I have always thought that if I were more practical, or arty, or talented or just had the time or inclination to draw more, that I would like to find a way of merging painting and photography in a complete coherent piece. I find it surprising that so few artists have attempted this, this blurring of boundaries between the two mediums. Particularly in this day and age when so many art works in contemporary galleries deny all attempts to try and describe exactly what it is they are- materially that is- and go instead for the ubiquitous classification of “mixed media”. Or give a lengthy list of all the undefinable ingredients that runs longer the description of the artwork itself and bears no obvious relation to the intriguing colorful and visceral object before you.
I remember getting really excited the first time I say Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines. Their layering of postcards, photographs, collaged images from newspapers, and the thick tactile persistence of oil paint. Even more so, when those flat surfaced canvases that always appear so multidimensional, as if you could climb up inside them, gave way to the actual 3D objects, the multiple sections of Interview divided up like a child’s treasure chest, the sheep trapped in his white stripped tire standing atop a canvas in Monogram, or the eagle wings emerging from the vertical surface of Canyon.
While the books argued over whether these pieces were autobiographical, a hint at his affair with Jaspar Johns, the coining of the term “flatbed picture plane” and the narratives or their art historical context in the reproductions of old classics, I was just disappointed that all the images and photographs included were reproduced, penny postcards and cut outs from magazines.
I was entirely uninterested as to whether Untitled (Man with White Shoes) held secret references to his family and past, in fact, when the artworks came off the wall and onto the floor they started losing my attention. For me, the more successful works were the ones that blurred the visual boundaries between the collaged elements and painted ones, where photographs, three dimensional objects and those beautiful tactile globs of paint overlapped into one glorious prismatic attack. Still though, not the photographs were being treated as objects to be inserted, a democratic playing field for all elements where a wooden chair is as much a brushstroke as a spot of oil paint.
Perhaps the problem is that Rauschenberg was not a photographer, that photography never became a central feature of his art practice. Gerhard Richter is perhaps more directly engaged with the object of the photograph. His earliest photo paintings come from a variety of sources, newspapers books, landscapes, portraits. Starting with a photograph which he has often taken himself he uses a projector to trace the image onto the canvas replicating the look of the original with his distinctive “blur”. These are still oil paintings and his use of photography is encyclopedic as a means for denying any artistic choice in subject matter, rather than an interest in the medium of the photograph itself. His overpainted photos such as the series Firenze merge the two mediums, creating new images from photographs of a variety of subjects by dragging wet paint across the surface. This is more to do with blotting out than creating something new, the triumph of the paint over the mechanically produced image, and the photographs themselves seem to be more taken to serve the purpose of the paint, than intended as finished aesthetic works in themselves.
I once went to an exhibition that included large pieces of exposed photo paper, mounted on walls, curled up in glass cases, the physicality of the photograph as an object prioritized over the image it contains on its surface. I thought it was Richter exhibition, but only have a vague memory, and my goggle searching isn’t producing any clues.
Aliki Braine is a trained sculptor, but uses photographs to “seek out the archetypal landscape” she is one of a long line of photographers including most famously Man ray, who manipulate the negative. Braine paints directly onto the negative, inserting her artistic mark in the image production chain. By marking the negative directly, rather than the image, she is showing an awareness of the process of image production in photography, also working with pin holes and hole punchers to render the negative abstract, rather than as a medium for representation. They still retain their ability to be reproduced, the hallmark of the photograph. Although we are getting a long way from paint here.
Charlotte Caron takes classical portraits of people and then paints animal heads over them, blurring the lines between the two mediums and making them exist in the same representational function. She creates a duality between the two mediums, photography is the human, mechanical, rational medium used for the cool calm depiction of people, while paint is the instinctual animalistic side, represented by the drips and splatter the wildness that invades the neatness of the photograph and threatens disintegration. By imposing animal faces onto humans she is supposedly humanizing them showing us as bestial in nature, and them as rational, or more so that we would like to think. This si not what is happening for me, rather she is reinforcing the separate natures of the two mediums. While I am not a fan of photorealism which simply apes the skill of detail of photography, after all what makes paint ot visually pleasing is the elements that escaperepresentation, the blobs and splatters, the drips and stains. I don’t feel that the identity of her sitters is compromised, as they were photographed for the express purpose of overpainting. That it is their faces that are masked is irrelevant, they are given new ones, new identities. What interests me is the setting up of a binary between painting and photography. Again they sit one on top of the other, their incompatibility emphasized by the struggle for dominance.
I came across another rather neat attempt to merge photography seamlessly into the medium of painting in the art of Jim McManus. Sometimes clumsily, sometimes imperceptibly, he cuts out and collages photographs into his seascapes, creating a picture postcard effect that plays with our sight lines. The photographs are in scale, and often are interchangeable with the painted elements. He is not quite offering an answer to the question of what photography can do that paint can’t (and vice versa), and not all of his attempts work out, but it is one of the more successful merging of the two that I have seen: that fits so comfortably sharing the same space, and neither medium competing for dominance.