph refers to a double portrait, and on the other hand, the faces are hidden and cannot be identified, the figures are cropped seemingly for the sake of a stronger visual appeal and artistic framing; thus, the photograph’s value is more aesthetic than documentational.

The photograph has been produced with the help of the mirror. In fact, it’s entire creation is predicated on the presence of a reflective surface towards which the camera lens is confronted with the image of itself. To a certain extent, this mirror could be considered as a transparent frame. That transparency is determined by the relation of the size of the mirror with the size of photographic frame. Such framing references the ideas of Trentini and Pericolo about “mise en abyme”; however the transparency of one of the frames evokes a more complex mechanism or interaction with the image. 

On the one hand, Darkroom Study (_2070386) offers a contemplative aesthetic experience in which the spectator’s gaze is kept within the photographic space. On the other hand, the presence of the camera stimulates analytic studies of the image and thus raises questions about the process of its creation. The latter process forces the spectator to take distance and engage in the self-reflective mechanism. Such a mode of interaction is precisely what is described by Trintini as being the experience of metaimage. Thus, it is certainly justifiable to propose that Darkroom Study (_2070386) can be considered a metapicture, given its self-referential features and, in particular, the deployment of the mirror’s surface, which serves as a paradoxical interlocutor, whereby the frame is transparent yet simultaneously loaded with content.

 

Between the decisive moment and a snapshot in Darkroom Study (_2070386)

Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest in their chapter “Time in Photography” discuss the so-named ‘decisive moment’ and the ‘snapshot’ as the most commonly mentioned characteristics of time.[13] How can these two characteristics be observed in the metapicture Darkroom Study (_2070386)? In order to answer this question, I shall first provide an account of both of these concepts and, subsequently, analyse the timely characteristics legible in the photograph.

    The term “the decisive moment” was coined by a French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, in 1952 when he published the book The Decisive moment, in which he discussed the term and its applicability in reference to his own photographs as material examples.[14] Cartier-Bresson defines the term as: “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”[15] For Cartier- Bresson, photography has the power to document the event and present the most essential moment of the narrative. The photographic image in this regard is a representation of the visual world, as moderated by a photographer. 

Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, writing on the decisive moment, refer to two stages: “one during the photo’s taking and the other during the selection process afterwards.”[16] Paradoxically, these two stages indicate distinct temporalities, with the former being near-instantaneous whereas the latter is a prolonged process of contemplation. Both such temporalities reflect the capacity of the artist to exerts different facets of his agency to construct the narratives abound his surroundings. 

Moreover, both temporalities underpin the reflectivity that, as established, is a requirement of the metapictorial. While, on the one hand, the snapshot insists on a rapid evaluation of the photographer’s surroundings — not least, the photographer’s position in that very environment and his capacity to generate an image from that vantage point — the decisive moment, on the other hand, necessitates the exertion of a certain self-criticality. The photographer must consider what it is that he wishes for the spectator to eventually encounter. Ultimately, both temporalities are ensealed in the final artwork.

Van Gelder and Westgeest also mention the main critique of the concept of the decisive moment; namely, its striving to create a perfect image.[17] Nevertheless, such a critic appears rather broad and does not consider the multiplicity of photographic applications, nor the intentions of an artist.

Sepuya, in an interview, mentioned that although his photographs appear to be spontaneous, all elements presented in these images are carefully chosen and staged. The composition of his Darkroom Study (_2070386) also appears to be carefully constructed: the interrelation between the dark background and the human bodies, the distribution of the light and the central position of the camera indicate the decisions undertaken during the creative production process. The presence of the mirror facilitates this process, operating as a haphazard element that inserts an unpredictable influence on the resulting image. Moreover, the dynamism of the models’ poses, the complexity and contortedness of which limit the extensiveness with which they may be held, insert yet another unstable element in this otherwise hyper-moderated set. These aspects, which enable a mechanism of a chance to unfold, may reduce the highly concentrated phase as described by Van Gelder and Westgeest. This makes the decisive moment more instantaneous and changes the purpose of image creating from being a representation of the event to an object of contemplation.  

Thierry de Duve in his article Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox defines the snapshot as “a theft which steals life.” He continues: “Intended to signify natural movement, it only produces a petrified analogue of it. It shows an unperformed movement that refers to an impossible posture. The paradox is that in reality the movement has indeed been performed, while in the image the posture is frozen.”[18] For De Duve, the snapshot is associated with the indexical nature of the photographic sign, which is incapable of conveying the dynamic nature of reality. Instead, it offers confusing traces of a movement, which clashes with the human experience and ability to perceive the movement.  Upon first glance, Darkroom Study (_2070386) portrays a complex movement with unclear purpose, which could be associated with the idea of an impossible posture as described by De Duve. However, despite the seeming lack of functionality, the posture reveals a considered choreography between the subjects and the camera’s lens; the sharpness of the photograph’s focal length, along with the precision of the moderated lighting, further implies that the scenography of the image has been extensively planned – including the interlocking form of the two figures’ bodies. In this sense, the posture serves an aesthetic purpose – here lies its motivation, its function.

To draw to a conclusion, in this paper I hope to have provided ample clarification of the conceptual significance of the metapictorial in the photographic works of Sepuya. In order to demonstrate the productive and aesthetic means through which his photographs can be identified as possessing metapictorial qualities, I have drawn on criteria proposed by Lorenzo Pericolo and Bruno Trentini. 

Both Pericolo and Trentini propose an overlapping set of criteria; in particular, notions of self-referentiality are key, though Trentini proposes that the locus of this mechanism needn’t lie solely in the work itself. What I hope to have established by examining the work of Sepuya is that these conditions of the metapictorial can concurrently circulate within the work and amidst the spectator’s experience of it, as well as in the artist’s production of the work.

By reflecting on the temporal interplays that are evoked in the production of Sepuya’s work, whereby the rapid pace of precarity and the prolonged process of carefully choreographing the image are intertwined in a single photograph, it has been my intention to further articulate the underlying reflectiveness of Sepuya’s artistic methodology. Again, it is this very awareness — this acute sensibility towards the conditionality of the work’s production, which is in turn relayed to the spectator by means of the self-acknowledging content of the image itself – that defines the work as metapictorial.

To draw to a conclusion, in this paper I hope to have provided ample clarification of the conceptual significance of the metapictorial in the photographic works of Sepuya. In order to demonstrate the productive and aesthetic means through which his photographs can be identified as possessing metapictorial qualities, I have drawn on criteria proposed by Lorenzo Pericolo and Bruno Trentini. 

Both Pericolo and Trentini propose an overlapping set of criteria; in particular, notions of self-referentiality are key, though Trentini proposes that the locus of this mechanism needn’t lie solely in the work itself. What I hope to have established by examining the work of Sepuya is that these conditions of the metapictorial can concurrently circulate within the work and amidst the spectator’s experience of it, as well as in the artist’s production of the work.

By reflecting on the temporal interplays that are evoked in the production of Sepuya’s work, whereby the rapid pace of precarity and the prolonged process of carefully choreographing the image are intertwined in a single photograph, it has been my intention to further articulate the underlying reflectiveness of Sepuya’s artistic methodology. Again, it is this very awareness — this acute sensibility towards the conditionality of the work’s production, which is in turn relayed to the spectator by means of the self-acknowledging content of the image itself – that defines the work as metapictorial. 

 

Sources:

[1] Form the website of the artist  www.paulsepuya.com

[2] www.documentspace.com/artists/paul-mpagi-sepuya/

[3] www.Hyperallergic.com

[4] An interview with artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya, brought to you by pHytonics.net URL: www.youtube.com/watch?v=asByTnsdScU

[5] Ibid.

[6] Velasco, D., www.artforum.com/print/201903/project-paul-mpagi-sepuya-78670

[7] Bambach, Carmen C. Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop : Theory and Practice, 1300-1600. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press, 1999., p. 27

[8] Scholars, who devoted their studies to the concept of metapicture, namely William John Thomas Mitchell and Bruno Trentini use the term metapicture as a synonym of metapainting. Although there could be some differences, in this essay metapicture, metaimage and metaphotograph will be equally utilized.

[9] Pericolo, L. “What is Metapainting? The Self-Aware Image Twenty Years Later,” in Victor Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Metapainting. 1- 31. London: Harvey Miller, 2015., p.12

[10] Ibid.,p. 13

[11] Trentini, Bruno. “The meta as an aesthetic category”, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol.6. 2014.,p. 9.

[12] Ibid., p. 11-13

[13] Van Gelder, Westgeest, and Westgeest, Helen. Photography Theory in Historical Perspective : Case Studies from Contemporary Art. Chichester [etc.]: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.,p.65

[14] Ibid., p. 88

[15] Cartier-Bresson, Henri, The decisive moment (New York: Simon and Schuster in collab. with Éditions Verve de Paris 1952).

[16] Van Gelder, Westgeest, and Westgeest, Helen. Photography Theory in Historical Perspective : Case Studies from Contemporary Art. Chichester [etc.]: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.,p.65

[17] Ibid., p. 90

[18] De Duve, Thierry. “Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox.” October 5 (1978): 113-25.,p.114

 

Other sources:

Claire Selvin “Susanne Wielmetter Los Angeles Projects now present Paul Sepuya – http://www.artnews.com/2019/01/08/susanne-vielmetter-los-angeles-projects-now-represents-paul-mpagi-sepuya/

Liberty, N. Megan., “Paul Mpagi Sepuya Breathes New Life Into the Genre of Studio Portraiture”,www.artnews.com/2019/01/08/susanne-vielmetter-los-angeles-projects-now-represents-paul-mpagi-sepuya/

Schwabsky, Barry. “Playing with MIRRORS.” The Nation 304, no. 16 (2017): 41-44.