Contemporary Visual Art Magazine (N17), 1998.
The reduction of distances has become a strategic reality bearing incalculable economic and political consequences, since it corresponds to the negation of space.
Paul Virilio

Technological change has meant that photography, film, video and more recently holography and digital forms, are now widely acceptable artistic mediums. But beyond this adoption of technologies by artists lie deeper questions. Technological impact in the context of mass culture is transforming how we view and experience the world. How can artistic practice examine all that constitutes this transformation? Historically artists have not simply up-graded their artistic pratice by adopting new technologies. Leo Steinberg used painting to formulate a concept of how information works. In 1968 he examined a changing relationship between painter and image which, he argued, was dependent upon the way general representational models were being influenced by mediated information.
"(T)he pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes".
For him this marked "the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture". Rauschenberg was a major reference for Steinberg's essay. His early paintings were a prophetic configuration of the painting as a desktop upon which differing categories of information, objects and representations can be gathered. Since then the desktop has become the most effcient way of conceptualising the screen interface of the personal computer.
Since Steinberg's essay there has been a revolution in imaging and reproduction technologies that rivals the invention of photography. Digitisation has thrown into question the perception that photography is a way of producing 'naturalistic' visual imagery. Digitisation has also, ironically, repositioned painting in the front line of critical concerns. Anne-Marie Willis has described this when she said:
"(I)t is as if the scene or object at which the camera was pointed imprinted itself on the film. With digitised photo-imagery the viewer will never be able to be sure of this any more - the index will be erased as the photo becomes pure iconicity. In this sense digitisation reverses the history of imaging technologies and takes photography back to the ontology of the infinitely manipulable medium of painting. If Paul Delaroche declared in 1839, 'from today painting is dead' now we would say 'from today photography is dead'. And ironically it is a simulated form of painting that is displacing photography."
The indexical status of photography as true evidence of a raw reality can no longer be maintained. The larger issue that photography has to now address is that it is a medium, it mediates to arrive at a representation, just like any other medium. This was true before digitisation, but now technology has placed photography into a endless process of manipulation which brings it closer, on one level, to painting.
The popular phenomena of young British art can be viewed as a modernization of artistic practice. YBa tends to match like-with-like, displacing the intense sensations found on advertising hoardings or tabloid newspapers into the context of the gallery space, bringing life into art. However entertaining this process may be there remains the doubt that general yBa strategies only serve to uphold rather than critique the forces which are laid bare in the work. To theatricalise the forms of the spectacle may leave the spectator as passive in front of the work of art as in relation to the spectacle itself. The journalistic jingo that celebrates yBa tends to cast painting in the role of a superceded consumer durable. This position was most recently aired in Waldemar Januszczak's Guardian article, 'Wrong Medium at the Wrong Time' which was a familar cry that painting has had its day (a chant of dead, forever, always - now).
The situation may be the same for painting now as it was in the period when photography was invented. The distance that painting has from technological innovation places it in a critical space. It may not 'mirror the information' age as Januszczak would argue. It can instead offer a critique of it.
Adam Lowe is a painter. He also works extensively on print-making not as a supplementary medium to painting but as process which has questioned what painting might be. The most recent and complex aspect of this are the Digital Prints published by Permaprint earlier this year. For this Lowe devised one image which would enhance the differences between a number of printing processes which range from mechanically outputed to hand manipulated forms. This image was produced through 24 processes but they were all outputed using the same computer generated information, some from a physical master and others direct from disk. The resulting portfolio of seemingly the same image is a demonstration of the extremes to which these processes radically mediate the original. At one level this has been a demonstration which surveys the qualities of different print technologies and processes. At another level it has raised important philosophical questions which can be seen in terms of the varying material results produced by the mediation of each process. In a curious way this preoccupation of Lowe's has informed how he has made his paintings since 1995, particularly in terms of his profound technical understanding of pigment transfer prints. Used predominantly as a way of printing photographic images, the process employs pigments instead of the synthetic dyes used in commercial photographic prints. This means that it is possible to make a photographic image that has in conservation terms, a long life. More importantly the pigment transfer print brings photography materially close to painting in that pigment is used to create the image. A photograph printed in this way is distinctive for its qualities of depth and layering which are quite unlike conventional photographic prints.
Lowe has made a series of portraits which begin with a photographic session where small details of the sitter's head are photographed with an emphasis on particular points of focus (nose in focus, side of nose in focus etc.). These details are then printed as pigment transfer prints. The paintings begin with a transcription onto canvas of accurate measurements taken from the sitter. Lowe describes this as the mapping stage. Lowe then procedes by painting over the mapped schema. He trails paint "through time, negotiating non mimetic information". Here the visceral and spatial qualities of paint are exploited to displace the schematic registration of the mapping stage. The pigment transfer details are layered into this stage often with the effect that a brushmark seems to carry photographic information.
Lowe's transformation of the portrait genre uncover perceptual mechanisms which in turn question what is meant by 'vision'. He says that these paintings "start from the premise that there is no unmediated world and all we have are endless variations of transformations rather than an idea of coherent information". The question of what constitutes 'information' is brought to bear upon what constitutes visual experience. These paintings do not idealise a natural horizon situated somewhere in phenomena and perception. Instead they tear apart such ground confronting the spectator with a shifting ground of operations.
In their paintings, Nicky Hoberman and Mark Wright, use technical and critical strategies which continue a discussion of the relationship between painting and photography commonly associated with Gerhard Richter's work. Richter has brought painting into a critical position where it is able to question the rhetoric of both photography and painting and by implication the critical relationship between these mediums. Both these artists use photographic material as references and the process of the blending brush. Although associated with Richter's practice this tactic has its roots in the nineteenth century when painting was trying to rival the effects of photography by mimicking such effects as focus and depth of field. Hoberman and Wright use this technique as a way of examining images.
Hoberman has for some while used images of children in her work. Her paintings are not simply pictures of children. They are paintings of images of children and more importantly of how the sense of childhood can be seen to be structured. A painting like My Precious brings together five images of six children and nine rabbits into a luminous ground. Each image is derived from separate polaroid shots taken by the artist. They are assembled into one space in a way that brings to mind the cut and paste process of software like Adobe Photoshop. This process is essentially a collaging of elements and layers. Such technology is not a part of Hoberman's practice but the fact that Photoshop is extensively used as a tool to form images, especially in advertising, is worth noting. The photographic distortions of figures, the shifting viewpoints and the many rabbits which seem to be the same rabbit photographed several times, all serve Hoberman in underlining the fictions that are at work in images of childhood. The children are larger than life, bigger than adults and they are clearly struggling to impose their regime in response to the socialisation of an upbringing. The fictional space, scale and the hyper-real are used by Hoberman as way to challenge naturalised representations of innocence and childhood.
Mark Wright has used subjects which position elemental qualities into different frames of reference. In the case of the River Series the surface of water is represented. There is nothing to frame the image, no bank of the river, no horizon except for a white border around the image evoking the sense that this is not simply a painting of water but a painting of a photograph of water. Often the images fade to near white disappearing into a depth of field that seems endless - a type of infinity. In contrast is the Chalk Series which in his last show was exhibited alongside the River Series. They are derived from microscopic photographs of chalk and like the River paintings are framed by a white border refering the image back to its photographic origin. Clusters of bands make what could be cylindrical forms. There seems to be a density to the surface, the repetitions and reduction in scale of the bands suggest that the structure could extend and recede endlessly. These paintings play into but challenge ideas of a sublime. In isolation, the River Series could be seen to be modernised images of romantic contemplation bringing to mind Casper David Friedrich's work. However the microscopic images of chalk disrupt and problematise such a reading. A molecular image gives rise to an idea of 'nature' but within a context of science and technology. An essential sense of nature is disrupted by the invariably mediated fact of the microscopic image. Lowe's statement comes to mind again that "there is no unmediated world and all we have are endless variations of transformations".
At first sight Ashley Elliott's paintings look like examples of the process based Real Art genre. Thin horizontal lines are organized to produce what seem to be virtually monochromatic all-over paintings. This first encounter, which would place the paintings within the context of a minimalist reading, is important but also incorrect, a fact that further examination of the paintings unfold. Behind the coloured grid, which is closest to the surface of the painting are two other layers. In a recent series the layers are an assemblage of two images of Airbus aircraft. Each image is of a plane either landing or taking off and they are integrated in a way which Elliott describes as being "an equilibrium of departure and arrival". The final grid, made by attaching thread to the paintings surface and then applying paint is the final aspect of a process which enables each image to "escape recognition....the image escapes one layer and is trapped by the next". The reading and associations these paintings set up are complex. At one level the structure of the works invite associations linking the grids to screens. The final horizontal lines literally screen the submerged images but also relate to how T.V. monitors and computer screens are configured. Baudrillard's distinction between the scene and screen as framing structures comes to mind: " the scene and the mirror no longer exist; instead there is a screen and a network. In place of the reflexive transcendance of mirror and scene there is a non-reflecting surface, an immanent surface where operations unfold - the smooth operational surface of communication". The screen differs fundamentally from an idea of the 'picture' in that a screen is essentially a switch through which images enter or depart. Elliott's paintings seem to structure qualities which can be attributed to the screen not simply in a way which is reflexive or expressive (which would bring such things back to an idea of the scene) but in way which is productive. Each layer obscures the other, the previous image giving up its ground to the next. The temporality at stake here is complex and a sentance by Paul Virilio seems appropriate: "(I)n fact, the strategic value of the non-place of speed has definitively supplanted that of place". The successive obscuring layers in Elliott's paintings seem to generate a non-place that throws the entire process toward developing a specific sense of painting as a medium.
An image of painting, especially in Britain, of a reactionary enclave where outmoded ideas of tradition and dubious humanist ideals are conserved has been a backdrop against which yBa has been staged and not without some justification. What risks being obscured though is the potential, which painting has repeatedly demonstrated, to reinvent itself in the face of technological advance. At times this reinvention reveals how imaging technologies operate and provide criteria through which processes of reification can be discussed.