Images Beyond the Retina
Late in 1999, my brain erupted... It is called an aneurysm, but all the same it is an exploded artery launching a cataract of blood into the brain, disconnecting synapses and washing neurons away... The flood I'd sustained created memory gaps that I had to be trained to bridge. Thus the aneurysm thrust forgetting into my experience as a possibility I'd never imagined. It forwarded the urgency of remembering, sustained by the identity of a 'who you are'.
Rosalind Krauss, Under Blue Cup (2011)
Western painting reacts to a tradition going back many centuries. If you look in our societies, you do not see without preconceptions; if you look at a painting, you have other images in mind. After centuries of a slow and discerning regard, after countless repetitions of traditional poses and perspectives, as well as the avant-garde negation of such, over the last twenty years of our millennium of looking, the images have exploded. The output of digital production through microelectronic transistors known as chips overwhelms the chemically transmitted reception of the living subject. On the level of everyday perception, too, the organic body recedes from view. The number of images grows faster than any of us can see. The antiquatedness of humanity becomes universal in a very elementary way.
The flood we sustain creates memory gaps. The flood of images washes away the memory of the significance of what has been seen. The much-discussed crisis of representation is not the result of rigorous self-doubt, but rather a technical effect. The unleashing of digital production in postmodern thinking is accompanied by a crisis of reason, which can no longer grasp its metaphysical heritage and ruptures discursive knowledge into an endless spiel of symbols within the social sciences and humanities and the largely unreflective advance of instrumental knowledge in the so-called natural sciences.
In the art world, the contemporary confidence trick articulates itself as a crisis of representation: not of what is shown, which persists as a largely self-referential symbol endlessly reproduced and generating new semantic operations, but rather of its medium, the material on which it appears. Art criticism regards the crisis of the artwork as an object: "our post-medium condition"1.
The painting of Alexandra Hopf responds to this loss of presence and consequence. She references the minimalist avant-garde of the 1960s. The collection of her works under the title Screen Memories makes clear that the artist's aesthetic language does not follow an immanent line of development in art itself, but rather stands in relation to the current of images in our digital present. The paintings by Hopf are images beyond the electronically fired retina.
Her inclination towards abstraction conducts a visual dialogue with that which eludes representability: the trail of the body, its impossible presence in the image.2 The paintings by Alexandra Hopf, unlike the minimalist works of the 1960s, are more windows than mirrors: no reflective product of an art-theoretical stance, and not the expression of a radical claim to the truth of art in the gesture of the painter. They look at the world behind the surface of appearance. Their complex interplay between the immediacy of sensual effect, the referencing of art history and the allusion to visual references from the day-to-day output of the media returns lost depth to the act of beholding – not as space, but as time. In her works, we encounter the time of perception as an intensity of seeing.
Screens are surfaces par excellence – as a medium insensitive to that which is projected onto them and equally indifferent to the regard its beholders. The images and symbols that appear on it are the effect of electromagnetically induced states, ephemeral and unconnected both to the medium and to the possibilities of their perception. No screen changes its appearance due to that which someone sees on it. In Alexandra Hopf's work, surfaces form as the result of artistic creation. Her Screen Shots collected in the catalogue are an expression and result of a montage that informs the viewing of her works depicted in the following. In a precise sense, her works leave a trail: the lines and patterns that she draws over softly applied layers of paint point to something which is all but invisible beneath the surface: the fragile texture of the medium, which only gains its stability through the application of the paint. As the beholder moves in relation to the painting, the perception of it changes – from very close up, the tangible materiality of the works, which are mostly done on wax and tissue paper, is unmistakable. The viewers encounter paintings whose material character itself is more the surface than the substrate, a swaying shell for the gestures of the painter, floating in the airspace of the exhibition. In Alexandra Hopf's work, the surface of the images appears as the skin and the painting as the aesthetic membrane of a delicate civilisational body.
For a binary logic, which also underpins the digital transformation and thus the immense productivity of our computer-based present, there is no third element: the only means of escape from the power of digital images and the ever-present compulsion to produce them would be to withdraw from it, to pursue a strategy of rejection; prohibition of images. Alexandra Hopf's works eschew this logic and show a third element: her paintings are created in the process of working on the painting – by painting, painting over, removing and revealing deeper layers of paint; by working on the surface, which she makes visible as something with depth. The depth of her surfaces does not conceal a measurable space, but rather the depth of time – she imparts to the contemplative regard the time of their genesis, the layered, recorded time. Not only the visual structures on the surface of her paintings are minimalistic, but also the economy of the work itself and the material used. Her works emerge from the gradual layering of paint and its partial removal. In Alexandra Hopf's work, the artistic act is a process of layering and de-materialisation. Her linearly ridged surfaces draw the beholder's attention not to the work of art itself, but to its materiality.
The works reveal patterns that continually reference Frank Stella and his Black Paintings. The Screen Shots at the beginning of the catalogue show cloth patterns in which texture and form are as intertwined as the characteristic style of Stella on the canvases of his pictures.
Minimalism is regarded as an American movement – the recollection of its emergence also calls to mind the European émigré Josef Albers and his young American students at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The strict artistic attitude of the minimalists was not explicitly political, yet the political was eminently evident, historically and aesthetically, a reflexive and confident impulse. In 1960 Stella gave voice to the liberating potential of a radical reduction to the artistic gesture. Its immateriality, the rejection of references beyond the image medium, opened the way to seeing the simple form and heralded a new artistic autonomy. Viewers saw only a layer of black paint on raw canvas; works of radical clarity and resolve.
We have to be trained to bridge the gap. The works of Alexandra Hopf open up perception to a different way of seeing. They demand a remembering regard, not a categorising one. The material and aesthetic fragility of her works responds with a performative aesthetic gesture to the remark by Rosalind Krauss that the autonomy of art after the crisis of modernity can only be credible as any expression of memory.3 As a reaction to the postmodern tendency of wanton playing with references and meaning, the images of Alexandra Hopf show only themselves as an encounter with the elementary performance of the act of painting. Her painting undertakes the attempt to perceive anew the inflation of images as Screen Memories to return a sense of reality to the continuously over-stimulated function of seeing. The catalogue displays the various references to technical image production beside reproduced drawings with a dual intention: they reference images which in their apparent unrelatedness confuse the beholder while at the same time opening up another way of interpreting the visual production by means of the painting. They insist on the significance of images and believe that painting can embody reality.
Where painting strategies are adopted by large-format photography and painting loses its narrative potential to other image media, the visual arts look for a new approach to what is representable. Painted images become the material self-reflection of the relationship to the object, painting becomes a means of creating meaning that points to the work on the work of art “using diverse anti-subjective methods”.4 The works of Alexandra Hopf depict the work of art as the location of exceptional seeing. The structure of folds is a signature of her work. In her work, the Screen Memories of recent decades spring forth in blue from the folded up and then unfolded surface of our projections. As a formal element, as an artistic structure, the fold points from the surface on which it appears to the depths – it is, like modern art altogether, a probing phenomenon. In contrast to the line, the folds move not on the surface, but in space. While cracks, breaks or grooves also mark the trail of an underlying force but damage the structure on which they become visible, the force that leads to a fold preserves the integrity of the folded material unscathed. The fold as an aesthetic medium does not postulate something completely different, but rather emphasises the elasticity of the material element and its resilience. This artistic gesture corresponds to a metaphysical horizon. Two-hundred years before Charles Darwin, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz conceived of the unity of the universe as a material unfolding of a mental substance and thus posited a monadic subjectivity as the embodiment of reality. Leibniz thought of the infiniteness of the world and of the soul as being a folded phenomenon.5 A fold indicates the motion and movability of the material. Its aesthetic experience is sparked by a structure that renders visible the materiality, pliability, object and space as well as intrication from within and without. The role of dialectics in the motion of thinking, the work of the concept after the end of traditional metaphysics, is signalled on the level of perception by the phenomenon of the fold. In Alexandra Hopf's work, the space embodied by the work of art is both aesthetically and historically an elastic continuum. This space is not unfolded, as in Cartesian physics, as a layer of discrete dimensions, but rather as a unit as in Leibniz, filled and infinite, imaginable as infinitely folded and layered. In spite of the pattern that the artist inscribes into the material with lines and grids, space, for her, is a field of dynamic forces; not a schema of representation, but an act of remembering.
As history, the past is present. The folds of our skin point to the mystery and the transience of all things corporeal. In the work of Alexandra Hopf, they illustrate the pliability of the material and the opportunity for contemporary art to take a stance on questions of representation. It seems as if in her work, art were searching for a means of thinking itself together with the world – with a world in which nature and society are perceived not in their ruptures, but in their points of contact and transition.
While over centuries the imagination of the audience enlivened and augmented the perception of images and was able to regard their representative force as a matter of course, the modern imagination, inundated with media images, encounters the claim to representation with weary resignation. In art, it takes refuge in the mystery of the fold and the enigmatic aesthetic power of the material. “The final form of reflection is the imaginary,” wrote the Berlin-based philosopher Dietmar Kamper. "The power to build bridges is the imagination."6 He regarded the mimesis in artwork as a double repetition: as iteration and recollection, and therein as an alternative to the imaginary effect of mass media image production. In the advanced western societies, the preparation of the body no longer occurs through discipline and suppression, but through its replacement in the image, in the everyday simulation of life on the television screen. The consequence affects the production of images altogether, which as productions all lose credibility. In the mirror of the screen, the works of Alexandra Hopf reclaim the promise of the art of pure perception. They correspond to that which society regards as meaningless. “Rags”, says the artist, “rags are the substrate of my work.”