Chris Dorland and Joe Pflieger: Surface Surface (hey Mr. Goat) at Randall Scott Projects Reviewed by Terence Hannum
One can argue that in the 21st century photography is a meaningless, thoughtless activity – a minor extension of the devices in our pockets. However, a majority of the world’s population chooses to engage in some form of it. Miles of images are lined up on Instagram, presented on Tumblr feeds, appropriated and reappropriated, stolen, lost and deleted online.
Photographic images are a certain form of currency, a proof of existence. Embedded in the daily territory of living today, we build garlands of visual data in the streams of social media and flip through thousands of images a day. Is this a crisis or the golden age of the democratic image? Artists Chris Dorland and Joe Pfleiger interrogate the utility and futility of photography in the dawn of the 21st century in “Surface surface (hey Mr. Goat)” at Randall Scott Projects.
Chris Dorland has been exhibiting paintings since 2004 that recall proto-science fiction landscapes, full of failed utopic structures and burning geodesic domes. These left an impression because they engaged a photographic source but let them decay to illuminate a new hesitant future by showing failure and not accuracy, or glitches in the vision. In his work, a repetition of the image right next to the original image would jar the viewer, or sometimes the landscape would slide off of the edge of the ground.
In recent years, the most interesting questions Dorland has been asking of the image have arrived when the painting became less important and he pushes us through the scanner glass. All but one of his pieces in Surface Surface (hey Mr. Goat) are untitled yet parenthetically titled “scanners.” This titular clue helps because the act of the scanner in these pieces has been corrupted and represented in digital ink, rather than oil paint.
In Dorland’s work, the scanner, the device with which to preserve some actual record, has had its use bent toward generating a unique digital image that can then be replicated and corrupted even further then eventually applied to canvas. In his current series, Dorland relies upon inherent errors in the device, and then enhances the obsolescence of the apparatus, creating aberrated images that waver and pull yet tell us very little except to point us to their status as paintings, only to deny the expectation of painting.
These rectangles of digital ink are then framed by the detritus of the ground for a more traditional painting such as linen, canvas, and other fabrics that are sutured together in curious ratios, we are brought back to the bare surface, the ground, again. The surface is the initial gambit in this exhibition, its twice in the title, and as much as Dorland focuses our attention on the crisis of the digital image, he also resuscitates similar ghosts for painting that Gerhard Richter or Wade Guyton do. That in fact there is no one way of seeing, and to treat either medium today as such is folly.
Trained as a painter, Joe Pflieger approaches photography by focusing on surface as his subject, in this instance rock walls, and by drawing our attention to the surface of the image itself, where inkjet prints are mounted to anodized aluminum.
This attention to the surface seems fitting if we consider the concerns of philosopher Vilem Flusser in his work Towards a Philosophy of Photography where he states that “images are significant surfaces.” Flusser was ahead of his time in his predictions of the amount of images we would have to process, as well as the idea that a photograph is a surface and not a ‘frozen event.’ Pflieger’s pieces reflect your own gaze back at you and, as they push you away, their subject becomes less and less important as a specific entity. It matters not that it is the walls of Honanki in Arizona, but more the ruin with which to view the photograph itself. Photography is an apparatus to capture ruins, a maker of ruins and even a ruin itself.
Gazing upon these gleaming ruins a sense of displacement arises. Much of the history of photography has been built upon capturing the ephemerality of ruins, from Francis Frith to Brian Ulrich, but I would argue that Pflieger has little to do with them. These are not clear images of an identifiable place – there is no arresting of time in these frames – nothing is ‘frozen’. Rather, his images remain frustratingly discursive and lend themselves more towards a lineage with James Welling and Barbara Kasten and a concern with the act of looking than of something needing to be seen – creating a surface takes precedence over freezing a moment in time. Perhaps this is best expressed in the large 97” tall photographic sculpture Earth Structure. Using inkjet prints, perforated stainless steel, stainless steel mesh, steel frames, mirrored and transparent acrylic anodized aluminum Earth Structure hinges open its tall shiny frame, allowing for a claustrophobic transparent and simultaneous reflection to occur while looking through stainless steel mesh and transparencies. While it tells us the subject of the images, an actual earth structure, it obscures and pushes us away.
In the glut of visual information today photography often feels toothless, as if it has lost its ability to interrogate and be intelligent about itself when reduced to an illustration or an extension of an app. Photography as art, for art, means even more today. Dorland and Pflieger are asking a tall order because it could be easy to dismiss Dorland as an extension of more Tumblr art or become annoyed with Pflieger’s obfuscations, but their aesthetic concern for the surface as a surface opens the space up to consider not only the process but also brave the depths to get to the content. That is, what does it mean to make images in any media in an era flush with them?
The single piece that stands out from what Dorland is presenting in this show is untitled but parenthetically titled ‘extractions.’ It’s the only piece titled differently in the exhibition. It clearly shows a hand squeezing an orange on an austere cerulean blue background rendered in digital inks, it is bracketed by white vinyl and raw canvas. This piece has no manipulation, no scanner glitches – rather it feels like a test image for a printer because it is generic like stock photography: clean, clear and perfectly lit. A pristine image, it stands out but eventually loses our interest against the pieces with more curious digital abstractions. However, extractions becomes the cornerstone in the exhibition with which we can pry open the very artifice these artists want us to consider. You return to it. It haunts you. You have seen it before but somehow haven’t quite seen it before. Looking at it and checking its surface, like many pieces in the exhibition, you become more aware of how you are looking.
This ‘crisis vs. the golden-age of photography’ conflict won’t be decided in one two-person show – nor is it the overt concern here. Surface Surface (hey Mr. Goat) wants us to think of the surface as something that is unique to these works, and by this make you aware that the current saturation of images you find yourself swiping through does not concern itself with matters of perception or, more rarely, awareness. That what can appear meaningless is in fact laden with thought.
Terence Hannum is a Baltimore based visual artist and musician who performs solo, with the avant-metal band Locrian (Relapse Records) and the dark synthpop duo The Holy Circle. Hannum is an Assitant Professor of Art at Stevenson University. He has had solo exhibitions at Guest Spot (Baltimore), Western Exhibitions (Chicago, IL), Stevenson University, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Gallery 400 at UIC (Chicago, IL). And in group shows at TSA (Brooklyn, NY), sophiajacob (Baltimore, MD), Allegra La Viola (NYC), City Ice Arts (Kansas City, MO) & Jonathan Ferrara Gallery (New Orleans, LA).