Between the abstract and the real: framing the photomat 

 

There is something peculiarly fascinating about the photobooth image. Those unflattering strips of photos obtained from either booking hall or shopping centre are at once both familiar and strange – miniature in scale and yet so intimately revealing; anonymous in one way and yet intensely personal in another; destined for official use and yet also played for larks; rigidly automatic in their method while depending on chance for their effect.

 

Intriguing then to see how this rigid machine can from the basis of an artistic process which actually renders its conventional portrait function redundant. Since 1985, Liz Rideal has used multiple sequences of these 4-part photo strips to make collaged in which the miniature images are either subsumed in the overall tissue of a much larger composition, or individually enlarged displayed in the form of polyptychs. While previously the pasted strips either depicted recognisable objects, as in Self portrait right thumb, 1991, or traced the contours of larger collective works in a method comparable to elementary drawing, in her more recent work, the final image seems more concerned with colour as form and less with outline as contour. There is less obvious desire to re-present a specific, recognisable object and we see a shift from the playful representation of an abstract painting, and in her Homage to Mondrian: composition in red, yellow and blue 1921, 1987, to the formation of patterns which are abstract in their own right. The more obvious figurative references to the head and hair in her last exhibited series, the Rainbow portraits, 1996, have also been exchanged for greater emphasis on grids containing pure swathes of colour which often unfurl vertically as in the Cascades, 1997, or which assume a more monochromatic appearance as in the works of the Arras suite.

 

It is only on close examination that the apparently abstract bands of colour in these works reveal themselves to be brightly coloured piece of material, either bunched-together handfuls of coloured net (as in Thunder Smoke 4 & 5) or larger, stretched and draped pieces of silk (for example, the Arras suite) as opposed to being the painted monochromes wee might take them for. The minimalist ‘squares’ which echo through the colour bands are in fact caused by creases which have occurred in the folding and storing of the material before it has been hung out. Interesting them, it is fabric itself, the embryonic starting point of both drapery and clothing in portrait painting, which now substitutes the erstwhile use of face and upper body as the portrait subject. Nevertheless, the brilliance of the colours may certainly bring to mind abstract painting: the rectangles of Rothko or Reinhardt or the ‘colour fields’ of Morris Louis. The use of the word ‘veil’ in certain titles, such as Green Veils, connotes one of Louis’ early paintings series, whiles the blurring of colour tonalities in the silk chiffon suggests a similarly ‘painterly’ approach tin the overlay of tonalities and the sublet gratin of juxtaposed hue. It is no surprise the Rideal trained as a painter. But whatever the analogies to painting (and the attention paid to the behaviour and appearance of individual fabrics certainly recalls the traditions of old master painting as much as those of high modernism), close examination of the images constantly draws one back again to the mechanical process of production. It is extraordinary to think that colour saturation has been achieved by a machine over which the user has severely limited control. In the photobooth there in no possibility of manually adjusting the light reading, for example, for even in factory conditions, the artist is only ever in front of, and never behind, the camera. The only modifications which essentially can be made are those which occur to the materials insides the booth.

 

Moreover, unlike conventional photography, each image (or strip of four images) is paradoxically unique. The photomat process itself involves no negative. There is therefore, in Walter Benjamin’s terms, a sense of uniqueness and duration ‘ rather than mere ‘transience and reproducibility’ contained within each image as ‘they are produced serially, over time’. This is taken further in the completed collage where hundreds of unique separate photographic images are read in tandem from a distance, and as miniature, yet autonomous parts of the whole I close-up. In this way, the questions posed by the work also go beyond single frame photography and inevitably touch upon the use of assemblage or photomontage as a process of abstract construction. The avant-garde, Hungarian constuctivist, Moholy Nagy, discussed the advantages of ‘repetition as a space-time organisational motif’ in his own abstract photographic work earlier in the century and he throw and interesting light upon its significance. For him,’the series is no longer a “picture”, and none of the canons of pictorial aesthetics can be applied to it. Here the separate picture loses its identity as such and becomes a detail of assembly, an essential structural element of the whole which is the thing in itself. In this concatenation of its separate but inseparable parts a photographic series inspired by a definite purpose can become at once the most potent weapon and the tenderest lyric.’ 

 

This earl definition of the photo series as a ‘concatenation ‘ of parts, with the fragmentation of implies, seems eminently applicable to a more contemporary perception of the purpose of abstract are. Indeed, the very shift to abstraction in Rideal’s work may perhaps be seen as part of a larger re-encounter which artists have been making with abstract are art after the perceived failure of the utopian and existential aims of modernism. By using the multiple photograph as a tool to forge a larger abstract image, her approach is not so dissimilar to that of other artists who have been highly self-conscious in their uses of technique. One such example is the contemporary American artist. Philip Taaffe, who had mimicked the stature of high modernist abstract painting while using collages and other assorted ‘impure’ techniques, in a ‘process of addition, construction, of incremental embellishment, of laying and fragmentation.’ What this strategy opens up is the renewed possibility of embracing the hitherto denounced status of decoration and ornament. While Taaffe included abstracted arabesques and architectural details from Naples in his work of the late ’80s, Rideal has given luscious fabric a central role. The literal flatness of the modernist picture plane is symbolically confronted with these materials which are serially photographed in the process of either cascading down or gently billowing out against the back wall of the photobooth. The sensuality of texture denied in much cerebral, constructivist or minimal art is thus reintroduced and we are able to consider both the dramatic and decorative potential of colour in movement.

 

Yet paradoxically, the legacy of modernism is nevertheless undeniably present in this work through the use of the grid: a compositional method which is imposed here by the regular repetition of the edges of the photographic strips. This insistently regular, black edge of each strip predetermines a tight compositional organisation which, coupled with the regularity of the photographed image creates a highly controlled, geometric pattern in the final collage (see Arras suite, 1997-8, Criss-cross, 1997, and Salamonic, 1998, for example.) inevitably this photographic use of the grid offers analogy to its counterpart in modernist abstract painting – the regularity of vertical and horizontal lines to be found in an Agnes Martin for instance.

 

In discussing the temporal and spatial nature of the grid in modernist painting, the American writer, Rosalind Krauss, maintained that ‘in so far as its order is that of pure relationship, the grid is a way of abrogating the claims of natural object to have an order particular to themselves.’ In a similar way, the individual photos in Rideal’s work are subjected to the overall pattern of the grid and thus lose their identity at a distance, in favour of a sense of the whole (see Arras suite). Yet the potential for continuation beyond the final frame is as endless as a ‘centrifugal’ reading of the grid suggest. ‘By virtue of the grid, the given work of art is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric. Thus the grid operated from the work of art outward, compelling our acknowledgement of a work beyond the frame.’ In these terms, the grid in Rideal’s work helps to maintain a tension between the abstraction of the whole and our recognition of the real contained within (and beyond) it.

 

Moreover, Krauss’s ‘antihistorical’ reading of the grid can equally be extended here. The use of the photomat links to a whole variety of photogrid formats which stretch before and after modernism. Thus while there are obvious references to the serially constructed of gridded photographic imagery in the conceptual work of artists working around the time that Krauss was writing her essay (John Baldessari, Jan Dibbetts, Susan Hiller and Sol LeWitt to name but a few), the connection to the sequential motion -analysis work of Eadweard Muybridge at the end of the nineteenth-century is equally revealing. In Muybridge’s photography, the idea of movement is relayed through horizontal sequences of images which unfold, frame by frame, in serialisations of actions, frozen in time like the stills of a film. In the same way, Rideal’s recent vertical strips record the passing moments with extraordinary exactitude: every five seconds a flash, a flicker of movement mechanically memorialises the passage of time. Moreover in some of Muybridge’s images, such as Women pirouetting, 1887, there is an equal fascination with the fall of drapery, how it behaves and moves in a state of flux. Needless to say while Muybridge’s attention was focussed on such movement as an aid to scientific study of the body, Rideal’s interest is once again more abstract. The body, other than an occasionally glimpsed view of the hand (the measure of the miniature), is distinctly absent, as if the absolute certainly of Muybridge’s endeavour appears tenuous at the end of very a different, scientifically more morally-vexed century.

 

In more contemporary terms, the collaged photomat imagery partly connects to the work of artists who make photographic typologies (where particular classes of recognisable subject matter are brought together, such as groups of industrial buildings in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher (see Coal Bunker, 1974), faces in the case of Thomas Ruff or trees in the work of Roger Mertin. There is a similar use of seriality, and a comparative method of presentation, which become useful strategies to deal with the limited truth of the photograph. Moreover, the viewer must play an active role in deciphering the image. Attention is directed towards the subject of each autonomous piece and towards the artists’ cumulative method of working. Yet unlike typologies, the photomat images follow a preordained sequence within each strip – the integral order of one to four which is never broken in the final pasted collages. Although there is obviously far less freedom in this process – not least as the artist has no control over the camera – there is surprising variety in the end result. In this respect, Andy Warhol’s serial grids with their comparable sense of difference in similarity, provide an obvious inspiration.

 

What becomes very apparent from Rideal’s work is just how much it is the result of working within a highly circumscribed technique. More than conventional handheld photography, the fixed camera imposes a very specific performative role for the artist. As nothing can be done with the camera’s settings, all creativity must be directed in front of the lens and in the choices made later in determining the scale and order of the final collage or of the photographic enlargements. In this sense the photobooth camera is a perfect postmodernist tool – it denies the single image; refutes the aura of authorship and relies on replication. (Once switched on, it is programmed to make four images of whatever is there to be photographed). In front of this exacting a relentless machine, Rideal creates her images in severely limited conditions. It is only by dint of careful preplanning; a performative period inevitably involving some discomfort; and a certain preparedness to rely on chance that the restrictive demands of this technique can be successfully overcome and the results conveyed in the form of the final collage. It is in the particular properties of the image (the play of colour and the sensuous texture of the fabrics) that we find a rapprochement between the rigours of minimal and conceptual practice and a more open engagement with sensuality. While not being the only artist to have used this restrictive medium, Rideal seems able to continue to exploit its capacities: to play in the ambiguous realm between the abstract and the real and to create multiple images which while implying that photographic meaning might be complicated fragmentary and elusive, can also paradoxically, sustain a sense of the ‘lyric’. 

 

Anna Moszynska, 1998