This series of works, in which videos are projected onto paintings, is an inquiry into the structural conditions of the projected moving image and painting. By creating a the conditions for type of fusion of projection and painting, the ways in which we are accustomed to viewing these mediums are accentuated producing a unique viewing experience in which the spectator cannot fully engage one medium or the other. This results in an instability in the viewer’s experience of the work, in which the focus is less on the window within the picture frame, and more on the interaction between the inherent elements of both mediums—opacity/transparency, stillness/movement, analog/digital, shadow/light, smoothness/sharpness, brushstrokes/pixel.
In many of my most recent projection works, the frame of the screen was the central point of investigation. The works created prior to this current series interrogated the painting-like, rectangular wall-piece through which projection has traditionally been presented in the history of cinema and in the majority of examples of projected artworks. Many of my recent video projections have endeavored to interrogate the conventional rectilinear positioning of a projected image on the center of a wall. The objective was to subvert the prevalent form of the projected image by projecting works into corners, onto three-dimensional surfaces, or in various anamorphic perspectives. This new series of projections on paintings instead embraces the rectangular projection screen, while simultaneously addressing its relationship to the stretched canvas in painting. However, the work intends to move beyond the shape of the screen or canvas, and delve into deeper questions about the inherent conditions of the projected image and painting—particularly, the perceptual effect of the fusion of the two mediums on the viewer.
In Film and the New Psychology, Maurice Merleau Ponty describes our ability to habitually and unthinkingly adapt to changing lighting conditions: “Objects and lighting form a system which tends toward a certain constancy and a certain level of stability—not through the operation of intelligence but through the very configuration of the field. I do not thing the world in the act of perception; it organizes itself in front of me” (1). When we see a projection onto a screen our perceptual faculties automatically adjust to recognize that the white surface of the screen has changed due to the different frequencies of light produced by the projector. We see films and videos projected on to this screen so often that we rarely give thought to the actual structural elements of the resulting image. These projections on paintings attempt to forestall the automatic, normative perceiving and processing screen-based work. This “certain level of stability” is interrupted, as the conditions of the conventional projection of the image on the screen have been reconfigured
Since each one-minute video seamlessly transitions in a cross-faded loop, there is no stopping point where the painting can be contemplated in a light removed from the projection. Thus, the viewer will always be introduced to the work from a distance as a video projection. The painted image begins to emerge only when the viewer steps closer to the canvas. Depending on which medium the viewer grasps as an anchor, the image makes sense perceptually. As Merleau Ponty articulates, “the looked-at object in which I anchor myself will always seem fixed, and I cannot take this meaning away from it except by looking elsewhere. Nor do I give it this meaning through thought” (2). Thus, if from a distance the viewer sees a video, the painting will be seen in relation to the moving image projected onto the screen. However, as the viewer closely inspects the screen, the light from the projection glistens off of the thickness of the brushstrokes, and the viewer tends to be more aware of the stillness of the painted image. Importantly, even when the viewer recognizes that it is a projection and a painting, it is difficult to anchor one’s attention solely on one medium or another. This is primarily due to the shifting position of the projected image, through the shaking of the hand-held camera in the tree video, and the movement and contraction of the iris in the eyeball video. The painted image and projected image become out of sync, and the viewer must recalibrate his or her anchor, as the doubling of the image interrupts the stability of any one perceived medium.
This results in a confounding oscillation of focus, from painting to projected video, which creates a heightened awareness of the components that make up the work. When one of the canvases was hung on a small a column (which allowed for the rear of the painting to be exposed) in a recent exhibition, I witnessed viewers walking behind the work to see whether the light from the projection seeped through the stretched canvas. Others approached the image at a sharp angle as they examined the light reflecting off of the impasto brushstrokes. Unlike Michael Fried’s notion of the screen in his seminal essay Art and Objecthood, these screens very much exist in a physical form in relation to us (3). The work remains in line with self-reflexive works such as Michael Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story, in that it explores what Kate Mondloch articulates as the “apparent paradox of media installation spectatorship”, in that it is “simultaneously material (the viewer’s phenomenological engagement with actual objects in real time and space) and immaterial (the viewer’s metaphorical projection into virtual times and spaces)” (4). The iconic image on the screen is still present, but due to the excess materiality of the screen surface in the form of the painted image, it is difficult to access the immaterial realm in these works without paying at least equivalent attention to the material elements.
This interaction of the viewer is to an extent reminiscent of the viewer’s experience of Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone, where the viewer assumes an interactive role, repositioning the body in relation to the projection, and focusing more on the nature or structure of the work, than on the actual image represented on the screen. In McCall’s work, the screen is no longer a transparent window. The objective was to find the irreducible elements of film through the projection of solid light. Thus, the focus was on the space between the projector and the screen, where the viewer interacts with the sculptural form of the projected light. The goal of my projections on paintings is to bring the viewer back to the screen, but still avoid the illusion of the screen-as-window, as was so successfully achieved by McCall.
In my projection on paintings, the screen as a seemingly transparent surface is called into question because its smooth, white surface has been contaminated by the marks of the brushstroke. These marks refer not only to the opacity of the medium of painting, but to the actual opacity of the perceived window into the world of the projected image. The screen in a conventional sense might refer to a sense of transparency in the way a photographic image would, but it is still an opaque material. Thus the painted surface directs the viewer to the way in which the screen is perceived as a window into another space.
The paintings by themselves are incomplete. Compared to my highly detailed photorealist paintings, these paintings are hastily executed over a period of a little over week for each canvas. Without the projection, they could be viewed more as underpaintings than anything approaching finished works. As a dedicated painter in the early to mid-2000s, I would build the painting up from the sketch, to the more substantive underpainting, to the finished work with glazes and smoothed-out brushstrokes. However, this process took dozens, if not hundreds of hours, over several months to complete. It seems fortuitous that I faced time restrictions with these new works. The unfinished state of the paintings allows for the surface to interact with the projection in a way that one depends on the other.
I would never display these particular paintings alone in a gallery setting. It would be embarrassing to have them seen without the projection. However, when the video is projected on the paintings, the simple, unresolved marks are activated. The hand-held camera shot of the trees merge in and out of synching up with the position of the painted image. The quiver of the projected video of the close-up eye varies in and out of alignment with its painted representation. The video illuminates the relatively monochromatic color palate of the paintings.
Yet, the projection is also defined by the marks on the canvas. This is most evident in the shadows in the painted image. Most average-quality projectors will yield a poor contrast ratio, and a true black is only achieved through projectors that cost several thousand dollars. Even at the highest contrast setting, the projectors I have been used to working with will not approach a significantly deep black. However, with the combination of the dark portions of the video image and the dark shades of the painted canvas, the deep shadows are attained in a way that could not be achieved with the projection alone.
Beyond the increased contrast brought about by the painting, the lines of the painted marks on the canvas provide a sharpness to the projection—a kind of sharpening tool—that cannot be obtained through the projection of such a magnified digital image. The pixels from the blown-up video are more obscured by the solid definition of the painted image.
This leads to the original question that led to this inquiry that I hope will progress from these preliminary projection on painting works: what is the relationship between digital and analog mediums in contemporary art? It is no coincidence that the moving images projected onto the painted canvases are magnified 600-800% of the scale of the original HD image. No matter how sharp the quality of the image, it will break down into an abstraction of jagged pixels if it is blown up to a large enough scale. Painting as a material is more resilient to this kind of magnification; it may lose its ability to function iconically, but its texture still retains a fluidity unachievable through digital processes. Even the grain in a magnified photographic film frame still possesses an organic quality. The comparison between the denticulated pixels of the digital image and the fluent cohesion of the painted marks may not appear to be the most compelling comparison between digital and analogue forms. However, these are first steps in an ongoing project to examine the structure of images—whether through the abstraction of binary code, or the physicality of film, paint, and object-based components.
Though the projected and painted images in these works still possess iconic qualities, the experience still points to a reduction to the inherent qualities of the moving image, projection, and painting. The focus of the viewer is more on the components that make up the work—the marks of the brush, the thickness of the paint, the opacity of the screen, and the perceptual and embodied relationship to the work—than on the content of the image projected and painted on the screen. This merging of the primary functions of each medium brings about an increased curiosity in the structure of the work, and how the perceived strengths and weaknesses of both mediums came together to produce a hybrid form of representation.
1 Maurice Merleau Ponty, Film and the New Psychology, p. 51.
2 Maurice Merleau Ponty, Film and the New Psychology, p. 52.
3 Cited in Kate Mondloch, Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art (Minneaplois: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 1.
4 Ibid, p. 17