“Every object exists in two worlds. One is the tangible that we know through our senses and another that exists only in our minds. It is in this mental realm where objects take on the properties of metaphor and meaning. These are seldom fixed, but exist in a fluid dance . . . .” —Ed Bateman
The invention of photography led to some of the greatest misunderstandings in the history of art, a field already hexed by the myths and fabrications that a mysterious quality like creativity sometimes sustains. The most egregious idea that arose in the camera’s wake was that painting died when chemistry took over the skilled labor of reproducing likenesses: that photography was the means by which science killed art.
It’s not true, of course. Someone is always mistaking transition for death (and death for transition, but that’s a topic for another day). The notion that the Industrial Revolution blindsided painting during the middle half of the 19th century may have persuaded artists and critics of the following decades, but it was and remains nonsense. In the first place, the inventors and early users of photography were predominantly artists—a fact obfuscated but still visible behind such references as Wikipedia’s calling Daguerre “a French artist and chemist.” Second, while the idea of ‘progress’ is just one of many things about us that many of our contemporaries have lost faith in, only a fool can fail to see how the ability of artists to reproduce visual appearances improved from century to century, until the phrase trompe l’oeil (literally ‘to deceive the eye’) could be applied to an image of any thing, including the human face. Third, photography, like the brush uncounted centuries earlier, was just another tool artists could choose, or not use, or augment and experiment with: a much-desired shortcut in what had become an extremely elaborate process in the hands of painters like Bouguereau. The quick captures—akin to sketches—of the 1830s were followed by liberation from the burdensome task of making visual copies of mundane reality. Modernism, abstraction, all that we have today only became possible when ‘painting’ no longer exclusively meant ‘likeness.’
But if that’s true, and the invention of the camera was just the beginning of a (long, painful, disorienting) transition phase for painting (and maybe sculpture too, with the arrival of the digital age, though it’s too soon to tell), where does that leave us now? Shouldn’t we be seeing paintings—works of pure visual and aesthetic imagination—that exploit the advances wrought by photography? We should, we have, and we do . . . including, most recently, the work of Ed Bateman, U of U art professor and an artist who exhibits locally and around the world. Unlike Van Chu (see my previous post), who takes photographs that he transform into something akin to paintings, Bateman uses no camera and is not restricted to subjects that can be placed before a lens. In fact, he subverts the old distinction between ‘before the lens’ and ‘behind the lens.’ All his lenses are within his images, and like everything else in them, have only a nostalgic connection to real objects. Some Bateman images are pure paintings: original visions that he realizes on a computer, drawing and rendering with software to produce convincing, photographic-quality likenesses. Others are assemblages in which he treats digital images as found objects, mining them for resonant fragments of similitude he can incorporate the way his peers use found bits of stuff to give their works more dimensions.
Bateman’s earliest, or ‘classic’ works (as labeled on his website) constitute a kind of visual declaration of independence. Constructed in the computer, originating entirely in his imagination, they take the form of completely convincing photographs even as they self-consciously hint at their real origins. They feel composed, but not just in the sense of arranged; rather, they feel assembled, put together on purpose to make bravura use of reflections, refractions, and shadows that almost cry out, ‘Look at me! See what I can do!’ Most contain repeating elements that appear to have been synchronized, or even choreographed. Sophisticated, presumably autobiographical references to philosophy, literature, and art underscore that their origins lie more in cerebral acts of creation than in mere reflection of the material world; in essence that, like all paintings, they are products of human intention and not just collections—however deliberately posed—of appearances the artist had no control over. Affirming his continuity with a tradition that had been lost a century earlier, they read like academic paintings more than they do like photographs: convincing enough to have come from a camera, but free from the limits and limitations of that particular mechanical path from object to image.
Pere Borrell del Caso's celebrated "Escaping Criticism" (1874, oil on canvas, Banco de Espana, Madrid) represents the 'state of the art' of realistic painting at the dawn of photography. Edward Bateman's "Cycles" updates realistic painting to a post-photographic state. (Click on image to see his site)
Whether meant to or not, artworks operate on multiple levels, succeeding when they create a single, dominant impression that subordinates some others. This attribute, classically called ‘unity,’ is like the digital folder that allows computer users to collect varied impressions—sound, sense, image—under a single icon. In Bateman’s classic works he’s doing several things at once, and sometimes his choice not to let one dominate another works against them. If the viewer is busy observing the remarkably convincing resemblance to actual photos of real things, the narrative threads, wicked visual puns, and wit they represent can get lost. Of course that works—or doesn’t work—the other way as well. And they’re all very busy, as if each one has to contain everything in the series: everything Bateman the thinker and everything Bateman the artist can do. Sometimes the challenge becomes daunting. The viewer’s mind may even have to choose, either to be so taken with the illusion as to miss its compound implications, or to become so involved with decoding the rebus-like image as to mistake the digitally painted image for a mere photograph. Of course it’s not necessary to ‘get’ everything that’s there in order to enjoy looking at it. A work of art should deliver a palpable, physiological feeling of pleasure, and these are among the most exciting, most intriguing images I’ve ever seen. They demand a lot from the viewer, but they return the things they ask for, including the ability to be comfortable amid almost total uncertainty.
The elements best able unify a work are usually the simplest and most accessible. Landscape grandeur, celebrity likeness, and biblical drama have worked well at times. In ours, satirical humor and fashion fit the bill. A couple of years ago, Bateman introduced both into his work in what he called The Mechanical Brides of the Uncanny. Humor grounds itself in narrative, and the story of the Brides begins with an appeal to that 19th century equivalent of Facebook: the carte de visite that introduced affordable photographic portraits to society, and that everyone who mattered soon carried, traded, and even collected. The era of the carte de visite was also the moment when machines ceased to belong only to the wealthy and began to play roles in everyday lives, entering the home to clean, prepare food, and entertain. It’s a moment that ruptured the stately flow of history, changing not just lives but the people who lived them, seeming to sum up the past while predicting a transformed future of strange new powers and materials. It’s an age almost perfectly characterized by one of its products—popular science fiction—and by visionaries who remain trapped in an age of horse-drawn carriages even as they dream of spaceships. This Janus-like moment turned out to offer the perfect environment in which to achieve the liberation from specific time Bateman wanted for his work, that it needed and stood ready to capitalize on.
Fascination with the timeless quality of Victorian futurism and its various projections are nothing new, having arguably begun among the Victorians themselves and never really abated. Novels, magazine satires, and movies have all exploited this historically unique intersection of acknowledged past with credible-but-impossible future, but Bateman had the good timing to introduce his digital version simultaneously with the rise of Steampunk as a popular fashion. The first personal machines, the democratizing power of photos, the self-confidence that characterized the Victorians, and their own impeccable sense of fashion made Steampunk the perfect vehicle for his project. Here, rather than creating the entire scene from scratch, he accepted the challenge of starting with pre-existing, antique photos of typical Victorian scenes. High on the list of factors determining the choice of each was finding the space within it to insert a new figure. He then conceived—according to his notion of contemporary design, a sense of whimsy, and a feel for anthropomorphic humor—a household robot to be rendered and inserted seamlessly into the scene. Each seemingly authentic composite tableau, with its Victorian archetypes only reinforced by the alteration, was converted into a convincing carte de visite. The title term ‘uncanny’ announced the artist’s accomplishment in escaping both the era they represent and the one that brought them forth. Unmistakably partaking of the past, yet—like so much of the visionary imagery they emerge from—still looking futuristic to us much later, they query us gently, asking why we haven’t become what they predict. Our pleasure in their accomplishment includes a certain smug pleasure, a sense of superiority to their silliness, but the laughter they provoke contains more than a little reflexive venom.
Having found a milieu that resonates so well with his purpose, Bateman set to work on two new series that will be on view at the Phillips Gallery at least until mid-October. Like the Brides, both are built on a scaffolding of authentic period materials, borrowing the characteristic look of photos and paper mountings from the period, including the patina of age and use, incorporating them into forgeries capable of convincing anyone but a specialist. Here, though, they also uncover and bring to the fore intellectual and cultural matter that also belong to the time: we might say they ‘channel’ some notorious Victorian proclivities.
The images in ‘Science Rends the Veil’ initially resemble the Brides, but instead of cartes de visite, they draw on and mimic Tintypes—the less dangerous to make and more affordable photographs that soon replaced Daguerrotypes. Following the American Civil War, in which large numbers of citizens became soldiers, only to die in combat, many Americans became obsessed by the after-life and the possibility of communicating with the dead. If anything, the death of Prince Albert precipitated an even more morbid response in England. The same kind of technical advances as had made the war so deadly and failed Queen Victoria so grievously were called on by quacks, charlatans, and no doubt a few sincere researchers in response to popular curiosity. If the telegraph enabled President Lincoln to instantaneously contact his generals, could electrical circuitry provide similar connections between a world of energetic matter and one presumed to be pure energy? Actual photos of some of the equipment they built exist, while shots of fairies and ghosts that were produced by more conventional seances—obviously painted in or staged with cotton batting—looked utterly fake to today’s better-educated viewers, even before exposure to Photoshop. But just as Bateman, in his robots, bridged the gap between what they could imagine and what we can, his ‘Spectral Devices’ deliver what Victorian fakers could not. Setting aside the likelihood that some viewers will take them at face value, we may scoff at their silliness even as we appreciate and respond to how well they capture the eternal relationship between naive victim and sophisticated perpetrator.
Throughout these Spectral Devices, unexamined assumptions necessary to the success they might have enjoyed over a century ago abound: for instance, why do the dead present themselves in the same dress and stiff poses as the living? But if the artist affords us an opportunity to scoff, there is no reason to believe he wants us to take it. After all, statistics show that most Americans today believe things just as unlikely as what we see here. The advance of science, with its powerful new processes and machines, was expected to lead to an age of rational control over the real world, but instead has failed to diminish widespread belief that invisible presences and irrational forces are what truly determine our fate. Instead of operating on the basis of a level of knowledge unprecedented in human history, we dwell in a cosmos of willful uncertainty. Here again, the window on human folly is also a mirror.
The other series on view here, ‘Pentateuch/Quintessence,’ mimics not only old photos and the bits of print that accompany them, but reproduces the look of a nearly complete antique book. (The ‘nearly’ turns out to be part of the work’s point.) If ‘The Mechanical Brides of the Uncanny’ or ‘Science Rends the Veil’ can be viewed in a glance and appreciated (at least initially) with a smile, ‘Pentateuch/Quintessence’ is a more grave, hermetic, and literally as well as metaphorically darker work. Like Bateman’s ‘classics,’ it encourages philosophical musing, but instead of inviting viewers to revel with him in the remarkable verisimilitude now possible in the computer, he challenges the casual way we accept not just visual substitutes, but questionable replacements for things that have equal, or even greater importance in our lives. Once again he exploits old printed matter and his ability to generate authentic-looking antiques, but here his deeper subject is the way our minds manage information, specifically by abstracting its essence for storage and retrieval, and how various representations, including (perhaps most importantly for artist and audience) works of art attempt to re-present the world of sensual experience in a way that aspires to foreground its essential nature.
‘Pentateuch’ refers to the first five books of the Bible, chapters supposedly written by Moses that stand in relation to the whole Bible as it stands in relations to the three major religions that grew from it. ‘Quintessence’ refers to a fifth element, beyond earth, air, fire, and water, but containing the essence of all four. Bateman has imagined a printed, illustrated copy of the former, on which a reader has made notes in an attempt to draw parallels between the two systems of five. In order to make this project accessible in a work of art, he first reduced each of these five books to five paragraphs by running it repeatedly through software meant to summarize a text while reducing its bulk. He then provided each chapter with a mock-photographic plate that relates visually to what it says, and added notes in red that speculate on which element best represent each biblical book. In his accompanying statement, in which Bateman recounts his work like a scientist might an experiment, he writes:
Creating a work of art can be a process of magnification and abstraction where an idea or image is reduced to its essence. It is a process of translation where some aspects are emphasized and other elements discarded. Sometimes an essence is discovered and at other times, it is simply a distortion. We know all history, even our own, through a process of reduction, retelling and interpretation.
Even when a compound event—a book, a theory, or a world—yields up a true essence, its complexity suffers. In that way, it’s always a distortion. In the fifth book of Moses, one reads “THOU SHALT FEAR the Lord thy God; him shalt thou serve.” The words are drawn from the original text, but standing alone, do they crystalize or distort the text’s overall message? Does the kernel of the text, revealed here the way rocks are when the tide goes out, support the illustration, on the opposite page, of a femur pierced by padlocks? In the third book, a telephone speaks with tongues of flame. The image draws on an accepted gospel image, but is the effect the same? Just as the book unbound is no longer a book, but an assortment of ephemera, so almost everything we carry about with us, from our memories to the contents of our wallets, is a distorted copy of something we once experienced.
In expanding his repertoire, from photo to book of photos with text, Bateman doesn’t just display additional skills in image-making. He’s also expanded his aesthetic footprint, urging his audience to consider that his whimsical jokes and visual conundrums are only the harmless projection into our awareness of something far more sinister that we ought to be aware of, too. After all, we’re quite acclimated to taking the vague suggestions on TV, computers, and now our cell phones, in magazines and so forth, for physical facts. But we also seek out, even prefer, auditory images of musical performances and human voices and chemically-induced flavor images of naturally occurring foodstuffs. Until recently, such substitutions were limited to entertainments and works of art, substitutions we recognized as such and contemplated for enlightenment as well as for pleasure. Now, however, in many lives they replace much if not nearly all of actual experience. There was always a level of risk in the representation of sensual experience: this is why Plato, one of those who wrote about the Quintessence, warned so strongly against copying the physical world. In the past, though, guidance came in the form of allegorical content, or when that failed a hearty laugh. Ed Bateman restores some of that serious purpose (and serious comedy) to the artistry of our age. In the process, he makes works of art that demand reflection, and that seem to be among the few that are attempting to be and to do something truly important.
The First Book of Moses pages from "Pentateuch/Quintessence"