Thursday, 23 June 2016

Illusion: part 2 Point of view

At the end of the last post on illusion I left a blog link to the type of exercises that used to be undertaken on the foundation course at Leeds back in the 1980s. One of the key artists that were referred to at that time was Georges Rousse.

Georges Rousse

In the image above the red rectangle appears to float across the interior of a building that has been blackened by fire. The illusion of coherence is created by controlling the optical viewpoint and is only visible from one specific view point. Outside of this viewpoint, the shapes deconstruct and the viewer can see them for what they really are, patches of colour placed on various surfaces that are designed to line up when seen from the position from where the photograph was taken. Rousse would have used a camera viewfinder set up on a tripod to constantly check the construction of the piece, instructing his construction team to make a drawing that would line up from the point of view of the viewfinder, which when finished would be coloured in red. Some of the more complicated versions of these constructions which involve deep space also have to contain colour adjustments to overcome the way that atmospheric colour space operates. The areas much further back having to be painted in slightly brighter tones so that they optically move forward into the same space as areas painted on much closer surfaces.
An artist that operates in the same territory as George Rousse is Felice Varini.

Felice Varini

In the images above you can see that Varini's illusion only operates from one point and as you move away from that point the shapes that make up the image distort and break down into their individual forms. This type of illusion is totally site specific and can't really be appreciated unless you experience one 'in the flesh'. Varini at times works on a huge scale and the project management skills needed as well as the technology and workforce required are tremendous, but he would have had to start somewhere and I would suggest he developed these ideas by researching the history of anamorphosis.

Anamorphosis is a distorted projection or perspective requiring the viewer to use special devices or occupy a specific vantage point to reconstitute the image. The word "anamorphosis" is derived from the Greek prefix ana, meaning back or again, and the word morphe, meaning shape or form.

Leonardo was supposed to have invented the first anamorphic image, called appropriately 'Leonardo's Eye'. I'm pretty sure a lot of artists around this time would have discovered anamorphic projections because they were all playing around with perspective, which was the new 'tool on the block' so to speak. If you look at Durer's images of perspective frames such as this one below, you can see how vital it was to have  a fixed point of view.

This (below) is what the artist could see.
We have a dislocation in space because of the side view of the situation and the actual view point of the artist are different. Two separate viewpoints of the same situation exist, one showing spatially the relationships between all the elements in order to show how it was done and the other from the viewpoint of the observer which is meant to show us how the completed image would look. Compare this situation to the Varini photographs.

Jean François Niceron in his book 'La Perspective Curieuse' is the first artist to formalise these issues.
From: 'La Perspective Curieuse'

As you can see in the image above the situation as set out by Durer has been reconstructed but this time in a long corridor space. The wall would have been strung (we have looked at the importance of chalk lines before) and instead of the artist filling in a flat regular grid, the artist works in a distorted grid that only lines up correctly when you look at the image from the end of the corridor. However when seen from the front the drawing is so 'pulled out' or elongated that it is almost like a landscape.

If you ever get the chance visit the Trinita dei Monti Convent in Rome you will find that the original anamorphic fresco is still in place. The fresco is of Saint Francis of Paula praying under a tree and it turns into a landscape as you walk down the corridor.

Jean François Niceron: Saint Francis of Paula praying under a tree.

What's so wonderful about this image is that you can go back and look at Niceron's 'La Perspective Curieuse' and work out exactly the process that he would have used to construct the fresco. I also think the way he added tiny boats and other landscape details is really well handled, to ensure that the gradual change from image of saint to landscape is extremely subtle.

In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries anamorphic images became extremely popular, and supplied an ideal means of camouflaging dangerous political statements, heretical ideas, and even erotic images because only those in the know would be able to select the right 'point of view'.

Erhart Schon Vexierbild 1535

The artist Erhart Schon's Vexierbild 1535 disguises the comic portraits of Charles V, Ferdinanc 1, Pope Paul III and Francis 1. When viewed from the front the picture appears to be of landscapes with coastlines, ships and villages and from the side you can see the four portraits stacked one above the other.  (We have come across Schon before in relation to artists' attempts to measure and grid the figure. Artists that have a strong understanding of the mathematics of perspective are also very aware of how perspective is not reality, simply a device to control a depiction of spatial relationships from one point of view)

Perhaps the most famous example in this country is Holbein's 'Ambassadors', a painting that was originally meant to hang on a stairway, so that viewers would first of all see the painting from above, close to and from an oblique angle.

The image of the skull above is what you would see as you descended the stairway, perhaps a reminder of the way all worldly things will pass away. This leads me to that other aspect of point of view, the fact that this is not just about a fixed point in space but that it is also about a view taken about how we think about the world. Several contemporary artists have extended the purely optical aspects of viewpoint into more political or contextual concerns.

Rub Kandy straddles a territory between graffiti, community art practice and point of view dependent illusion. He opens the issues surrounding illusion into a socially critical and political set of agendas and in doing so returns to a way of working with anamorphic illusions that was current in the past during times of political unrest. As he states;  ‘In my anamorphosis works I always try to put ‘the illusion’ (the anamor- phosis is a paradigm of illusion) next to a wrong element that unmasks ‘the illusion’, in order to reveal ‘the real’. I try to find a bug, to generate a short-circuit. I don’t want my works to be a showcase of virtuosity. The simpler, the better. My hand is not firm, my paint is not fine, my line is not thorough. With my rough style I try to use perspective destroying perspective. I just want to communicate my religious wonder about the mystery of space and perception’. Point of view in this case referring to both the way that optical illusions are point of view dependent and that fact that a political stance demands a ‘point of view’. Anamorphic projections demand a certain amount of geometric control, Rub Kandy contrasts this with the uncontrollability and reality of poor social conditions.

Rub Kandy

William Kentridge's film ‘Whatwill come’ is a combination of anamorphic projection and animated film projection. Kentridge uses the mirrored cylinder anamorphic illusion to reflect the various states of emotional disturbance brought on by political tension. 

William Kentridge: On Perception

Kentridge has used the mirrored cylinder anamorphic effect several times and was himself influenced by Scottish images of Bonnie Prince Charlie. In response to the brutal English crackdown on his followers when Scottish households who were found to contain a portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie were imprisoned or worse, supporters turned to anamorphic portraiture. 

 Anamorphic portrait of Prince Charles

Again these distortions relate to the way images can be 'hidden' so that in times of political tension images of political favourites could be hidden in plain sight. 

These ideas don't always have to be about difficult emotional or political issues, they can sometimes simply be used to entertain. 

The use of anamorphic projections is seen across a wide spectrum of art and artists, including some artists that you wouldn't suspect would have an interest, such as Chuck Close. Perhaps what unites them all is research into how images are visually constructed.

Chuck Close

The Hungarian artist István Orosz specializes in these mirror anamorphoses, whereby conical or cylindrical mirrors are placed on the drawing to transform a flat distorted image into a three dimensional picture. 

István Orosz

Another closely related area of illusion is shadow play. Because shadows are the result of light being projected from a single light source, a shadow is in effect an anamorphic projection of the object that casts the shadow. Tim Noble and Sue Webster are perhaps the most well known of contemporary British artists to have explored this area.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster

The practical issues surrounding this type of work are to do with first of all getting to grip with how perspective works and there is an extensive post on the technical aspects perspective here

However there is a very simple way of starting this sort of work and that is that you work with at least one other person and you direct them to make changes in relation to your viewpoint, usually by looking through the viewfinder of a camera set up on a tripod. 

Hopefully by exploring this area you can get your audience to 'look again', to become aware that what you see isn't always what you get. 

See also:

Illusion part 1
Richard Wright (Anamorphic projections)

 Rub Kandy pdf download of a wide range of his recent projects

This short video of 'Perceptual Shift' by Michael Murphy clearly explains how point of view works as well as illustrating how carefully a construction has to be built in order to make it work. 

Earlier blog post on Architectural perspectives 

In the college library we have Fred Leeman's: Hidden images: games of perception, anamorphic art, illusion; from the Renaissance to the present, which is an excellent introduction to the area. 

Friday, 17 June 2016

Drawing with alternative materials

Every material comes with its history, associations and stories. Some materials we are so familiar with that we tend to just accept them, especially the 'normal' drawing materials such as graphite, charcoal and ink, but even these have specific histories, though their associations tend to be closely woven with the history of art. In the 16th century in Cumbria for instance people used graphite for marking sheep.

Because some materials are closely associated with art making, those usually used for other purposes, and then taken up by artists, are often thought of as 'alternative' materials. This means that any 'reading' of the work tends to highlight the issues surrounding the material. Questions are asked such as why the artist may have chosen a specific material, connections the material may have with its primary use are often looked at as being essential to the meaning of the work. This doesn't mean that every artist using a non traditional material is using it to make a point, but many do.

Vic Muniz renders familiar images drawn from pop culture and art history in a variety of materials, and then photographs them. He has fashioned the Mona Lisa from peanut butter and jelly, Elizabeth Taylor from diamonds, Caravaggio’s Narcissus from junk and his self-portrait from dice. As the critics state, ‘He explores the nature of representation in an image-saturated world’.
One of Muniz’s bodies of work is a series of pictures rendered in chocolate sauce, the best known probably being Action Photo, after Hans Namuth (1997). Muniz’s appropriation and translation of this image into chocolate is an interesting conjoining of subject and material, the viscous chocolate syrup being a perfect stand-in for Pollock’s wet, shiny paint drips. However chocolate sauce is used as sweet topping on ice cream or other deserts, it’s the sweetener that goes on top of the sweet. It’s pure decadence, a product that only a very rich society would invent. So how does this affect our reading of Muniz’s work? Is Muniz, an artist that is doing very well thank you, making a comment on the art world itself? Does he see the obsession with artists and their images as in some ways the equivalent of chocolate sauce?

His ‘Pictures of Diamonds’ consists of portraits of iconic Hollywood stars, such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, created entirely of diamonds. Muniz is playing upon associations that we make between glamour and diamonds. The portraits are ephemeral; once captured by the camera, the composition is destroyed to make the next arrangement. The fleeting beauty of the “diamond diva” is immortalized by the permanence of the photograph.

I’m not arguing that these ‘readings’ are correct, simply that we are prone to make these sorts of connections when faced with art made of certain materials.  
Vik Muniz Action Painting

Vic Muniz: Diamond Diva

‘Valentina, The Fastest’ The Sugar Children’:1996

I think the most interesting of Muniz’s photographs are his ‘Sugar Children’. These are the children of St Kitts’ sugar growing and processing workers. He spent a lot of time there and got to know these children, hence the titles of the portraits. Big James Sweat Buckets, Jacynthe Loves Orange Juice or Valentina, The Fastest. It takes Muniz a lot of effort to make these images, a tiny vacuum is used to move sugar grains around, together with cotton swabs, tweezers, and brushes to rearrange and build density, highlight, and shadow. As the image is built, gradually the sugar becomes recognizable as a image, in the words of critic Andy Grundberg, this work operates “in the unstable territory between object and image, material and representation, fact and metaphor.”

Becoming cane-cutters in the sugar fields is the most likely fate for these children, the sweet substance of their portrayal both an image trap and a future foretold. The sugar is we know by now swept away, only the grains of the photographic paper’s silver nitrate now preserving these images and like all photographs, now existing as ghosts of some lost past.

Karla Black uses materials like paper, bath bombs, nail polish, and tape. She uses the forms of a sort of Post-Minimalism to make ethereal work that goes beyond the purely visual. Her work relies on an awareness of touch, smell and the visual texture of the bedroom or the bathroom. She states, “I prioritize the material experience over language or symbolism or metaphor or narrative” The materials are ends in themselves, the work sits on the edge between installation, architecture, drawing, painting and sculpture and in this blurring of boundaries she finds a personal territory. Drawing however lies beneath it all, Includes Use (2016), took about five days to install and began with Black making a quick, spontaneous drawing with chalk on the floor, which her two assistants then filled in, using powders that they had mixed together and shipped over from Glasgow.

Includes Use, 2016, powder paint, plaster powder, toilet paper and glitter

 Or Else It’s Just Surface, 2016, sugar paper, mud, oil and body paint, feathers and ribbon

Black is much more intuitive than Muniz, she says about the way she works, “I work purely out of desire. I love oils and gels and pastes and powders, and I’ve just let myself use them.”
There is no right way to approach materiality, whether you have a clear conceptual reason or whether you just love certain materials, what is central to this sort of approach is that the material 'speaks' with its own tongue.

If you want to begin reading around this approach and use some theory to back up what you are doing a good start could be 'Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things' by Jane Bennett. She reminds us that we are all just made of matter, bone is simply a chemical secretion that allows us to stand up, we are made of the same stuff as everything else and she asks us to look at the world as if on the one hand the things we use are like us and on the other hand that we are like the things we use. In doing so she hopes that we will develop a more sympathetic idea of a world that we usually approach from the human point of view. What are we to a stone? Does the world listen to you as carefully as you listen to it? In the end we are all star stuff, products of deep inner star fusion, spewed out into the void and slowly coalescing into ever changing forms, one moment matter is composed in vegetable forms, at another time it is an inert mineral and occasionally it might come together to form what we call a human being.

See also: 

Drawing with unusual materials
Drawing as material thinking
Material thinking