History teaches us. The history of art also teaches us some things that could probably be applied to the future story of the years we are living in. «… Looking at the future we see the present, looking to the past we see the future». If, as we know, Impressionism, Pointillism, Macchiaioli, and Divisionism but also Futurists (among others), are all artistic movements born independently and in different places in Europe – following the first industrial revolution and consequently arose also following the birth of analog photography. These are artistic movements that seem to follow the chemical laws of the photographic film in the formation of the image in a pictorial sense – which we also remember are the laws with which the image is formed within the ancient mosaics of the most varied places on earth. (the ancient mosaics did not use the medium of the grid, but the pieces were assembled following the ‘rules’ dictated by the forms present in the representation reproduced).
If, as we know, geometric abstraction is also born after the industrial revolution, following Cubism, of which it is – in some way – evolution in the landing to representations of pure lines and geometric shapes. To expose this theory I have repeatedly used two paintings by Joannes Itten, one: “Dorf im Winter” and the other: Winter, part of the schematic representation of the 4 seasons represented by Itten.
Looking at these two paintings we can see a sort of genealogy of the decomposition, which from the Cubist style reaches the abstractionism of the Bauhaus in a way that is all too clear. Too clear because here, in fact, the abstract painting precedes (1963) the ‘cubist’ watercolor (1965), although the latter refers us to the shapes drawn by Braque to represent some clusters of houses portrayed in the first paintings pre-cubist.
I think is important to follow the responses that men have made by hand, first-hand, to the technological evolutions they have experienced. The way they painted and represented the world compared to the technological era in which they lived.
I find the pointillism and the Macchiaioli important since they help us understand – today and in the best way – what an analog photograph is. Let us imagine pointillists in their work: intent on ‘positioning’ – one by one – the spots of color on the canvas – like little specks of the grain of the film. An almost totally mechanical and certainly absolutely repetitive operation.
In the same way I am interested in the decomposition in painting or, in any case, hand made by those authors who today are interested in applying digital techniques of image decomposition to their work, in the matrices of the representations, going to use the human body for recreating those increasingly automated ways of fragmenting the images resulting from the digital world. Just as the pointillists used the brush almost mechanically, I think of some Carthusian paintings by Seurat – point by point, composing the final image.
Several authors, today, square by square compose images following the diktats of the digital-numerical world. Tracing – by hand – techniques and methodologies belong to machines to understand them and make them understand.
Trying to interpret by hand the mechanics of digital image’s formation, trying to interpret – as humans – patterns and typologies of machine movements, are acts with a performative matrix even before being pictorial and in this juncture we can even therefore to venture – as an example – also that pointillism, impressionism, and Macchiaioli even before pictorial practices were performative practices (like Jackson Pollock’s painting – even if performative in the opposite sense).
In 2017, at the Center Photographique D’Ille de France, Clare Strand produces a solo show: “The Discrete Channel with Noise” composed of several paintings, created by replicating, on large painted surfaces, the grid of squares (much smaller) that made up the original image. By previously decomposing the image from which she started, and applying to it the methods of decomposition into units recorded based on their own brightness; a rule that underlies digital photographic technology.
Going therefore to catalog the squares of which the image is decomposed by assigning to each a specific number corresponding to a gray chromatic scale, as well as the digital fragmentation of images (the pixels).
A methodology that also recalls the color jars classified numerically by Gerard Richter and used to make his notes and great works composed of thousands of colored squares.
The site where the exhibition was held, the “Center Photographique D’Ille de France” confirms the secular attention of the French to photography as a language often analyzed through meta-linguistic reasoning and to the study of the photographic medium matrices as if they were alphabets from which to learn the method. Unlike our “little Italy”, where last year after presenting my work ‘on photography’ to a photographic prize, I heard myself answered by the curator of the award: «…excuse us, Fabrizio, but we cannot reward your work although aware that it is extremely interesting, because in any case – ‘it is not photography’».
Fortunately, shortly after, the work was placed in an exhibition at the MACRO in Rome.
I have already explained the operation carried out on this work:
«[…] a hand-made numerical transposition of the color code of every single pixel of an ID photo downloaded from the internet. A modus operandi that refers more to the behavior of a machine than to that of a human being. The individual color codes of the individual pixels have been reported – square by square – on a common squared sheet. Each square, containing a hand-written 4-digit number, corresponds to the given color of the respective pixel belonging to the downloaded photo-card. Carry out this operation by hand, even if it is a very small image (59 by 65 pixels): it means individually checking to which decoding number (or coding if you prefer) corresponds to each pixel, and – after which – report the datum checked on a checkered sheet, square by square. This sequence of operations repeated – in this case – for 3835 times. Despite the decoding operation of colored pixels in numbers, you can still see a face – the face of the ID photo of the downloaded digital image – in the table that comes out of this process of operations. This is because the numerical code written in pen on every single square is, however, a visual sign; if a sign corresponds to one color and another sign to another color (with relative different luminous intensities), by correspondences in the formation of the table (image), we will be able to glimpse the face of the photograph despite the decoding. We write a grid table of numerical data, but we can still read an image of it “.
Using these methodologies, I also managed to carry out several workshops at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts (Milan) where I did the same operation to the photography students, who copied their passport photos by hand in these ways.
Observing the way in which my students filled out the squared sheet containing all the numbers relative to the color codes of the individual pixels that made up their own photo card, it denotes that the graphic line they possess, the different line with which they have written the numbers of the color codes, make that also the final image emerges through different modalities.
As if writing the numbers through their own different spellings is equivalent to the differences that existed between the Impressionist painters or between the various Macchiaioli, who although adopting similar painting methods (all ‘mechanical’ divisionists), composed very different paintings from each other because of the different way in which they brushed/stippled the individual brushstrokes. In the same way, this brushing seems to be equivalent to the different typology of writing with which the students write numbers inside a square of a common squared sheet.
A work of workaholic, repetitive and fragmented for the purpose of “production”. As well as the Gian Maria Volontè of the “Working Class goes to Heaven” as well as the phantasmagorical hyper-realistic portraits of Chuck Close in which the master puts an ultra-pointillist methodology of action into an existence in which – pattern after color pattern – regulated by a reference grid – depicts the most varied characters.
Looking at the detail of these works, looking at small parts enlarged with macro lenses of the Pointillist divisionist works up to Close, we can see a linear evolution in the increasingly ‘logical’ Cartesian positioning of color points. That – if you want to keep insinuating the doubt – follows the evolution of the positioning of the color point from the analog film to the digital sensor.
Not forgetting that the one considered as the inventor of the digital image, of digital photography, Ken Knowlton, is an electronic engineer, but also an artist, who we remember being the one who first succeeded in breaking down a continuous image into a series of units differentiated by their brightness level.
But this theory was subsequently applied by Knowlton also to a series of works realized with the most varied materials (from the shells to the graphic signs of the digital world in fact) cataloged through the level of potential brightness, if contextualized in a reference grid.
Just as the portraits of Nathalie Boutté, made thanks to the cataloging of fragments of newspapers, pigeonholed according to the luminous intensity derived from the amount of ink spilled on every single fragment and which depends on how much and what type of text there is on each one present.
But here I want to open the gap also to the experiments which through the study and knowledge of the medium of the grid put the images on which they operate into an “orderly disorder”. Kensuke Koike, through the real orderly fragmentation of the squares of his images, then goes back to reassembling them, distorting the order dictated by the iconography to create ‘wrong images’ which, while trying to rebel against the medium of the grid, remain trapped like printed puzzles wrong by the artist Kent Rogowski.
Someone said “You can’t get away from the machine, to the assembly line” and said it in French so as to mention who before him… “Ieri, oggi e domani”. It seems that (today) you do not run away from the grid. As when, with the advent of the industrial age and then of photographic consequence, the echo of the factory parcelling is inserted – with ever more massive modalities – also in the pictorial languages, going to ‘affect them’ in the matrix, in the painting methodology (even if the shadow of the technique of weaving ancient mosaics or Dürer’s various methodologies – to give only examples – make this theory fallacious), today the grid at the base of digital media becomes part of the ‘pictorial’ and manual reasoning of some interpreters of the contemporary.