What is an image? And what do the images that engulf us daily want? These questions, posed over the past twenty years in the field of “visual studies,” invite us to consider images not only in terms of their existence as objects, and their meaning, but also in terms of their relationship to the society in which they are produced. We have long characterized the work of a particular artist by her/his technique, but must now accept that the medium is more than a work’s materials or its message: it is the ensemble of practices that have brought the work into existence, i.e. not only the canvas, stretcher, and paint, but also the studio, gallery, and/or museum, the art market, and the critics.
From challenges to conventional “fine art” categorizations, to ontological shifts in the realm of the “visual,” exhibitions at MAMCO in 2019 explore this evolving concept of the image.
This spring, we examined how figurative imagery can also act as a critique of representation, in the work of René Daniëls; and how abstract images can also derive from sensory experience and command a phenomenological response, in the work of Marcia Hafif.
This summer, a major exhibition of works by Walead Besthy makes explicit the status of the image as the outcome of a process—more “software” than “hardware.” As “scripted” productions, Walead Besthy’s works examine both the apparatus of their making and their connection to the real world. His productions also give us the measure of the lasting transformation wrought by Conceptual practices on art, and bring us face-to-face with one of its most distinctive legacies: the notion that art may inhere less in the object itself and more in its surroundings, in the things that bring an object to life when we “utilize” it, look at it, display it, and interpret it.
Other presentations, related to MAMCO collection’s politics of development, such as the exhibitions dedicated to the Givaudan donation, the work of Piotr Kowalski, and a major installation by Nam June Paik recently gifted to the museum, together with rooms featuring new acquisitions and activations of works, as well as the prolongation of the project around Martin Kippenberger’s MOMAS project, reflect the same focus on works defined by both their “programmatic” and their “open-ended” nature.
This fall, the museum constructs a typology of pictorial gestures and signs through four experimental practices. Thus MAMCO traces a unique path through the history of post-war painting, with retrospectives of the work of Martin Barré and Rosemarie Castoro, a major exhibition of work by Irma Blank and an ensemble of pieces by Arnulf Rainer (the Foëx donation). The replacement of brushwork by the use of spray, the extension of painting to the body and the space, the liberation of language from meaning, or the covering-over of pre-existing images are just some of the tropes on show—“gestures” that remind us that artists think above all in forms, that cannot be properly looked at and apprehended until they are understood as such.
‘What do pictures want?’ W.J.T. Mitchell, a central figure in ‘visual studies’ in the US, has been asking the question for more than twenty years. Above all, visual studies seeks to establish a new ‘iconology’ – to consider pictures not solely as objects or vehicles for meaning, but also in terms of their relationship to the society within which they were made.
The English language makes a clear distinction between ‘picture’ and ‘image’: ‘picture’ refers to an image and its support (one may hang a picture on a wall, but not an image), while ‘image’ is a transferable term, from one medium to another. An image may even survive the destruction of its physical support.
This is precisely what artists such as Wade Guyton, Kelley Walker and Seth Price, or Walead Beshty, Hito Steyerl and Laura Owens, set out to prove in the early 2000s: namely, that the image has acquired a new status, forged over the course of the twentieth century, connected first and foremost to its ‘technical reproducibility’ and subsequently to its emerging role as an ‘informational surface’.
Up to the turn of the twentieth century, our perception of an image was conditioned by its technique – witness the segregation of painting and photography (the former unique, the latter published in numbered editions), or abstract and figurative images. Subsequently, however, our perception of an image’s ‘medium’ expanded to encompass a much wider definition and message embracing the ensemble of practices that make its genesis and presentation possible – not only canvas and paint, for example, but also the chassis, studio, gallery, museum, and the systems underpinning the art market or its critical reception. This evolution in the concept of the image, from the abandoning of the traditional categories of ‘fine art’ to the ontological shifts in the visual régime, is the focus of the upcoming series of exhibitions at MAMCO.
Episode 1: a simultaneous presentation of two superficially opposing painterly practices demonstrates how the figurative image can also function as an interrogatory or representative form, and how an abstract image may also derive from lived, sensory experience, and demand a phenomenological response – a dialectic explored in spring 2019, in parallel retrospectives of the work of René Daniëls and Marcia Hafif. Daniëls creates works that address the context of their making and display, each picture both reflecting and challenging the practice of painting itself, while Hafif’s ‘abstract’ paintings of the 1960s are suffused with the glimpsed memory of Roman landscapes, and her monochromes express the artist’s authentically ‘materiological’ investigation. Within the series of rooms devoted to the ‘inventory’ of Hafif’s work, a major installation in situ by Richard Nonas is anchored in the same exploration of space and perception. Similarly, on the first floor – which features an ensemble of works from René Daniels’s ‘bow tie’ series – Martin Kippenberger’s MOMAs is a reminder of the connections that may be forged – centred on a kind of institutional critique – between the Dutch painter’s work and the German artist’s museographical fictions.
Episode 2: summer 2019, a major solo exhibition of the work of Walead Besthy and a number of other solo and group shows explore the image as the outcome of a process, more ‘software’ than ‘hardware’. Produced by a ‘programme’, Walead Bashty’s works also examine the apparatus of their genesis and emergence, or their links to the real world, and confront one of the most distinctive legacies of conceptual art: the understanding that art may inhere less in the object itself and more in its surroundings, in the things that bring an object to life when we ‘use’ it, look at it, display it and interpret it.