The prevalence of large-scale digital printers and the, (in comparison), lower printing costs of large scale images on good quality paper, has seen a rapid rise in drawings on top of photographic imagery. This practice has a particular history; you could trace the combination of drawing and photographic collage back to early cubist collages and the fascinating issue of how artists deal with bits of reality within an image stems from that time.
The issue is one of separation and combination. A piece of collage exists both as a slice or piece of the ‘real’ world and as a formal element within an image. For instance Gris uses actual pieces of material from decorative surfaces, and then integrates drawing onto their surfaces. A mark or line exists as a physical thing made of chalk or graphite or paint, but it also operates as a conceptual idea. For instance a drawn line can represent something else, it operates metaphorically; the artist could draw an image of a beer bottle label as a representation, or the artist could stick a real beer bottle label into the image, in which case it represents itself. It operates as a slice of reality within and amongst a representation of reality. A photograph operates within a similar territory and of course many of our collage materials have photographs embedded within them. Newspapers, magazines, product wrappings and advertising flyers all rely on a photographic ‘texture’ to provide verification for their contents. Rauschenberg was particularly adept at playing with this duality when using image transfer techniques. (see earlier post) He is able to lock his mark making techniques into the way he transfers images, pencil rubbings directly removing print surfaces onto paper, silk screen print applying paint to canvas within a photographic format, the image now made of paint is thus transferred into the language of gestural marks.
There is both an intellectual tension and an emotional friction here. For instance, Plato complained about artists creating false illusions, using trickery to deceive the public. Both photography and collage it could be argued break that illusion. A photograph has a ‘direct’ correlation with reality, (this is why you can only use a photographic image of yourself on your passport), and collage elements are of course taken directly out of the ‘real’ world. One passes smoothly into the other, a photographic print could be both exhibited as art and/or found on the floor as yet another discarded piece of paper based rubbish. The issue begins to develop a further complexity when the writings of Greenberg are added into the mix. Greenberg argued that any form of illusion in painting was in effect working against the specificity of the medium. Artists therefore, he argued should be only looking at paint's qualities of surface effect and colour to develop meaning, not seeking to represent reality. Abstract Expressionism, the movement particularly associated with his ideas, concentrated on separating out painting's representational ability from its physical properties. Photography replacing painting as the only legitimate tool for making representations of the visual world.
So what happens when you use a photograph as a surface to draw on? Both languages are read at the same time, one is though operating as a ground, (the photograph), the other as ‘the mark', however a mark laid on top of a photograph defiles or damages the image, and establishes another reality, the language of mark and gesture. Photographic languages tend to operate as if the photograph is a form of verification, but as to its deeper semiotic meaning, it is often a free floating signifier, just as any real object in the world awaits our giving it a use value, the mark or drawn text provides an additional emotional or annotational signifier that can be used to 'anchor' a photograph's meaning. What we seek is closure, which can be thought of as the glue holding these different elements together. It’s about the human tendency to seek and find patterns, and to apply meaning to these patterns. In psychology we would call this gestalt theory. The key to closure is providing enough information so the eye/brain can fill in the rest. If too much is missing, the elements will be seen as separate parts instead of a whole. If too much information is provided, there’s no need for closure to occur.
Typical of the images that deal with these issues are the gestural marks on photographs in the work of Huma Bhabha. The scale is typical of images printed using a digital laser printer such as the ones we now have in college, these images are about 6 feet high; human sized. In her re-worked photographs, taken by Bhabha in her native Karachi in southern Pakistan, the artist undermines the documentary tradition of the photograph with a darker, personal vision that is carried by the gestural marks applied across the surface. The photographic document is obliterated or defiled, in effect graffitied over.
An artist that makes a powerful drama out of the conjunction of the photograph and drawing on its surface is Arnulf Rainer. He keeps a fine balance between the photograph as document and marks as signs of emotion. The tradition of Expressionism taken to its logical conclusion by separating out and yet at the same time joining the emotive image and the emotive mark.
Arnulf Rainer: After Messerschmidt. “Der Heftige Geruch” – “The Strong Smell”
Rainer's images derive their psychological power from the visual reinforcement that operates between gestural mark and the underlying image. Lines extend or emphasise what is in the underlying image and because the subjects appear to be in heightened states of emotion, we read the marks as a type of nervous graphology, as if the subjects of these photographs were able to defile their own images, the marks 'interpreting' the photographs below.
In an analogous way to Rainer, Maurizio Anzeri makes his portraits by sewing directly into found vintage photographs. His embroidered patterns garnish the figures like elaborate costumes, but also suggest a psychological aura, as if revealing the person’s thoughts or feelings. The antique appearance of the photographs is often at odds with the sharp lines and silky shimmer of the threads. The combined media can suggest a dimension where history and future converge. Separation and combination again giving rise to a powerful new form.
Because of a photograph's indexical relationship with the world, the distinction between image and reality has been blurred. By adding a further mark made layer we further conflict the distinction and it could be argued now open a portal into a new semiotic dimension.
The complexity of these issues suggests that there is much to pursue here and I would suggest that there is still considerably more milage in the area.