The Destabilisation of Perception
Post Abstract Painting in the Digital Realm

TheSpace4, Peterborough, 10th November 2006 - 12th January 2007

Andy Stringer's show at TheSpace4 in Peterborough consists of a series of large-scale abstract paintings. The labels and the catalogue identify these works as paintings, and they are areas of liquid pigment on substrate laid down with a flatness that Greenberg could only have dreamt of. These paintings are in fact wide-format inkjet prints of images created on computer using imaging software.
Artists who pursue abstraction through new technology are often accused of technological determinism. This is a naive criticism, ignoring the historical relationship of art to technology and of technology to culture. Technology is a product of society. Its emergence both reflects and marks an age, it is index and indexed. J David Bolter's theory of determining technologies explains how societies regard their humanity in metaphoric terms of their highest technology, whether that is fire, pottery, steam or computers.
Art has used the newest technology creatively since our ancestors first used fire and its by products to make art, and up to the point where painters started using acrylic, alkyd, and silk-screen printing in the 1950s and 1960s. These aesthetic technologies afforded new spaces of expression, and reflected the determining technologies of the age. But in the mid-1970s, with the first commercial Paintbox systems became available, the mainstream of fine art suddenly diverged from technology. Painting became technically conservative even as its theory became ever more radical. With a few notable exceptions such as Richard Hamilton, painters did not engage seriously with the possibilities afforded by the new technology.
As Paintbox technology has become more cheaply available in consumer software such as Photoshop, and high-quality large-scale physical output of digital images has become an industry of its own, this failure of engagement has become ever more mystifying. Harold Cohen, a world-class abstract painter before he switched to writing software to generate images in the late 1960s, has said that the range of colour available from his current large-format inkjet printer exceeds that of his old oils. It is a wonder that painters do not throw away their palettes on hearing this rather than limiting themselves to their ochres and umbers.
Even when a painter such as Fiona Rae prepares her images in Photoshop, she sells inkjet prints of the results as preparatory sketches, rendering the finished image in the once-new technologies of oil and acrylic on canvas. The market and the supposedly anti-market critical theory of art both demand technical conservatism. This conservatism puts art at odds with society in a way that makes it socially irrelevent. Ironically this is the same fate that technological determinism is supposed to hold for the unwary artist.
It has fallen to graphic design to embrace the new image-making technologies. Graphic design is in many ways the successor to courtly art for the democratic age of the mass media. It uses highly developed image-making skills and technologies to depict not the king but goods and services sold to the masses in a business culture. The art that we often remember from the past is art made by and with such skills and technologies when they are given a space of freedom for the person exercising them to
Andy Stringer has put the skills and technologies of a graphic designer to use in order to make art. He calls his images paintings. This may be seen as a provocation by those for whom the technology of painting remains frozen in the new developments of fifty years ago, but it is an entirely defensible claim. As well as being areas of liquid pigment applied to a flat substrate these images speak of the history and concerns of painting. They are at the very least functional equivalents to paintings; they have the hard-won compositional density and the feel of the distillation of visual experience of the best abstract painting.
The images are created on a Mac in Photoshop with a Wacom tablet and occasional support from Illustrator and Painter. They are then produced as seven colour large-scale inkjet prints on gloss paper mounted on board. This is a graphic design workflow, indistinguishable from those used to produce exhibition stands or point of sale displays.
But the images that are the content of this workflow have not been created to lead to an external message, or to seduce the buyer of products or services. Despite their occasional use of structural or spatial devices familiar from the best European graphic design they generate a very different context. They lead to themselves. They are reflexive. They are intended as art not ephemera. They must withstand and reward prolongued scrutiny, give the eye work to do, engage the viewer.
And they do.
Stood in the middle of a room of these images you can see how the overall composition and motifs of each relates to the others. Forms that refer to forms in other images emerge, sometimes in positive, sometimes in negative. Move closer and the complexity of the forms between or sometimes making up those compositions become apparent.
The more complex passages of each piece, where many lines overlap and create areas of colour following the PostScript even-odd rule, are as determined as the large-scale gestural marks that speak of hand on tablet. This is art made with undo available, every mark has been evaluated and kept because of its contribution to the effect of the piece. The different layers of the image and the interaction between paths stroked in different translucent colours as they pass over and under other elements of the image interact in complex and highly determined ways that reward close and sustained examination and cross-referencing with other works.
This is different from the complexity of scripted "generative" art, often made with Processing for example, where an all-over composition produces random interactions that succeed statistically rather than intentionally. The density of Stringer's images is built by hand. Even the rendered elements such as ripples and gradients have been generated and edited and placed with precision.
If you look even closer you can occasionally see the fine structure of the representation of the image. Some of the thinnest arcs stretch to become dashes of pixels, whereas gentle gradients show only the tiny stochastic dots of inkjet ink under close observation.
The seven colour printing method used to make these paintings means that they cannot be adequately reproduced by standard four colour printing, in a catalogue for example. The unreproducability of painting has always been held up as a means of its resistance to Walter Benjamin's mechanical reproducability. These are paintings that are mechanically produced and reproducable, but resistant to mass production and mass consumption through the media as easel painting used to be pre-Damien Hirst. This is work that has to be seen.
What marks Stringer's work out is the masterfully, painstakingly constructed and endlessly rewarding complexity and balance of the composition of his images. Although these images are produced using what is still, surprisingly, unorthodox means, they are both very contemporary and a continuation of the historical themes and concerns of abstract painting. This keeps painting as an open area of inquiry. Stringer's work keep painting relevent and rewarding for a contemporary audience.

Rob Myers

 

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