point of contact
punto de contacto
MOMENTS OF PLACE
Front image credit: Moments of Place I, 2013-14 HD C print w. aluminum frame 15â€? x 25 3/4â€?
point of contact
punto de contacto
MOMENTS OF PLACE October 1 6 t o December 12, 2014
This exhibit at Point of Contact Gallery in Syracuse, New York is made possible thanks to the generous support from the Syracuse University Humanities Center, organizer of the 2014 Syracuse Symposiumâ„˘ on Perspective, The College of Arts and Sciences, the Coalition of Museums and Art Centers at Syracuse University, and the New York State Council on the Arts.
EXHIBITION STATEMENT Gwenn Thomas’s photographs of doors and windows are embedded within sculptural frames in ways that question perceptions of photographic imagery, and our experience of lived space. Her photographs of window frames, exterior and interior architectural spaces initiate portholes into the spaces within. These irregularly shaped photographic objects construct the illusion of actual windows, recalling Marcel Duchamp’s window of 1920. The illusion is assisted by the absence of glass in the framing, opening the window of the photo from the perspective of the viewer. The photograph with the frame are the windows themselves. Her earlier works from this series began with an exploration into the play between the two-dimensional image and the three-dimensional object frame in a 1980 exhibition at John Weber Gallery. Starting with the architectural subject matter of the photograph itself, Thomas interlinks the image with the structure of its presentational frame, which is initiated by the image itself. Continuing into the present, the artist’s newest works are framed laminated photographs of the same window taken at various times of day: morning, late afternoon and dusk. These works are inspired in part by the documentary photos of the house that the philosopher Wittgenstein designed for his sister in 1926, in Vienna. Thomas’s photographic objects reveal complex spatial relationships, within and outside of the two-dimensional plane, taking into account each available axis of space.
Moments of Place IV, 2013-14 HD C print w. aluminum frame 15 1/2â€? x 26â€?
AR TIST BIOGRAPHY Gwenn Thomas is an artist who lives and works in New York City. Her work examines how photography shapes our contemporary perception of painting. Thomas studied at the Sorbonne, Paris, and is a graduate of the Cooper Union School of Art, NY. Recently, she has had solo shows at Exile Gallery, Berlin, Art Projects International, NY, Rose Burlingham Gallery, NY and Yvon Lambert, NY. Her work is included in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA, São Schlumberger, Paris, France, C.A.M. Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal and Julia Stoschek Collection, Düsseldorf, Germany. A survey of Thomas’ work was published by Charta (Milan, Italy) 2013. Selected Group Exhibitions include: Please Enter, Franklin Parrasch Gallery, NY; A Woman House or a Roaming House? A Room of One’s Own Today, AIR Gallery, NY, 2014; Abstraction and Empathy, Five Myles, NY, 2013; Number Six: Flaming Creatures, Julia Stoschek Collection, Düsseldorf, Germany, 2012; Gwenn Thomas/Birgit Hein, I was a male Yvonne De Carlo, MUSAC (The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León), León, Spain, Accomplices. The photographer and the artist around 1970, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, Poland; 70 Years of Abstract Painting - Excerpts, Jason McCoy Gallery, New York, NY, 2011; Photo + , Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, San Antonio, TX, 2007; The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Reflections of Marcel Duchamp in Modern and Contemporary Art, Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, NY, Wandering Library Project, 50th Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy, 2003; Nature et Urbanisme, Galerie Laage-Salomon, Paris, France; Painting Function: Making It Real, SPACES, Cleveland, OH, 2000; The New Collage, Pamela Auchincloss Project Space, NY, 1999; Natural Process: Recent American Painting, The Center Gallery, Bucknell University, 1996; The Alternative Eye, Photo Art for the 90’s, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, Loretto, PA, 1993; Beyond Photography, Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Austin, TX, 1991; Painting and Sculpture Today, Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1986; Photostart, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY, 1982; The Altered Photograph, P.S.1, Long Island City, NY, 1979.
Moments of Place III (Room), 2014 HD C Print, 24” x 30”
T h e Sub versi on of Perspecti ve Doris von Drathen Translated from the German by Sophie Schlöndorff Who wants to separate them, one side from the other? Where is the boundary between reality and the world of our imagination, the world of our ideas and images, the world of our constructions and projections? These were the questions that went through my mind as I stood in the studio of Gwenn Thomas. She had taken one of her paintings off the wall and gently drummed the stretched canvas with her fingers. A pulsating tambourine-like sound reverberated through the room. Then, carefully holding the gray, geometric painting up to the window, she showed me how the “light from the other side,” as she put it, filtered through the thin linen. The words simply slipped out; she didn’t mean anything by them. Yet, as often happens in such cases, this is precisely when we hit a nerve. For, the “light from the other side,” this succinctly uttered suggestion, might well be the most accurate description of the mystery that animates the artist’s works. And, oddly enough, anyone who ponders them at length will begin to feel it, this light from somewhere else, which shines through these constructions, and to sense it, this tambourinelike sound, which reverberates through the lines. That is what is unusual about the world of Gwenn Thomas: she has produced pieces whose real presence can be discerned less through the intellect than through the senses, through the multifaceted faculty of intuition. In her work, she combines completely different media, which also makes it impossible to undertake a purely formal analysis of the work or to pigeonhole the artist based on aesthetic categories. Indeed, Thomas initially studied sculpture with Tom Doyle, who encouraged her to pursue her studies in
sculpture at the Cooper Union (he was married to Eva Hesse at the time, and Thomas became friends with both of them). Several years after graduating, she worked as an assistant to the documentary filmmaker and photographer Hans Namuth1, from whom she learned about film and photography techniques. She later turned increasingly to painting and photography, and combining the two became a challenge for her that involved crossing boundaries, moving back and forth between them – even engaging in a game of illusions. Does this mean that we should categorize her multidisciplinary work according to various media or “periods”? We could examine the light in these images, or observe vanishing points and their displacement – or dissolution, even. We could establish their proximity to cinematic notions of space, or their inclusion of architectural elements. We could identify groups of works such as the manifesto-like painting-and-photography hybrids, for example, in which color C-prints are embedded in elaborate painted frame constructions; we could discern a series of pieces in which Thomas draws on her original sculptural arguments, freely combining and integrating photographic elements into cement constructions. Later on, as though in contrast to these works, photographs projected onto canvas appear, which seem to be paintings, harking back to woventogether collage-objects, which, in turn, have been assembled from strips of photographic and painted materials. Most recently, we can identify paintings of emptiness, somewhere between writing and solidified traces of color – traces of color that delicately balance
their way across large expanses of paper, traversing the space as free lines. Yet what would categories like these ultimately convey, what would they tell us about these presences themselves, which observe us as though they were from another world, even though at first glance, just a moment ago, they had seemed so familiar to us? Wheel of light Being present might well be one of the most significant characteristics of these images, which confront us physically, like an unexpected sound that penetrates the room and our bodies, like unusual lighting that momentarily transforms our field of vision into something completely unfamiliar. Yet what we experience here is more than just a moment: we
Large Oculus ll 1987-1981 Cibachrome with oil on wood, 19.5â€? x 26â€?
witness intensified time â€“ indeed, time that is at once the point of origin and duration: time beyond time. An eye observes us from high above: the eye of a skylight, round like an iris, surrounded by an oval wreath of ornate fencing. The image, too, is oval. Gwenn Thomas has elongated the section of vaulted ceiling on either side of the skylight and placed an oval wooden frame around it, thus producing a perfect eyelike shape with a pupil at its core. However, closer inspection reveals a peculiar visual deception: the photographic reality of a long, horizontal metal bracket becomes apparent, mounted on either side of the skylight and clearly part of the technical, iron reality of this structure. In contrast, the ornate fence recedes into soft blurriness. This results in a curious illusion:
the fence had been painted in trompe-l’oeil technique directly onto the vaulted ceiling in which an actual window opens to the sky, its concentrated brightness striking the camera glaringly. Large Oculus is the title Thomas gave this piece in the late 1980s – a quite literal take on the architectonic form of an opening to the sky found in the soaring cupolas of Renaissance buildings such as the Roman Pantheon or the Hasht Behesht palace in Isfahan. For, Thomas has clearly given her Large Oculus the shape of a real eye whose gaze, whose “wheel of light,” to quote Max Ernst, we can hardly avoid. A comparison with Ernst’s frottage of the oval of an eye brimming with an exaggerated iris seems inescapable. Just like in Large Oculus, here too the center is emphasized – as if both Ernst and Thomas were equally aware of the fact that the wheel’s hub describes stillness in the midst of motion, a pause in the circular flow of cycles. However, Ernst almost mystically elevates his Roue de la lumière by equating it with that other circle of light – namely that of the celestial phenomenon he has depicted above a sunset over the sea and entitled Coup d’oeil, thus alluding to that brief, intensified glance that might perceive time as if it stood still. Thomas, on the other hand, remains completely objective, almost technically cool, in her Large Oculus. The slight sense of alienation that arises here is mostly the result of the fact that she photographs the trompe l’oeil effect of the painted vaulted ceiling and the structure of the real window as though they were equivalent. She applies a thin layer of paint only to the frame – but it is enough, bathing the entire piece in a soft, rosygray glow. In contrast, the light from the photographed window structure bursts forth from the image all the more powerfully. Radially articulated metal rafters, which the fence posts painted on the ceiling seem to perpetuate like an echo, intone and underscore this light. The oval as a whole, however, is mounted on wood, which lends the piece an object-like quality. Window House (Reflections), 1991 toned silver prints with sand, wood and oil pigment 22.75” x 22.5” x 6.25”
In contemplating the sculptures Gwenn Thomas began to make shortly thereafter, in the early 1990s, it might almost seem as though this radially segmented structure had become the main theme. Take Window House (Reflections) from 1991, for example. A 16cmthick frame composed of toned silver prints with sand and oil pigment over wood describes a quartercircle. Within this frame, which is a hand’s breadth wide – in other words, a solid presence – Thomas has embedded the gelatin silver print of a window structure, which in turn describes a quartered arc, whose spokes, similarly to those in Large Oculus, also subdivide the space into segments. The sculpture is composed of two identical elements placed sideby-side as mirror images of each other, precisely as though they were the sashes of a casement window. The cement-like frame thus advances the visible
image ad absurdum, bringing the structure of the sash bars into the foreground all the more distinctly. The halves of an airy glass dormer window have become heavy cement gates that could lock away a treasure. Transformations – “changes of identity,” as Gwenn Thomas would say – can thus occur between a photographed object, its image and finally the constructed object, whether sculptural or pictorial. In this way, windows can depict multiple images simultaneously, as happens in the 1989 piece Taj Mahal. Two identical images, in the actual shape of the domes of the Taj Mahal, are hung as mirror images, one above the other – precisely as though the structure were gazing at its own reflection in the long pool stretching out before it. In this sense the composition is reminiscent of Caravaggio’s Narciso, whose eyes are riveted to his reflection on the surface of a lake in fatal self-love. Yet, if one considers this pictorial construction from a purely formal point of view, the upper and lower window panel could be combined into an “oculus.” The form could thus open up a context that encompasses the symbolic complexity of the rosette and the wheel, which, across ages and cultures, have conveyed the idea of the cycles of life, such as growth and decline, and renewal, the transformation from one state of being to another. Yet, in its circular motion, the wheel also often points to the uncertainty of a time that has not yet come to pass. While connotations like these do not mean that Thomas was necessarily thinking about the mythological systems of meaning related to the wheel or rosette, they do show how far-reaching the potential possibilities implied by the fanned-out window with its segmented structure are. Following this line of reasoning, one could go even further and at least point out that these radial segments, themselves subdivided into rhomboid shapes, strongly recall diagrams like those of Giulio Camillo. In the mid-16th century, Camillo had arranged his classifications of symbols, text and images according to precisely such segments, Taj Mahal, 1989 gelatin silver print, split-toned print and enamel on wood 39.5” x 20”
thus creating an immense archive of accumulated knowledge about art, science, law and religion, which was the basis of his Teatro della memoria – a vast attempt to reorganize the accumulated archive of knowledge from the old and new world with the help of ancient memory techniques2. Since Camillo envisaged this “theater of memory” in the shape of a huge amphitheater, he used a scheme composed of seven times seven sections – seven vertical aisles and seven horizontal rows. Thomas’s work, of course, does not include these sorts of constructions; she examines the pictorial potential of everyday realities as unsentimentally and unemotionally as possible, which is more in keeping with the tradition of Duchamp than the Renaissance. Nevertheless, anyone engaged in art-historical research in the wake of Aby Warburg’s ideas might well be amazed by the affinity apparent between the pictorial structure of Oculus and the elliptical ceiling rose that Warburg had installed in his library in Hamburg3. Also astonishing is the intensity with which this motif of a radially segmented oval and even the expression “theater of memory” recurs again later on in Thomas’s work. Sight threads The eye itself thus seems to be one of the leitmotifs in the work of Gwenn Thomas. For, is it not our gaze first and foremost that captures space, constructs it, gives it depth? Is it not our gaze that gleans the present and reality, that selects, makes connections, decides what to emphasize, assigns meanings, magnifies, diminishes, omits, focuses, frames and delimits, that colonizes, that sees what we know and blocks out what we don’t want to see? When it comes to naming the elements and phenomena that allow us to experience space, even just to constitute it in our awareness, one of our essential space-defining capacities is often overlooked: the eye, seeing itself. The eye as space-making element recurs repeatedly in the poems of Paul Celan, where, in a single breath, he invents words such as “Schaufäden, Sinnfäden”4 Untitled (with Vertical Bar), 1983 C print with oil paint on mat board and wood, 24” x 24”
(“sight threads, sense threads”), which go hand-inhand with terms like “Fadensonne” (“threadsun”). 5 This same line of reasoning allowed Duchamp to produce, in 1942, a piece he called Mile of String, a network of threads that spins a web throughout an entire room – perhaps spins the very room itself into existence.6 Yet, precisely this line of reasoning also precludes seeing the influence of nostalgia or antiquity in the connection to Giulio Camillo; rather, it becomes an activity in the present, oriented towards the future. For, just like memory, experience and the perception of reality are also constructions – perhaps, first and foremost, constructions of our eye. Leibniz knew that vertigo would be our everyday experience if only we had the courage to open our eyes. For, if we opened our eyes, we would see beyond the reassuring constructions of our projections. This is why the mathematician and philosopher of the Enlightenment replaced the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am,” with
his provocative “I see, therefore I think,” and fought against laziness in “aperire oculos,” or “opening the eyes.”7 It is precisely this opening of the eyes that Thomas dares in her work, thus catapulting the viewer time and again into a present that knows no nostalgia because it is pure discovery. Vertigo overcomes the viewer standing before a 61 x 61cm piece from the early 1980s. On a frame a hand’s breadth wide, Thomas has reprised – now using painterly means – a shadow from the bottom right of the sepia photograph and drawn it up onto the wooden frame; she has even pulled it up along the edge on the right-hand side – all the way up to its neck, as it were. On the upper part of the frame she has used paint to reinforce the more intense incidence of light on the left-hand side of the street and in the triangle of sky above it. For, on both sides of the small, half-deserted street, high walls rise up, seemingly five times as tall as the few people walking next to them, and the image has been framed deliberately to reveal a radical vanishing point. Yet, at the exact point where the two walls inevitably merge as a result of our viewpoint, Thomas has affixed a wooden bar, which splits the piece vertically. This bar, in turn, has been painted, further accentuating the contrast between light and shadow in the image. Indeed, such is the importance of this wooden bar that Thomas entitled the piece Untitled with Vertical Bar. And, in fact, it is this small bar that determines what we see and how we see this pictorial space. Moreover, this small piece of wood determines the space that we, as viewers, find ourselves in; without this interposition, we would be looking out of our everyday space into a proscenium stage, which, rather like a didactic play, demonstrates the perspectival visual habits we have been engaging in since the Renaissance. Yet Thomas is wary of the eye’s constructions, and above all of perspective, which to her implies an understanding of the history of art as progressive. By intentionally interposing the bar, which radically dissolves the vanishing point,
she turns this image into a manifesto against the perspectival conception of space. In a flash, we see here that perspective is just one of many possible conceptions of space. Moreover, in a subversive manner, the small bar reverses the direction of our gaze, which is no longer just sucked into the pictorial space, but ricocheted back out as well. The image itself observes us from its painted center, looks back at us, incorporates us into the pictorial space. This reversal is comparable to that in Velázquez’s Las Meninas, where, behind the painter – who gazes out at us, the viewers – the royal couple appears in a mirror, as though they were standing in our midst. While Velázquez extends the pictorial illusion to include the viewers’ space, Thomas destroys the visual illusion. The vanishing point looks back. The vanishing point goes against the current. And reversing the direction of the gaze means: fracturing the focus, which had been concentrated on a single visual detail; opening and including other possibilities of lateral perception. “Tout ce qui est évident est violent,” 8 asserted Roland Barthes, who decried anything self-evident as a brutal suppression of diversified perception, an exclusion of all alternative discoveries, and who saw this assertion as a political stance. For, thinking against the current meant precisely fighting the “imperialism” of language – a language that can oppress, rule, subjugate. It is this very resistance that Thomas formulates with one inconspicuous gesture: the addition of that small wooden bar. In other words, her gesture is akin to Barthes’s revolt, for perspectival thinking, which goes hand-in-hand with a progressive historiography, corresponds exactly to the linguistic notion of Selbstverständlichkeit, or self-evidence. We can thus see the dissolution of the vanishing point, which Thomas evokes in Untitled with Vertical Bar, as far more than just a formal gesture – what we are witnessing here is nothing less than the idea of subversion. And it probably wouldn’t be going too far to say that it even represents an anti-imperialist political stance.
Windows Yet, if we were to hold up Untitled with Vertical Bar next to two images made shortly thereafter, in the mid1980s – Theater of Memory I and II – a very different key than the one intoned by the title might reveal itself. In Memory I, a photograph documents the location: old offices, which, prior to being photographed, had remained untouched since the 1940s. Rooms and hallways are so transparently circumscribed by glass walls and doors that they open up a labyrinth of one frame after another; behind every door, behind every wall, a new glazed wall, a new glazed door appears, new rooms are constantly opening up, the gaze never arrives, remains perpetually on the threshold, simply shifts from one threshold to another, without ever really managing to enter any space. In the foreground of the image, we can vaguely make out a large table with a fan, desk lamp and several chairs, and largeformat files – registers, perhaps – spread open in the diffuse penumbral light. Yet this infinite succession of “trans-spectives,” of transparencies and reflections of various formats, is anchored by a solid corner pillar. Not unlike in Untitled with Vertical Bar, this pillar is not a capstone, but merely the first in a row of pillars that continues to unfold in other spaces behind it. While Theater of Memory I merely presents a sober inventory of the facts, Theater of Memory II creates a rather painterly atmosphere. In this piece, the wide wooden frame has been elaborated and bathes the entire space in bluish light. The applied paint fluctuates between light blue and sandy hues, transitions strain and seem to crumble, shadows encroach. Like an echo or subtext – like a Greek chorus, one could almost say – the frame seems to comment on the strange light in this succession of different frames and spaces: the shimmering milk glass window or glazed door in the background; the crumbling plaster on the few stone structures; the shadowy eeriness of the safe-like box resting on the table, so still and potent. Despite the eloquence of this location, the place itself does not seem to be the actual subject
Theater of Memory II, 1984-85 Cibachrome w. oil paint on mat board 30” x 30”
of the piece. As an aside, Gwenn Thomas mentions that she discovered these rooms on Ellis Island, in the buildings that served as the first obligatory gathering place for all immigrants passing through the maze of the American bureaucracy beginning in the 19th century and up until the 1930s and 40s. Just as offhandedly, she adds that her mother was among these immigrants in the 1930s. The emotional charge of the site remains secondary. The focus is on observing the labyrinthine space itself, which leads any dogma of perspectival perception ad absurdum with its endless continuation of transparencies. The spaces are more like intermingling waves of sound, or periods of time with porous edges. The longer one observes the piece, however, the more one is likely to be reminded of W. G. Sebald’s description of “stereometric spaces”:
It does not seem to me, Austerlitz added, that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision. 9 This interweaving of spaces that have long since abandoned their physical walls and have assumed a completely different, immaterial presence in the viewer’s awareness of time, a presence located in our imagination – this, rather than the “theater of memory”
evoked by the title, seems to be the subject here. Thomas is not interested in nostalgia of any kind, or in a melancholy contemplation of what has been lost. Rather, what these images seem to observe so powerfully is the crossing-over into another space, the threshold itself, the gaze that never arrives but continues to look onwards from one space through to the next hallway and from there on to the next space. Precisely as though immigration had become a continual migration, as though someone stood on a new threshold time and again. As though a life composed of new beginnings were described here. Such a reading implies, on the one hand, not blocking out the past completely, yet on the other it means an intensified present, a perpetual beginning. In 1989, Gwenn Thomas made a 110 x 49.5cm work on wood with an embedded sepia gelatin silver print that feels like a delayed echo of the Ellis Island pieces. This time, a large wood panel has been cut into the actual shape of a window, and on a slight diagonal at that, so that it gives the impression of being ajar. The irony of this frame no longer requires any paint; the tautological conceptuality alone is enough – in its sarcastic radicalness, this construction is similar to the work of Walid Raad and his games involving rope-tricks and reality. We gaze out through the constructed window onto another one. Deceptively real, the photographed window frame runs throughout the piece as a whole and divides the space behind it into two parts. In other words, we gaze out through two windows, or through one window composed of two illusions, the wooden structure on the one hand and the photograph on the other, which finally opens onto a view of the divided inner space, which is in turn lined with windows. Behind these windows is a hallway, once again lined with windows, behind which yet more new rooms unfold in the same manner. Yet the first room is full of files, which themselves contain a world of letters and other documents, giving this piece its title, namely Letters. Theater of Memory / Ellis Island (detail), 1984 gelatin silver print w. white enamel on wood 37” x 38.5”
The origins of this interweaving of interior and exterior, of continued spaces, can be found even before the Ellis Island rooms. In 1979, Thomas had constructed a wide, painted frame, which also seized on the tautological irony of the window frame of photography. The vista opens onto a summery garden teeming with cheerful family life and large, lush trees and bushes. Two of these trees stand in the foreground almost like entrance columns, their dark, irregular branches crisscrossing the space between the geometric window bars. The view through a window, from an interior onto an exterior space, is so powerfully present in Thomas’s oeuvre that one could call it a second leitmotif. This becomes especially apparent when one considers the few exceptions, such as Purple and Red Plum Tree (1980): the frame outlines such an extreme close-up of a treetop that it completely negates any notion of a landscape. The treetop meets the viewer’s gaze like a visual barrier – we see red, as it were, and experience the intensity of exclusivity. Even the frame is appropriated by the image, as if the tree’s presence were overflowing. This is a completely different pictorial situation than in Window and Garden (1979), where not only the conception of a landscape unfolds, at least initially, but where the view itself, the view through the window, from an interior onto an exterior space, remains the actual subject. Yet, the network of lines in Window and Garden is denser than in the other pieces, making a mystery of the pictorial space behind it. It will be many years before a similar latticelike network resurfaces in a different form in Thomas’s work. Projections Nontransparent. That is how this very same structure – a dense web, an abstract image, formed out of the lines of window crossbars – appears before the viewer twenty years later, in the 1993 piece entitled Untitled (Flag). The word “abstract” is used here not to denote an aesthetic category, but merely in order to differentiate this piece from other works by Gwenn Purple and Red Plum Tree, 1980 color photo w. oil paint on mat board and wood, 25” x 19”
Thomas that show recognizable and nameable objects (every image is an abstraction, of course – even the most precise shadow of an object is a projection and therefore abstract). However, this transition from an object that, just a moment ago, we could touch, perhaps even name, give a rough description of, at least, yet which now becomes something else, an image that in its transformed state strikes the viewer as unfamiliar, inscrutable and ungraspable, is the subject of a large body of work from the 1990s.
see, we cannot deduce what technique was used to make the image. The delicate texture and heightened tension of the canvas transform its materiality into immateriality, what we perceive is nothing more than a whirring apparition, an unseizable presence, the vibrant shimmering of a mirage.
Flag, 1993 photo emulsion on linen 30” x 44”
A small collage rests on the table; narrow strips are loosely intertwined and interlinked in a woven pattern. Just tugging gently on one of them would be enough to make the whole thing fall apart. The strips form a rectangle, though their ends jut out beyond that shape, irregular edges protruding into space. This is precisely what Thomas photographs. Yet she never exhibits these small collages; they are a lost form, as it were. The artist keeps them in her studio like leftover back-stage materials. Unlike an architect, Thomas would never show her “models,” so far removed are they from what she ultimately makes based on them. It is these final pieces that interest her. Did Cézanne display photographs of the Mont Sainte Victoire? He was only interested in his own painterly conception, the execution. Thomas has a similar relationship to her models. She projects the photographed image, slightly enlarged, onto canvas, which has been prepared with photo emulsion. What appears is an abstract image, neither photograph nor painting, an image whose structure, seen from a distance, might call to mind Piet Mondrian. The extremely tightly stretched canvas projects a tremendous sense of unfamiliarity, inapproachability. Based on what we
Yet, closer inspection reveals something else: the shadows of the original strips were clearly photographed along with the strips themselves and now appear along the edges of the web like an echolike structure. A surface, something constructed, becomes clearly apparent here. Another aspect is also visible: the strips have been cut from either photographic or painted material. Their surfaces reveal more or less obviously recognizable traces of painted canvas or photographed images. Neither shows anything we can name, yet they are clearly part of some whole, excerpts, which have been woven together here. And that strikes me as interesting. Gwenn Thomas has produced an entire series of “abstract” images using this process, all of which can be traced back to similarly handcrafted small collages. Also in 1993, she produced another piece entitled Flag, along whose edges one can still see the pasted-together strips of the original. In the piece Kino VII, from 1995, the lines alternate between smooth ones and others that appear rasterized, but which actually trace back to a collage in which the artist used corrugated tape. The title may underscore the movement of these lines, which, with their shadows, look as though they were moving through space. Which is, in fact, what they are doing in the model on which they are based: the handcrafted collage. A narrow vertical format, whose strips reproduce the irregularity of the collage along their bottom edges, is entitled Awning (1994). Indeed, the piece calls to mind a shutter or window blind. Titles like these demonstrate the shift from collage to photographic projection that has taken place; they denominate the “change of identity” evoked by the artist.
“manipulation” alone presupposes a reality that can be objectively experienced. But this reality is precisely what Thomas challenges in her work. Which means that it would make more sense to compare these projections to the views through windows in her own earlier work. What seems to be the subject here is that very trans – that “trans-spective,” that standing-on-athreshold way of seeing – which, in Thomas’s oeuvre, has long since become a way of being.
Kino VII, 1995 photo emulsion on linen 37.5” x 33.5”
These pieces might remind us of the scenically constructed stage models photographed by Thomas Demand, which show the manipulation involved in photography; or of James Casebere, with his miniature models of interior spaces or urban structures, which he transforms into spaces outside of time and place in his photographic projections. The work of these artists, however, is primarily concerned with the theme of a manipulated and manipulable gaze. It seems to me that Gwenn Thomas, on the other hand, uses the method of projection instead to achieve an even more intense confrontation with reality. Her work expresses the full range of our perception rather than the common theme of the manipulation of a projection. The term
Yet the view “through something,” the trans, is a motif that recurs throughout the history of art. Diverse examples of the theme can be found in the simultaneity of various pictorial spaces, each of which depicts a separate action, whose effects however interrelate – as happens in Duccio or Fra Angelico, for example. Among the Impressionists, a popular topos is the view through a grove onto the scenery behind it. However, the title of a 1996 piece by Thomas – the photopainting10 Zaum – points to a very different context. Once again, collage elements are apparent, but they are arranged with larger spaces between them. There are three round components with large, dark centers, which could be mistaken for eyes from a distance. The title Thomas has given this piece clearly refers to the notion of “zaum” invented by the Russian Constructivists, who in fact were the first to develop the painterly idea of trans into a complex philosophical concept. When the Futurist poets Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh created a trans-rational, universal language for their poetry, they composed the word “zaum” by combining the Russian for “beyond, behind” and “mind”; this is what Malevich and Tatlin were alluding to when they developed their concepts of “hyperspace.” Seen in this light, Zaum becomes a turning point in Thomas’s more recent work. For, it seems to me that what emerges here is a rupturing of the sealed surface, a new way of conceiving an open space.
New ground Gwenn Thomas does not set out to deceive or surprise us with her interplay of painting and photography. Rather, what she achieves is to unsettle and rattle both our conventional conception of imagery and our everyday perception of reality. The construction of a surface becomes apparent, as though our perception were observing reality through the set pieces of the remembered, the familiar, the occasionally unfamiliar, which may however be overlaid, colonized, pasted over with familiar elements; as though we were looking through a structure when trying to discover what it is to experience reality. In some images, in particular in the Flag paintings, this structure is shown as a hermetic surface without so much as a crack left open to peek through, as though the possibility of any other, intuitive way of seeing – a way of seeing that dares to expand its field of vision to recognize the Other as something new, without preconceived categories – had been suppressed. For, if we follow Husserl and his postulate that we are enveloped in a “strömende Lebensgegenwart” 11 (“streaming living present”), this implies that we are also enveloped in an enormous darkroom of memory – of which we are more or less aware – which encompasses considerably vaster timespans than that of our own lifetime. It means that our memory is part of a whole, our breath, our language, belongs to a continuum. These ideas seem to have found confirmation in recent scientific research on our capacity to store information, which may rise to the surface through dreams or intuitions; trans-generational memory researchers refer to this ability to sense worlds and times that precede our own lifetime by seven generations as “young memory.” A dizzying notion, for it means that systems of selection criteria and values are passed down from generation to generation and govern our perception. Philosophers such as Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida – and, in this context, some thinkers of the school of Lacan as well – have described these ideas as an “unbearable truth.” 12 They recognized the considerable help that these Long Dream, 2006 photo pigment print on canvas 41” x 27”
delimiting systems and protective structures can offer us in coping with daily life. It is only against this background that it becomes possible to understand how daring Gwenn Thomas was to rupture the hermetic fabric of these systems. In 1999, she made AB 41 (the titles from this period
consider pigment prints on canvas as “abstract” images, abbreviated to AB). Like Thomas’s other pieces from these years, AB 41 is composed of intensely colored pieces of cloth, distributed seemingly at random and with large gaps between them. Without seeing a progressive development in the traditional sense, there seems to be an intensification of this freedom when one compares the AB body of works to the photopainting Long Dream from several years later (2006). A white primed canvas opens up a large, empty pictorial space – bordered only along the edges by draped, photographed scraps of fabric, whose length and animated folds almost call to mind the frame of a theater curtain. Allowing oneself to daydream, one could even imagine a play being performed here, a dramatization of Yves Klein’s jump into the void. The photopainting itself seems like a transition. It exudes a sense of excitement, as though one were standing on the threshold of a new beginning. Scene change in the studio: tall, narrow papers hang on the wall. They are neither stretched nor framed. They are tacked, very freely, directly to the wall, each with two nails. The papers are coated with a thin layer of gesso, giving them a substantiality reminiscent of animal hide or thick parchment. Delicate traces of ink drops – light and dark blue, shifting now and again to black; watery and deep red – traverse this pictorial space like fragile trajectories in the 183 x 36cm Sonancy (2009). Indeed, many things appear here for the first time. For the first time, the lines are the result of a delicate shift in equilibrium. The artist has applied drops of ink to the paper so that they flow in swaying balance, their course across the page determined by the energetic dynamics of space. Once again, painting has come into being without the artist’s hand. Also for the first time, we encounter a format that corresponds to the height of a human body, to Le Corbusier’s proportions. What has become the subject here is the almost unoccupied space, which is traversed by lines just enough so as to become visible and tangible. These lines are an incident in space. They are movement in space. At the same time, they are manifestations of the space in which we live, they share with us the fact of being inscribed within the force system of spatial energies; they share with us the same dependence on gravity. The counterbalancing equilibrium, which traced these lines onto the paper, makes us aware of this connection. Beginning as intense drops of color, the traces duck and dodge as though distracted by some movement, strike out in a new direction, describe a large arch, flow onwards, peter out, run into other traces which they cross, break off or gradually fade away. They are the resonance of the empty space. This large series of images, entitled Sonancy, originated around 2007. However, it was in 2009 that Gwenn Thomas produced such a wide range of variations of these images that they clearly emerged as a distinct body of work, Sonancy, 2009 ink on gessoed paper 27” x 14”
which she is still adding to today. And these images really do have a sonorous presence, like the sound of a violin reverberating through space. This impression of a sound spreading out in concentric circles becomes even more powerful when a form that seems to echo the theme of the previously discussed “oculus” reveals itself in the midst of these open networks of lines. On the other hand, if we chose to apply a bodily scale to Sonancy (Even as I am) (2009), we could say that this elliptical expanse teeming with a plethora of small, colored rectangles is the size of a human head. These blots of color emanate from, or converge towards, a clearly defined center. Equally clearly, the area they
cover lies beneath the image’s delicate, open network of lines, as though these lines were being held together by a large contrapuntal chord that absorbs and blends their sounds. This elliptical expanse with its concentrically expanding and possibly rotating mosaic of small rectangles is capable of becoming a theme in its own right in significantly smaller formats, where it now takes up the entire pictorial space. Were it not for the drop-traces that traverse this space, spreading across the geometrically constructed form in an aleatory movement, we would clearly recognize the “oculus” from the earlier works, despite the fact that it is vertical rather than horizontal here, as it was in the 1970s. The “oculus,” the eye, has become a head, or rather, a portrait. Yet a portrait is more than a face; it makes an entire person tangible, it is a universe. This transformation from “oculus” to portrait, or to the idea of a portrait, is a considerable step, because it creates the impression that this elliptical expanse composed of countless concentrically arranged particles is producing a whole that, until now, had only been hinted at marginally. It is not a great leap to see this plethora of small, fanned-out rectangles as a continuation of the radial structure of the glass window in Oculus. Yet, in their multitude, they are even more evocative of the starburst of a real eye, with its thousands of subdivisions – precisely as Max Ernst envisioned it in his drawing Wheel of the Sun. At the same time, the rectangles’ diminutive size unintentionally gives the impression that we are seeing this “oculus” from a great distance. This association is further reinforced by a 48 x 38cm drypoint from 2010, which is part of the Sonancy group of works. It shows delicately hatched concentric circles, which form a spinning web. The lines seem to revolve around their center at high speed. From a distance, the drawing is reminiscent of photographs of rotating stars inscribing their trajectories of light onto the sky. Like a gateway, this small sheet opens up a view onto another dimension. The eye becomes a cosmos Sonancy, 2010 relief etching 19” x 15”
here. While it is possible that these connotations never occurred to Gwenn Thomas, Max Ernst’s 1925 Système de monnaie solaire, which presents a cosmic system of eye-planets, could also be included among them. Half a century earlier, in 1878, Odilon Redon had released his Oeil-Ballon into the sky. It is easy to imagine not only that these eyes orbit, but that they
themselves – their gaze, their irises – also revolve. The “oculus” has become a Weltentwurf, a blueprint for a new world. Universal transparency13 – a conception of space that transgresses all boundaries. The original gaze through a window frame has since long become a vision that knows neither perspective nor horizon. In this vision, which dissolves all limits and separations, lattices of lines can come alive that are completely free and wide open, as if connecting various spaces and times, and the segments of the “oculus” may seem like nothing but distant echoes, a vibration in the air. When, in Thomas’s more recent work, the drop-traces become a theme in their own right, traversing space as narrow, detached trails, it seems as if impulses were inscribing their vibrations onto space. The artist has combined smaller sheets to create a 43 x 56cm diptych – prints made using the same method she used for the older pieces Sugar lift and spit bite. This 2011 piece is called The Pearl is the River’s Color, a title that makes us think of the “detached happiness” Agnes Martin evokes in her poetic texts. What these sheets – which Gwenn Thomas spreads across entire walls – reveal is a way of seeing, which, by overcoming labyrinthine spaces of memory and historical ballast, achieves the limitless freedom of precisely this: a universal transparency. What resonates here is the vision of poetry, the convergence of all points – at the end of the path, where new paths can be discovered. What crystallizes here is the aforementioned zaum – the notion of a trans, a through, a beyond – an idea that Thomas has developed and expanded to the point where it breaks through all temporal and spatial boundaries. What we sense here is a sound that has been present as an undercurrent in her work from the beginning – the resonance of that “transversal vision” which does not conceive of the universe as a linear succession of events, but rather as a convergence of spaces and times, a quietude of duration, a present of perpetual beginnings. Sonancy, 2010 ink on paper 4” x 6”
End Notes 1. Hans Namuth is particularly well known for his film series ‘Museum without Walls,’ which includes his film about Jackson Pollock; as a portraitist, he was almost as famous as his models, among whom were De Kooning, Water Kahn, Frank Stella Jasper 1. Gropius, Hans Louis Namuth is particularly welland known for Johns. his film series ‘Museum without Walls,’ which includes his film about Jackson Pollock; as a portraitist, he was almost as famous as his models, among whom were De 2.Kooning, Regarding elective affinities these, seeStella the introduction my book Vortex of Silence – Proposition for an Water Gropius, Louislike Kahn, Frank and JasperinJohns. art criticism beyond aesthetic categories, Milan/New York, Charta, 2004, pp. 16ff. 2. See Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, London, Pimlico, 1992 (first edition Routledge & Kegan p.Gedichte 141. 3.Paul, Paul1966), Celan, II, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1979, p. 88. 3. Regarding elective affinities like these, see the introduction in my book Vortex of Silence – Proposition an art aesthetic categories, Milan/New Charta, 2004, pp. 16ff. 4.forIbid, p. criticism 108. (Forbeyond an English translation of Celan’s volumeYork, Fadensonnen see Paul Celan, Threadsuns, translated Joris, Los Angeles, Sun & Moon Classics,1979, 2000.) 4. by Pierre Paul Celan, Gedichte II, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, p. 88. 5. Ibid, p. 108. (For an English translation of Celan’s volume Fadensonnen see Paul Celan, Threadsuns, 5.translated I am taking certain iconological freedom even though 2000.) Arturo Schwartz in The Complete Works of Marby aPierre Joris, Los Angeles, Sun here, & Moon Classics, cel Duchamp (Thames and Hudson, London, 1997, p. 515) reports a quite different background for the Sixteen 6. I am taking a certain iconological freedom here, even though Arturo Schwartz in The Complete Works Miles of String: ”Schiaparelli asked Duchamp to prepare a layout as economical as possible since the exhibition of Marcel Duchamp London, 1997, p.String 515) reports a quite background for the was organized for the(Thames benefit ofand theHudson, French Relief Societies. was among thedifferent cheapest materials available, Sixteen Miles bought of String: ”Schiaparelli Duchamp to prepare a layout economical as an possible since in and Duchamp sixteen miles ofasked it, of which only about one mile was as used, to prepare entanglement the exhibition was organized difficulties for the benefit of thehis French Relief Societies. String was among cheapest which the visitor experienced in finding way to the paintings.” Another artist who the refers to that point available, andRuthenbeck Duchamp bought sixteen of it, of Pavillon which only about one mile was used, to(shared prepare ofmaterials view clearly is Rainer in his room of miles the German at the Venice Biennale in 1976 with Joseph Beuysinand Jochen Gerz).experienced difficulties in finding his way to the paintings.” Another artist an entanglement which the visitor who refers to that point of view clearly is Rainer Ruthenbeck in his room of the German Pavillon at the Venice 6.Biennale Horst Bredekamp, Die Fenster der Monade, Gottfried in 1976 (shared with Joseph Beuys and JochenWilhelm Gerz). Leibniz’ Theater der Natur und Kunst, Akademie Verlag, 2004, p. 16. 7. Horst Bredekamp, Die Fenster der Monade, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’ Theater der Natur und Kunst, Akademie p. 16. Barthes,” in: Roland Barthes, Oeuvres completes, Vol. III, 1974-1980, Paris, 7. “Roland Verlag, Barthes2004, par Roland 8. 1995,“Roland Seuil, p. 159. Barthes par Roland Barthes,” in: Roland Barthes, Oeuvres completes, Vol. III, 1974-1980, Paris, Seuil, 1995, p. 159. 8.9. W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, translated by Anthea Bell, Random House,House, New York, 261.p. 261. W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, translated by Anthea Bell, Random New2001, York, p. 2001, 10. “Photopainting” is part of the artist’s own terminology. 9.11. “Photopainting” is part of Husserliana the artist’s own terminology. Edmund Husserl, Werke Vol. XI, p. 381, cited in: Hans Blumenberg, Lebenszeit und Weltzeit, Frankfurt, 1986, p. 11. (For English translations of Husserl’s work see Ullrich Melle (series editor), Husser10. Edmund Husserl, Husserliana Werke Vol. XI, p. 381, cited in: Hans Blumenberg, Lebenszeit und Weltzeit, liana: Edmund – Collected Works, NewofYork, Springer-Verlag.) Frankfurt, 1986,Husserl p. 11. (For English translations Husserl’s work see Ullrich Melle (series editor), Husserliana: 12. See Michael Turnheim, Das Scheitern der Oberfläche, Zurich-Berlin, 2005, p. 137. (The title refers Edmund Husserl – Collected Works, New York, Springer-Verlag.) to Gilles Deleuze’s view that: “Corps-passoire, corps-morcelé et corps dissocié forment les trois premières 11. See Michael Turnheim, Das Scheitern dercette Oberfläche, Zurich-Berlin, p. 137. (The title refers[Logique to Gilles dimensions du corps schizophrénique. Dans faillite de la surface, le2005, mot entier perd son sens.” Deleuze’s view that: “Corps-passoire, corps-morcelé et corps dissocié forment les trois premières dimensions du Sens, Paris 1969, p. 107].) du corps schizophrénique. Dans la God surface, le motinentier son sens.” [Logique Sens, Paris 13. Based on Octavio Páz,cette who faillite honorsdethe of words Indianperd mythology in his El monodugramático, 1969, p. 107].) Barcelona, 1974. For the concept of “universal transparency”, see p. 138. 12. Based on Octavio Páz, who honors the God of words in Indian mythology in his El mono gramático, Barcelona, 1974. For the concept of “universal transparency”, see p. 138.
DORIS VON DRATHEN Doris von Drathen is an independent art historian and critic, born in Hamburg and based in Paris since 1990. After studying Roman literature and art history in Paris, Zaragoza, Florence and Hamburg, she worked for ten years as an art critic in radio and television and contributed to Artforum as a correspondent. Since the mid-1980s she has regularly published monographic essays in Kunstforum International, Künstler Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst and numerous books and exhibition catalogues. She has held teaching positions at the École des Beaux-Arts and the École des hautes études in Paris, the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Columbia University, New York City. She is currently guest professor at the École Spéciale dArchitecture in Paris (since 2007). Doris von Drathen is known for her transversal approach that she presented in Vortex of Silence: Proposition for an Art Criticism beyond Aesthetic Categories (Charta, 2004). This book contains a theoretical introduction and twenty-four illustrative essays on Christian Boltanski, Louise Bourgeois, Pat Steir, Mona Hatoum, Anish Kapoor, Gerhard Richter, Jannis Kounellis, Marina Abramovic, Agnes Martin and others. Several monographs followed, including Rebecca Horn: Sculptures (Hatje Cantz, 2004) and Rebecca Horn: Drawings (Hatje Cantz, 2005); Pat Steir: Installations and Pat Steir: Paintings (both Charta, 2007); Rui Chafes (Charta, 2008); Rebecca Horn: Cosmic Maps (Charta, 2008); Manuela Filiaci (Charta, 2009); Rebecca Horn & Jannis Kounellis (Peleires, 2009); Nalini Malani (Hatje Cantz, 2010); and Painting Space: Fabienne Verdier (Charta, 2012). Monographs on Kimsooja and Jannis Kounellis are forthcoming. Her most recent project is a book that will present her research on conceptions of space and territory—a study that has lead to the working title Polyphony of Gravity, or: How to Break the Idols of Identity. With this project Doris von Drathen intends to once again leave behind the strictures of categories.
Moments of Place VII, 2014 HD C print w. wood frame 5 3/4” x 26 1/2”
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