Open Window: On Isca Greenfield-Sanders’s Grids


A mountain, a beach, a turbulent sky; canoes sneaking across a lake at night; a helicopter high above treetops, caught just before leaving the frame; bathers spied on from above: These are fragments, images pulled out of context and stilled from the flow of time. Their framing, angles, and depth of field all speak the language of photography and the mathematical discipline and distancing enforced by the lens. The moments they preserve are ripe with reportage, contingency, and—simultaneously—a certain familiarity wrought by amateurism and the automation of capture. Content tethers them securely to the vernacular idioms of the documentation of middle-class family life. One can easily imagine seeing them click into view during a living-room slide show that distills the history of a life to its special moments. Yet, in this act of committing to the archive and official memory, these exceptional instances are sapped of their singularity and subsumed by genre. Something, however, disrupts this slide toward generality: a lattice floating ambiguously—almost invisibly—in the foreground. See the grid, and the illusion is lost. The scene dissolves into impressionistic gestures of paint. The grid opens the image, and all of its claims to memory and realism, to suspicion and analysis.

Grids famously appeared in—and then disappeared from—painting during the Renaissance. Fifteenth-century artists, architects, and thinkers, such as Masaccio, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Leon Battista Alberti, devised ways of using gridded veils to transpose realistic images of the world onto the flat surfaces of panels and walls. By similar methods, they could use grids intersected by perspectival rays to illusionistically conjure invented scenes into existence. Once they achieved their purpose, the grids were cleared from view, rendering them invisible but implicit. All that was left, as Alberti described it, was the effect of looking through an “open window.”[1] Thus, by means of an ancient device, one that had long organized texts, buildings and cities, a bit of magic occurred: Whole worlds were summoned into existence and, by the gift of the grid, were endowed with a verisimilitude that made them seem real.[2] The effect was so convincing that we began to mistake its ordered delineation of space as identical to our natural vision.

This substitution gained support from another ancient device, the camera obscura, which mirrored perspective’s single-point logic.[3] Refined through lenses, the camera obscura became the modern camera, purposefully designed to mimic and reproduce the structures of perspectival painting.[4] Instead of recognizing this systematic manipulation, we accepted photographs as images born from nature and credited them with the objectivity of science. In time, the camera would gain the power to automatically capture and preserve images as photographs, which, tethered to an individual’s specific place in space and time, became an analogy for experience or memory itself. We forgot or failed to notice that our vision is not rectangularly bounded and that we cannot see with such perfect focus and across multiple planes and distances. The veil travels with us now, giving shape to what we see, framing the world in front of us and turning it into a picture for future reference, circulation, or use. We live our lives in anticipation of the images that will make our lives seem real.

Grids, however, did not stay hidden. At the same time that photography began to reshape our encounters with the surrounding world, modern artists—from Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, and Piet Mondrian through to Frank Stella, Robert Ryman, and Agnes Martin—found the grid of the picture plane again; but this time, they did not bury it below the image or use it to project artificial depths. Instead, the grid rose to the surface and remained in full view, reminding the viewer of the constructed and artificial identity of images. In Modernist painting, the grid declared its presence as, in Rosalind Krauss’s words, “anti-natural, anti-mimetic, anti-real.”[5] Rather than reproducing the dimensions of the real world and projecting them into an imaginary space, the modernist grid forces the viewer’s attention to material, process, and facture. When in view, the grid banishes illusion, representation, and narrative. Those versions of reality that are enabled by perspective and photography are gone, and a new fact emerges: the realization that surface is all we ever had.

It is hard to imagine two more different modes of organizing the canvas or of representing space than those of the Renaissance and those of Modernism; yet, it is the grid that sustains them both. It is the grid that enables representation and insists on abstraction; it gives us illusions of deep space and bars our entry; it reproduces the real and exposes all such representations as inventions. Isca Greenfield-Sanders’s mixed-media paintings strain the far edges of the grid’s domain, and pull all of its inherent contradictions and oppositions into taut tension.

Isca Greenfield-Sanders

Look at Pink Mountain (2019). A vista spreads out before the viewer: a great expanse of open plain—slick and reflective with slushy swaths of ice—recedes into dense forest and brush. A mountain rises in the distance, glowing pink to match an uncanny sky. The craggy peak, dashed with snow, hides among the low-slung clouds at its shoulders. The scene is both remarkable and familiar: It speaks of all the times that we encounter moments of majesty and the sublime, seek to capture them with a camera, and fail. What we see is still remarkable and impressive, but we are also held at a distance, disembodied, and pushed back by the wide-angle displacement performed by a camera as it seeks to inhabit our place in the world. Perspectival lines recede to the deep center of the painting, centering the viewer in turn. The image orients us and is oriented for us. Just as Alberti said, it is as if we are looking through a window, only now we can see its panes. Greenfield-Sanders’s grid haunts the picture, although it is sometimes noticeable only as a slight shadow or by glints of light catching layered paper. The grid’s subtle reappearance undermines any easy entry into the image or reverie in its content, by forcing attention back to the picture plane and its anti-representational, anti-realist implications.

The grid, here, is an artifact of Greenfield-Sanders’s process. Beginning with found photographic slides, she scans, crops, and digitally manipulates the image. Figures appear and disappear, colors change, or optical phenomena (such as light leaks or lens flares) may enter the frame. The new, altered image reappears in the physical world as a small rice paper print, on which the artist makes a pencil and watercolor study. She scans the result; painting and photograph flatten to one. The study’s paint, pixels, and grain are then enlarged and mapped across a grid of paper tiles, which Greenfield-Sanders affixes to the canvas before she begins work again. The effect of the photographic image survives this remediated process, but only at a distance. What one sees behind the top layer of paint is, instead, an inscrutable accretion of handmade gestures, digital interventions, and photographic traces, all flattened in space and time through repeated scanning and printing. Painted layers rest atop scanned brushstrokes and pixelated enlargements of photographic grain. It is impossible to confidently distinguish between her marks and those that might have been born with the photograph or simulated on the computer. In this shallow space, history collapses, and representation recedes. Look closer, and even those remaining bits of recognizable image flicker with instability. The vibrant pink of the mountain sits atop the aureolin yellow of the fronting trees, and a thick outline forms where they meet. Foreground and background struggle and reverse. The illusionistic scene is not revealed through the grid but is in it. The image, with all of its apparent ties to representation and reality, is a fantasy.

The content of the original photographs, which had seemed so secure and identifiable when seen from across the room, becomes strange under the influence of the grid. A moment before, the images appeared to be so quintessentially “American ” that one might be tempted to call them iconic or “nostalgic.”[6] Through photographic images that are also paintings, Greenfield-Sanders shows us what nostalgia really is: the longing for a past that never really was.[7] The scenes they depict display the hallmarks of a bygone era and derive from a narrow strata of society, clearly marked by class and race. On Greenfield-Sanders’s canvases, these American myths seduce at the same time as they unmask themselves as fictions. Even if taken at face value, the original found photographs are fantasies themselves—images captured as much to document as to create selective memories for the future. Through repetition and exclusion, extraordinary moments have come to seem ordinary, average, quotidian, and shared. The word nostalgia carries within itself similar traces of an invented past. Though deriving from Greek roots (nóstos [νόστος] meaning “return home” and álgos [ἄλγος] for “longing”), the word had no history in the Greek language. It was the invention of a seventeenth century Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, who coined it to describe the homesickness experienced by soldiers when they were displaced from their native lands. The malady produced what Hofer called “erroneous representations,” which caused the afflicted to confuse, in the words of Svetlana Boym, the great theorist of nostalgia, “past and the present, real and imaginary events.”[8] Boym also described nostalgia as “a romance with one’s own fantasy” that produces a kind of “double exposure or superimposition of two images,” combining past with present, or dream with everyday life. “The moment we try to force it into a single image,” she writes, “it breaks the frame or burns the surface.”[9]

Greenfield-Sanders’s paintings do just this. If they are nostalgic, it is because they conjure and expose fictionalized histories, rose-tinted and held outside of time. Looking to the surfaces of her windows, to the panes as well the vistas beyond, we see, simultaneously, a version of the past and all of the obvious marks of manipulation and artistic intervention introduced by the remediated processes of memory, mythmaking, and recall.

Kris Paulsen is an Associate Professor in the Department of History of Art and in the program in Film Studies at Ohio State University. She is the author of Here/There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), as well as of numerous articles and book chapters on new media art and digital culture.

[1] Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, trans. Cecil Grayson (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 54.

[2] For more on the long history of grids in human culture, see Hanna Higgins’s remarkable archaeology of their use: Hannah B. Higgins, The Grid Book (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).

[3] The principle of the pinhole camera had been known since ancient times. Aristotle, for example, described it in Problems. Aristotle, Problems, Book XV, Chapter 11, Robert Mayhew, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 471.

[4] Ancient observers of the pinhole camera, Joel Snyder explains, ignored its “potential pictorial implications,” confining “their interest rather to the shape of the outer boundary of the image.” Snyder argues that the pinhole image “did not suggest a pictorial use” until the conventions of perspective had fully taken root, at which point the device was carefully adjusted to reproduce the form of vision created in perspectival paintings. Joel Snyder, “Picturing Vision,” Critical Inquiry 6, no. 3 (Spring 1980): 511-12.

[5] Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 10.

[6] Chuck Close, “A Conversation with Chuck Close and Isca Greenfield-Sanders” (San Francisco: John Berggruen Gallery, 2007), 9.

[7] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), xiii.

[8] Boym, 3.

[9] Boym, xiii.