Processes of Identification
by Demetrio Paproni
There was a time when the Cartesian resoluteness of the “cogito ergo sum” was enough to give stability to thought. But when nature and its processes of transformation replaced God, this stability was lost and, together with it, the truths of which rationalism was the bearer were also emptied of meaning. With the consequence that whatever confronts us assumes an identity only by virtue of a process of identification: if we continued to accept the existence of the truth independently from the process of identification, the latter would have no reason to exist, and yet it is at the very basis of our cognition. That is why Romanticism, with its existential restlessness, opening the way to those processes of identification that in time would lead to Cubism and the oneiric dimension of Surrealism, to abstraction and the informal, to conceptualism, right down to appropriationism and the art of the last generation, may be considered the father of all the modern arts. A significant work to help us understand this particular propensity of modern man is After Walker Evans (1990): a photo by Evans, re-photographed by Sherrie Levine, becomes something quite different from the original, since it is focused not on the life and experience of the subject – as it is, on the contrary, in the operation first conducted by Evans – but on the image as such, and hence on the problem posed by what we identify with it. The consequence of this method is, inevitably, a split between original image and the image derived from it. The nostalgia for something that one loves but that one feels remote from, something irretrievably lost, is thus pushed into the foreground.
Let the reader not be discouraged by this: though the discourse may seem at first sight complicated, it is worth making the attempt to disentangle the knots of this tangle. In this sense, the work of Isca Greenfield-Sanders is of real help to us.
Isca Greenfield-Sanders belongs to the last generation of New York artists: artists fascinated as much by the use of the computer as by the more traditional processes of making art. To create a new visual space, Greenfield-Sanders uses different and –apparently – conflicting techniques: she collects and appropriates photographs, some shot by herself, others sought elsewhere and retrieved for her own purposes. She then digitally scans them. The first intervention on the image thus takes place on the computer. This is followed by other interventions directly on the prints themselves – almost always produced on rice paper or on paper treated with watercolor – which are then further manipulated with watercolors, pencils, ink and sand, sometimes also with oil paint, the latter mainly for works of larger dimension, obtained by assembling various fragments. In this way the artist imitates the effect of painting. The final impact, indeed, is reminiscent, at first sight, of watercolor or oil painting. On closer inspection, however, the work reveals an ambiguity, in the sense that it deliberately arouses in the viewer the doubt whether what he is looking at is a painting, or a photo, or a mixture of both. Something similar happens today also in hip pop music, which, on the basis of already existing compositions and sounds, recreates new musical variations using the same “cut and paste” technique that is present in any word-processing program to permit modifications to the drafting of a text. Take for instance the cycle of works in which Isca Greenfield-Sanders shows a group of people having a picnic lunch sitting on the grass or sunbathing on the beach – themes that the artist is fond of and that recur again and again in her work. In these works, the memory contained in the image that is appropriated by the artist is overlaid, even suppressed, by the new ensemble, which is autonomous, because the result of a process of identification that results from a split: the original group portrait has a meaning radically different from that of the image, apparently similar, elaborated by the artist. The original photo in fact expresses a memory that only has value for the members of the family portrayed in it – or, if you like, also for a sociologist interested in social behavior at a particular period. By contrast, the re-elaborated work, devoid of narration, contains all its modes of realization and finds its main points of reference outside itsef: in some paintings in the history of art, such as Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), Seurat’s Le dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte (1884-86), Cézanne’s Les grandes baigneuses (1898-1905), Picasso’s re-elaborations on the theme of the déjeuner sur l’herbe between the 1940s and 1960s, Alain Jacquet’s version of the same theme in 1964, Gerard Richter’s Family (1964), the various fragments of Andy Warhol’s Race Riot (1963/64), and so on.
Those who seek originality in the work of the young New York artist will probably be disappointed, but this disappointment will derive from an error in approach, because a judgment of this kind does not take account of the fact that the work of Isca Greenfield-Sanders is the expression of the loss of certainty that characterizes contemporary thought; at the same time, it is a manifestation of the crisis of style and its impossibility of being expressed through totally new visions. Besides, what do we find that is new in the images of Warhol, Richter, Levine, Sherman, Clemente or Paladino? That a work may be no less credible and fascinating, and reveal quality and originality, in spite of eluding the known categories of judgment, well, that is the miracle of contemporary art! And it is the concept of the postmodern that provides contemporary art with the unconditional chance to make cynical use of the memory and nostalgia and manipulate it for its own purposes; it enables the artist to use and consume, at his own pleasure, everything he encounters along the way. A cynical use of the history of art, therefore, but not only that. Isca Greenfield-Sanders makes a point of declaring her admiration for the history of art, and the need of her generation to show respect for the art that preceded it. Superimposing technology over well-known figures or using a paint-brush to touch up a digitalized image thus means both affirming the need to look to the past (while recognizing equal dignity in the present) and confirming the conceptual marriage that has taken place between computer and painting. Just like the paintings of the past, moreover, computer art already has accumulated its own history. It is present in web sites and in the graphics of computer screens. It is diffused rapidly and reaches millions of people who are fascinated and influenced by it. But above all, by combining technology with the more traditional methods of painting, the artist forces us to conduct a further process of identification.
Demetrio Paparoni, 2000