The Photographic Glare: Youth as a Hyperreal Experience: Catalogue essay, Iconografias Metropolitanas, XXV Bienal de Sao Paulo, Brasil. 2002
You have to wonder what Carter thinks of us staring at him while he is hard at work on his Gameboy. His concentration is intense as he coolly sets about mincing Martian slime and pushing the counter past his highest score. .In fact, you realise from watching other kids labouring away on their pocket survival kits that, aside from setting his shoes on fire, it would be almost impossible to pull him back into a reflexive engagement with the world. He is in his space and that means no posing or stuffing around for the camera. 'If you want my photo', he seems to say, 'don't disturb my concentration because my sole interest is in conquering alien worlds and until I get hungry that is the way it is, okay!' The interesting thing is that Carter's recalcitrance is exactly what we are looking for. We want to observe him in his world being himself and not hamming it up for the camera. Like all good voyeurs, we are looking to visit the peculiar space of the ten-year-old and check out the look and posturing of this year’s classroom style.
Carter is one in a series of paintings that Jan Nelson has made around photographic images of youth. Each one provides a different window onto the world of growing up in the glare of our obsessive photographic reality. Her stunning technical virtuosity has captured on canvas eight posed portraits of youngsters doing their thing in their own particular adolescent way. This work is concerned with opening up the possibilities that exist at the juncture between painting and photography: using both mediums as part of a broader conceptual examination of the resonance between the cult of the individual and anonymity in today's media-saturated world.
The photograph is the key starting point for this work, operating, in a sense, as it does in Superrealist paintings, as the source material from which the works are made. However, unlike Superrealism, which mostly used snapshots of urban scenes, the images Nelson has used are carefully constructed and made to appear as magazine portraits. She has created a more hyperreal effect by building the shots down to the finest detail while at the same time boosting the visual appeal to capture a wow! factor from the viewer. The seamless colours and immaculate realist technique are designed in part to create a frisson of excitement that immediately follows the realisation that these objects are not photographs at all but paintings. Nelson has created this effect, in part, by replicating a fashion shoot-like ambience that appears fresh and authentic, playing the role of the magazine stylist who carefully matches all clothing, props and poses to each subject's persona.
The portraits all float on an elusive ground that is equal parts photographic backdrop, monochrome painting and magazine designers 'tint-of- the -month'. This ground is a kind of ambiguous field that uproots the figures from their social environments and allows us to contemplate them as discrete objects. Hannah, Sarah, Justin and co are magnified and stripped of the camouflage that they so carefully blend into in their day to day lives. We do not see the car park of the 7-11, the bedroom plastered with Brittany and Anastasia posters, or any of the backdrops these young people ordinarily inhabit. Their subjectivity has been altered, actually distorted, by a point and click prerogative that uses them as conduits of a particular style or subculture and removes them from their own particular idiom. This form of photoshop alchemy turns vulnerable adolescence into immaculate cool by distilling the aura of uncertainty that exists when young people have to negotiate the murky terrain of subject formation. The aim of this photography is to capture a beautiful moment of instability when the difficult twin imperatives of ‘'fitting in’ and 'being yourself' rub up against each other.
Justin, with his face buried in a mass of grungy hair, is an example of this. He wears the international emblem of boyhood credibility; the soccer shirt but customises it with the long sleeve T-shirt underneath and he is listening to music on the big 70s type headphones that are groovy in just the right way. The careful pastiche of looks Justin has assembled ensures that he fits in. However, his sense of self is less clear and is carefully hidden from the outside world. The long hair allows him to avoid being clearly seen and the obvious headphones sanction his retreat from having to negotiate with people. Together they create a micro-climate from which he can participate in the world on his terms. What individuality Justin has is only clearly discernible through his look and pose both of which are more about fitting in than making a radical statement.
Today's visually savvy consumers can discern even the slightest contrivance in cultural product and this in part explains the appeal of images of youth. Justin might be posted but he is a real person with his own complex sub-culture geared around bands like Silverchair and Korn. He is almost an irony-free zone which makes him such a source of interest for most of us who are fuelled on cynicism and the imperative to expose anything remotely phoney. His credibility belies so much that is fake in the adult world which is why he has a currency for magazines such as The Face and Uncut who use this adolescent mojo to dilute the crassness of selling Product.
Nelson is both seduced and, at the same time, disturbed by this aesthetic manipulation. The magnetic lure of the magazine stand at her local bookstore is offset by an indifference to the voyeurism that places young and vulnerable kids in the culture industry spotlight. Like the rest of us, she wants to stay in touch with the constantly evolving youth subcultures and make sense of why Tommy Hilfiger 'rules' in one classroom and is the ticket to social leprosy in another. Yet she also understands the need to grow up without knowing at the age of 10 that you are a commodity with a market value.
This tension is clearly framed in the poses she has constructed for each sitter. None of them makes eye contact and only Samuel has a degree of poise and comfort that comes with later adolescence. Most of the younger girls like Hannah, Alice and Amelia have their backs turned, not wanting to be observed or, worse still, photographed. Here, Nelson is engaging with a dialogue first examined by Gerhard Richter surrounding the depiction of people with their backs turned to the camera. Like Richter, Nelson grants her subjects 'a space in which to withhold themselves within the mediation of their presence'(1) However her project is distinct from Richter's in that she negates the convention of the facial for different reasons. Unlike Richter who is concerned with exploring issues around the depth and surface of painting, Nelson wants to construct a dialogue around her subjects and the partially closed off social space they inhabit. In particular, she aims to highlight that this space is not, and cannot ever be, a place in which to hide.
The artist shows us how this space can still be commodified and turned into a seductive product in a few easy lessons regardless of how much fresh face is hidden from view. All it takes is a careful makeover of wardrobe, evocative prop, and gorgeous colour background for the figures to come alive in a radiance of juvenile glamour. Charlotte, with her greasy hair and wannabe cool chick look, is transformed from an awkward smoking teenager into a credible model with attitude. Her manga T-shirt is so tasteful and looks great when pitted against the matching burgundy background. Likewise, Emily, whose face we can partly see, engages us with her uncertain downcast eyes. She cuts a chic figure with her Chloe Sevigny-style hair and a thumb hooked into her button-up jeans. Her fashion combo and look of vulnerability make her a figure of genuine interest that we willingly project meanings onto. Nelson has positioned both girls in a peculiar visual fold between the real and the hyperreal where desire and the world
we inhabit are in continuous critical engagement.
The strategy of capturing photographic-like images as paintings is an interesting one considering the recent dominance of photographic practice in art, especially in work concerned with portraiture. The frugally cool work of Thomas Ruff or the transgressive chic of Wolfgang Tillmans in differing ways highlight photography's success in in capturing a 'modern' figurative sensibility based on understatement and restraint. Such work is constitutive of the minimal/conceptual 'style' that has become so prevalent in the higher echelons of popular culture and design. This is in contrast to the way in which a number of younger painters have focused on portraits of youth in their work. Artist's including John Curran and Lisa Yuskavage have favoured a more fantastical treatment of the figure that tends toward excess and the macabre. Other painters whose work revolves around the complexities of growing up, such as the Japanese artists Yoshimoto Nara and Tam Ochiai, have sought to capture a sense of melancholic alienation in their work.
Nelson's paintings have very little in common with any of the painters mentioned and are far more connected to the ideas operating in the work of Ruff and co. Indeed the artist is ambivalent about painting and its history, focusing instead on the ongoing dialogue in conceptual art between aura, idea and modes of reproduction. The question this work begs then is; why paint when the issues the artist is interested in are being addressed principally by photographers and when contemporary portrait painting is mostly concerned with other things?
There are two answers to this question. The first is relatively straightforward and relates to the artist's attempt to imbue her portraits with a sense of love and care that comes from producing hand made objects. This she sees as being in direct contrast to the mechanisation of photography which can reduce its subjects to fodder in forums such as fashion and lifestyle magazines.
The second and related answer is that Nelson wishes to investigate certain givens about photography, particularly its claim to have a superior edge in accessing the real. While photography is the medium of choice for funky lifestyle mags who are constantly trawling for the authentic voice of the street, Nelson puts forward a case that, by employing aspects of the logic of photography, painting can be just as valid a technology in accessing 'the real'. In this way, she clearly differs from the photographic theorist Heinz Liesbrock who has discussed this relationship between painting and photography. He has suggested that the former is subject to limitations that photography is not by arguing that: "photography, with its stress on visible phenomena and their peculiar recognisability, places a prominent question mark against the validity of an abstractionism that occasionally succumbs to convention and dogma and has exhausted the possibilities of self-referential variations on formal models. In the face of this, photography looks like a reservoir of authentic new findings, a bearer of the message that "this is how it is", besides which all fictions pale into insignificance."(2)
Nelson reformulates this argument to suggest that 'this is how it is' in an economy of deft manipulation where the spontaneous click of the magazine photographers shutter is actually anything but. Photography operates, as she sees it, as a medium whose meanings are never immediate but like painting are subject to a complex process of delay and deferral whereby meaning is revealed in what Daniel Birnbaum has called 'a continual process of pretension and retention'(3). Birnbaum discusses the concept of delay in his article 'Late Arrivals' where he seeks to apply Derrida's post-Freudian reading of deferred action into an artistic context. Birnbaum, paraphrasing Derrida, suggests that 'the present is never present but always delayed(4). Nelson invokes this idea by presenting photography not as an experience of immediacy, but as a language whose meanings are continually deferred. For instance, we only understand how hyperreal the frozen moment of photography is by seeing its data reconfigured with a paintbrush over time. Furthermore, we only comprehend the effect of the photographic surface when it is closely replicated by paint and varnish. Nelson's work seeks to prove then that only through the act of painting can certain meanings in photography be made clear.
Having said this, the artist is also under no illusions about the power photography wields in our visual culture and understands that its readability is far superior in a wider sense to that of painting. Boris Groys has examined this distinction pointing out that photography is different from painting because the audience is attuned to manipulating the photograph from both the side of the artist and the subject. He suggests that 'by showing himself in the photograph as a pure disembodied gaze, the artist promises us the possibility of imagining ourselves at any time both
behind the camera as well as in front of it'.(5)
Utilising this logic of photography in her paintings, Nelson enables us to see Charlotte and Emily as if we were looking through the lens and choosing the right moment to press the button. Yet at the same time, we identify with them and their moment in time bashfully negotiating someone else's gaze. This symbiotic way of looking and relating is a product of the film and photographic age and is different from painting where the act of making is not distinct from the artist's body. As Groys has said 'unlike photography, not everyone is a painter and not everybody is painted. But every observer of a photograph is potentially a photographer or model...... which is why he or she is often more interested in strategies of both sides(6).
In Nelson's work, the photographic effect is not an end in itself but an assembled component whose meaning is carefully reconfigured through its subsequent transference to paint on canvas. This process of laboriously shifting the image from photo to painting is fundamental to the work's meaning. It enables the painting to capture the condition of photography while also maintaining a distinctive resonance all its own. By playing off different visual regimes through delay and repetition, Nelson has captured a dynamic relationship between photography and painting, positioning them as interlocking components of a broader conceptual programme. This strategy puts forward the idea that painting is a philosophical idea that doesn't always involve paint: and likewise, photography is a philosophical idea that does not always involve the production of prints(7) . Rather, both operate around an evolving dialogue of anticipated futures and reconstructed pasts
that suggest new ways for conceptually based art to proceed.
If there is a distinctive characteristic to this work, it is a silence that pervades each figure. Nelson has created a version of contemporary style that is entirely mute where she neither asks questions nor proffers answers. Instead of moralising or obsessing over her subjects, she simply lays out her interpretation of the key faultlines that exist in contemporary culture. The artist locates, as the principal site of contested meaning, the youth fashion magazine where a bevy of Samuels and Charlottes are framed page after page in that delicate space between style an anti-style. Each constructed identity pushes against the ropes of the real and the contrived, hoping to convey that elusive moment of aura when the difficult balancing act is achieved. When this does occur, however, Nelson makes it clear that this funky lifestyle aura has a limit. Her figures do not and cannot occupy a psychological space in which meanings are concealed. They are there out in the open where to quote Frank Stella, 'what you see is what you see'. Any hidden meanings that do exist are solely our own projections made up of a cocktail of fantasy, fear and nostalgia for being young. In the ersatz reality that is magazine world, Nelson gives us free license to be both voyeurs and artists so that we may interrogate that strange liminal space between adolescence and everything that comes after it.
(1) The idea of withholding presence is put forward by Stephen Melville in his overview of Gerhard Richter's series of portraits of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Melville, Stephen, 'Gerhard Richter', in As Painting:
Division and Displacement, MIT Press and Wexner Center for the Arts, Cambridge, 2001, p143
(2) Liesbrock, Heinz, 'The Barely Visible Visible: Perspective's on Reality in Photography and Painting', in Liesbrock and Weski (eds) How You Look At It:Photography in the 20th Century, Thames and Hudson, London, 2000, p 42
(3) Birnbaum, Daniel, Late Arrivals, in Painting at the Edge of the World, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2001, p 79
(4) ibid p 79
(5) Groys, Boris, The Promise of Photography, in Fresh Cream, Phaidon, London,2000, p 33
(6) ibid, p 33
(7) Douglas Fogle discusses this idea of painting as a philosophy not determined by materiality in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue 'Painting at the End of the World'. He attempts to recast definitions of painting away from paint on canvas to broader concerns surrounding historical context and content. In particular, he draws on the critic Howard Halle's statement about the work of Andreas Gursky who, he suggests, demonstrates that painting is a philosophical enterprise that does not always involve paint. See Fogle, Douglas, 'The Problem With Painting', in Painting at the Edge of the World, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2001, p18