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"From today, painting is dead," is what the French painter Paul Delaroche is supposed to have exclaimed when he saw a daguerreotype in 1839. The discovery of Daguerre (and some contemporaries), that a camera obscura and some chemical ingredients could be used to record a precise mirror image of reality, appears to have severely shaken the self-confidence of the artist, at least for a moment. But despite the shock which Delaroche felt during his encounter with the new medium of photography, he soon continued his highly successful career as a painter of portraits and historical scenes.
Ever since, the
history of painting has been further shaped by the existence of other processes
for creating images, though these have not had a lethal effect on painting. Even
before it was possible to chemically fix a photographic images, artists such as
Vermeer and Canaletto used the camera obscura as an aid for composing their
paintings.Painting has proven itself to be capable of adapting the actions of
more recent media to its own purposes, to make them visible and comment on
them. In the Sixties, Marshall McLuhan went so far as to state that the content
of every medium was a different medium. His provocative thesis can be plausibly
illustrated in the light of Richard Hamilton's "Just what is it that makes
The art of Matthias Groebel also follows this principle of post-media images, for which Peter Weibel has coined the term "pittura immedia". It is well-known that painting conveys an image of reality that is as indirect as cinema and television images; it is not a transparent window on to the world, but one that has always been manipulated by subjective filters and technical devices. "Pittura immedia" stands for an artistic process of formation which runs through various media and which ends in painting. For Matthias Groebel's pictures fulfil all the traditional standards of Western panel painting, developed about 700 years ago: a stretcher, canvas, pigments, vertical lines, transportability. The way in which they differ from classical painting is that they lack the `hand of the artist`, once the guarantee of the work's authenticity. Rather, they are the material carriers of several electronic and digital transfers. The idea of the autonomous artist or scientist whose creativity comes from deep within has been obsolete ever since the realisation that the new media can structure and alter our perceptions, thinking and behaviour. Accordingly, theoreticians such as Luhmann and Levy-Strauss compare themselves with computers who generate new thoughts using existing data.
Television programmes provide the raw material for Matthias Groebel's works. He chooses individual images or texts from the film material he has stored and digitalised, and manipulates these at the computer in various ways that the viewer may not necessarily recognise. When choosing his pictures, he as far as possible avoids choosing well-known faces which the viewer might take to be quotations: there are no stars from TV series in his iconography, nor are there historical figures. These data are printed out via a device which the artist himself developed for this purpose: a computer-guided airbrush pistol sprays several layers of acrylic paint onto a canvas. Matthias Groebel does not conceal that his paintings originated in the media, but rather further emphasises it by enlarging the motifs drawn from the digitalised TV pictures to approximately life size. The two-dimensional mosaic of pixels on the computer screen loses even more clarity in Groebel's pictures, and is remarkable due to its "low definition". The lack of sharpness caused by the technology paradoxically createse an artistic, Pointillist quality not unlike early pictorial photographs. A generation of art photographers at the turn of the century attempted to show that a lack of clarity, which could be achieved by various means, heightened the artistic value of the photograph: the less differentiated the details, the greater the effect on the viewer. In the history of the media, lack of sharpness appears to be a constant which was used by artists chiefly in order to conceal the media aspect of their pictures, and to emphasise the artistic aspect. Matthias Groebel's works, however, use that very lack of sharpness to indicate the media origins of the images.
This heightening of the visual properties of the television picture is comparable with the strategy of Warhol and Lichtenstein, who enlarged the half-tone printing of the newspaper and comic images they based their works on to the extent where individual dots became clearly visible to the naked eye. Both television pictures and comics are two-dimensional and lack precise details; "cool media", according to MacLuhan's analysis, which demand a particularly close involvement on the part of the viewer for the very reason that they are not very precise. The recipient attempts to complete the sketchy data. It is precisely those breaks and discontinuities of information which heighten his participation.
By locking and enlarging moving television images, Matthias Groebel achieves a qualitative leap in one's perception of the image. Using a freeze frame, and selecting a detail from it, enables new structures which would have remained invisible during the course of the film to become apparent, similar to a slow-motion shot which enables one to see movements that were not previously visible. It is possible to see things that were previously seen unconsciously.
At the same time, the dissolution of the motifs into finely sprayed points and transparents layers of colour keeps the viewer at a certain distance from the figures, despite their life size; this is a phenomenon of one's perception that can be described, as Walter Benjamin does, as "a distance, however close it may appear to be". Even if one gets closer to the canvas, the eye does not manage to focus, sharpen the image, see it in more detail or obtain a sense of depth. Of necessity, voyeuristic impulses come up against a physiological barrier to the viewer's perceptions, "painted walls", as it says on one of the paintings. The distance from the viewer is further heightened by the standardised picture formats, which surround those portrayed like a cell. In most cases, we see a single person who has been isolated from the context of the action, his spatial and social surroundings. A large number of the pictures contain what one might call a commentary, written directly into the image.
White Trash, which is the source of the people in the pictures, is described and defined by terms such as "Date of Crime", "Glass" and "The whole sky", much like a fabricated anthropology. At the same time, the poetic associations of the words transform the proceedings, which have been recorded as a detail, into a nightmarish, claustrophobic unreality which reminds one of the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, and in which the difference between facts and fiction collapses to a point at which it is no longer recognisable.
The recording and processing of data on the screen is increasingly becoming the predominant human experience in post-media society. Benjamin has described the viewer of moving images as being both quick to react and experienced, and absent-minded. Absent-minded in that he cannot maintain analytical activities at the same time as keeping abreast with developments. The pressure to conform to the parameters of the medium is threatening to cancel one's ability to make critical judgements. The strength of Matthias Groebel's paintings is that they isolate what one has unconsciously absorbed into one's consciousness, making it possible to analyse it. Passivity is changed to activity. When confronted with Matthias Groebel's paintings, absent-minded viewers of TV images become attentive examinatorss of images and their own behaviour as viewers.
Barbara Hess, 1997
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