Skin & Shaft Saul Ostrow

Inserting and slicing light


Light Levels                                                                                                       by Saul Ostrow

Ricardo Woo’s two installations “Skin & Shaft: Inserting and Slicing Light” and “Lux” need some explanation given their pairing of painting and photography. Modernism’s relation to vision and therefore to photography was established within a desire to dismantle the illusionism that is manifested by the use of mechanical perspective. This device is predicted on a conception of seeing in which the eye projects a cone of vision that penetrates and reveals the world. Modernism sought to replace this view with one in which the world enters the body through the eye.


With the popularization of photography- light writing- the function of the camera was represented as being analogous to that of the eye. The photograph was after all a product of a cone of light passing through a lens and aperture that produced an inverted image of the objective world by inscribing it onto a light sensitive surface. This film was in turn likened to the optic nerve. Interestingly enough, the analogy usually ends here.            The processes of developing and printing the photographic image- which can be likened to the transmission of an image to the brain- plays no role in this construct. If it had been extended to include the viewing, or more accurately the re-viewing of the imagine itself, it would have undermined the presumed naturalism and neutrality of vision that it had been enlisted to support.


In part, the conception of the camera as being like an eye, allows us to understand how technology is an extension of our bodies and senses, yet it conceals how these apparatuses effect our conception of ourselves as well as ordering both our perception and expectation. It is only now, that we are becoming aware just how these extensions create feedback loops. In other words, we become the product of our own devices.


Among the Frankfurt School theorists, Theodor Adorno critically addressed reproduction as it related to the hallucinatory effects that he argued were a consequence of the deceitful and inauthentic nature of recorded music. In his view, the standardization that resulted from recorded music would eventually lead to an inexpensive-ness that would result in a lowering of critical values. Walter Benjamin extends this analysis in his essay “Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility”, focusing on the cultural and political consequences of the supposed neutrality of the mechanical reproduction of images, he contends that the world of reproductions entails a lost that results in the severing of the link that exists between our sense. This individuation of the senses is byproduct of the devaluation that is inherent in reproduction’s ability to divest the material or tactile qualities of that which is represented. The consequences of the reception of these fabrications is a range of disembodied experiences that induce delirium and embrace of phantoms.


Long before such critiques of reproduction as those of Adorno and Benjamin’s, Photography- the magic of catching shadows, of making the unobservable apparent, had become more beguiling than even the most skillful rendering of the same subject; be it a face, a landscape or still life. The fact that anyone could “take” photographs simply by pointing their camera, looking through the view finder, setting their focus, and pushing a button, made the results seem to be fundamentally objective- natural if not supra-natural. This latter effect was due to photography being wondrously detailed, accurate and capable of freezing forever that most meaningful of moments. Painting no matter how skillful or realistic could not compete for its effects would always naggingly be an approximation be an approximation, an interpretation off the real, a product of the artist’s judgment- in other words subjective.  


The notion that the photograph was an objective and scientific record of the visual world made it painting’s nemesis. By the mid- 19th century it was thought photography would displace painting as the primary means to store visual information and reduce it to a mere craft. Painters countered by escaping into the scientific realism of impressionism with its emphasis on process and color or the fantasy and exoticism of symbolism. These responses rather than rejecting photography’s truth, chose instead to reveal its realism was mechanical and limiting. In part, this was re-enforced by the rise of trick photography. With time art created a perception that it was the superior medium for it alone could give representation to the artist’s inner vision or truth. If photography could capture the shadow world of external appearances, painting could objectify the immaterial world-in this it could manifest a truer reality.


Woo in his installations avoids rehashing the traditional construction of the antithesis of these two mediums, which he presents as complimentary. In part, this proposition seemingly is the consequence of the potential content of digital media’s appropriation of the appearance of both painting and photography. It is this process of deterritorialization that increasingly makes us aware that the relation between photography and painting is one of reciprocity, each does what the other may not. It is this relationship that dose away with the dualistic construct of modernism’s conception of objective and subjective vision that Woo’s work addresses. In this manner, he would undermine the traditional opposition of the mimetic (a recording of appearances) and the abstract (the presentation of material relationships) upon which it has been grounded. By emphasizing the physical quality of how each medium produces sensations o space through color and scale, he investigates their differing effects. Woo therefor has foregone the digital processing or enhancement of his photographic images instead has chosen to make them in the conventional manner using a camera that produces a negative must be printed in an enlarger and processed. He does this because he understands that digitally generated images are simulacra and have no place in the effects he has chosen to investigate, because unlike photography the digital does not “slice” light.


Though Woo in the installation “Lux” makes painting literally the context against which photography is to be viewed, by installing one hundred fifty, 2X2 inch photos mounted in white acrylic frames onto walls that have been painted with wax, metallic and matte paints, it is “Skins and Shafts” that establishes the terms for both works. In this work Woo presents a series of five diptychs, each consist of a color photograph and a white abstract painting. The photos and paintings are all the same size and have similar glossy surface. These paintings and photographs are both characterized by the blur associated with Gerhardt Richter’s painting, making them in part visually similar. Though similar in appearance, each is approached with a different attitude. One looks at the photograph attempting to see what it pictures. With the paintings, one immediately recognizes that the blur it is neither a rendering of the photographic effect nor the product of dragging a squeegee across the wet surface of an image to obscure it. Instead it is recognized as the painting’s image and the effect that we identify as ‘soft focus’ is a byproduct of light passing through the layers of translucent paint that the paintings are made of. It is this effect that the term “inserting light” in the title refers. 



Woo’s paintings could easily stand on their own as a form of lyrical abstraction addressing issues of chance and visually. He has instead chosen to use then to demonstrate how abstract painting can reference or accommodate the look of photography and engage the effects of light. This has dictated their opinions rather than some formalist aesthetic. That they record the process of their making both conceptually and formally, is secondary to their ability to refract and absorb light. It is this quality that produces the phenomena of indeterminable visual depth operating in stark contrast to their literal depth. 


The large color photographs are presented in the same manner as the paintings. Each is 40” square and supported by 1/4-inch-thick wood panel. These photos are not presented merely to make an ironic point or induce notions of equivalence, instead Woo uses them to promote a comparison between the similarities and differences of how each medium establishes the complex term by which the information that they are assumed to present is affected. Woo to give photography and painting equal status within this installation has chosen to make his photographs, what is conventionally thought of as “out of focus”. By making what they are pictures of indistinguishable he is able to deny to photography the appeal that comes with referencing recognizable things in the “real world”. This combined with having given them equal status as objects neutralize the traditional disparity inherent in their display.



In a further attempt to bring these two mediums together Woo demonstrates the photography cannot incorporate the physical quality of paint but can only represent it- by absorbing and dematerializing it. No matter how subtlety he tries to apply paint to the photographs the result is a disruption of it seamless surface. The photograph becomes a support that is now ordered and organized by the materiality of the paint. The disintegration of the photograph’s homogeneity weakens its mimetic function. The fact that the photographic image has no material quality but only optical ones such as the grain that results from blowing them up to this scale, or the glossy surface of the paper, distinguishes them again from painting whose materially is a quality of the image it produces. This indicates the paradox of mimetic painting, in that painting’s materiality and process is not reducible to the appearances that they would mimic nor need they succumb to homogeneity. 



Through the veracities of the means of mechanical reproduction versus notions of the authentic have been in question since the 1930s if not longer. Woo with both of these installations calls us back again to regard how the ideology photography once embodied is dispelled again. The fact that he would have is considered the nature of the similarity and differences that exist within the terms of painting and photography can be read as a reminder of the effect that technology has on our conception of experience. We may want to consider that Woo does this just as the moment that photography id being displaced by the digital so that we may understand how this too will come to order our reality. 



*Saul Ostrow is an artist, critic and curator who has organized over 40 exhibitions both in US and abroad, more than half of these have dealt with abstract painting. He lives in New York, teaches theory and art history at New York University and School of Visual Arts.