Toward a Conscious Vision
As evolutionary creatures, humans have grown to rely perhaps more on vision than any other sense. It has been assigned as our immediate translator for our physical reality. By perhaps relying too heavily on what we expect to see and what we think we see, our perceptions adopt a corrupt understanding of an artwork’s true form and intended context.
In the 21st century, most audience’s expectations, and thus their perceptions, are easily swayed by the degree to which technology has been used to produce the image. We have been conditioned to expect technology to augment reality in such a way as to cheat our vision and confuse our interpretations of art. In fact, there exists a complex tangle of trajectories between art and technology and at the center of this knot lies the authenticity of our sensory experiences, most especially our visual observations.While some artists openly embrace mechanical processes, and others react against them, there are those artists who choose to imitate them. By occupying a middle ground, these artists take an unorthodox advantage of technological reproduction by allowing it to inform their work rather than define it. Viewers need only a basic familiarity with photography to interpret the formal composition of Georgia O’Keefe’s abstract paintings. The indirect way O’Keefe references photography through her cropped imagery, crowded compositions, and one-point perspective informs the viewer of its contribution to the painting, but O’Keefe does not allow photography to define the production or the subject of the painting. Contemporaries to O’Keefe, particularly Charles Sheeler and other painters from the Stieglitz Circle chose to imitate the photographic composition while maintaining a completely manual production process. Later painters, like Richard Estes, Chuck Close, and Audrey Flack, broadened the influence of photography by including the realistic photographic image. This ultimately spurred the Photorealist movement in American painting, characterized by the emphasis on fine detail to produce paintings that were visual facsimiles of specific photographs. For these artists, the photographic image became the catalyst, the reference, and the guide throughout the painting process, and therefore a crucial part (although by-product) of the finished painting.
By removing boundaries between two contrasting media, these painters explored a new magnetism between the viewer and the image. Contemporary artists continue to experiment with mechanical processes in a wide range. But, as technology has advanced, conventional photographic methods and other mechanical modes of creation have been combined with more complex and immediate digital processes. Digital reproduction and, to an even greater degree, digital manipulation have again redefined the relationship between the viewer and the image by augmenting reality in a more compelling way.
Richard Heipp progresses the dialogue between painting and photography, exploiting mechanical processes to alter the viewer’s interactions with a painting. Integral to his intent is the separation and reclassification of the individual acts of looking and seeing. For more than 40 years, he has persistently explored the boundaries between mechanical reproduction and manual craftsmanship. Although the philosophy behind his photocentric paintings — a coin he termed in describing his airbrush paintings — began by investigating the respective but related roles of photography, painting, and illusion, it has evolved in ways to more deeply incorporate the role of the viewer. He redefines the visual relationship between audience and artwork, positioning the viewer at the crossroads of looking and seeing. Furthermore, as audiences continue to have progressively detached interactions with art through digital screens, Heipp’s paintings also reveal how our relationships with technology dictate, and often mislead, our interpretations in the 21st century. By using delusion to demystify illusion, Heipp re-contextualizes what we know as photography and what we think we know as painting. His paintings require our conscious eye; they force us to be present in front of an artwork, reevaluate our perceptions of what we are seeing, and therefore become more aware of the inherent deception of casual observation. To see is to know. To look is not enough.
Double Vision: Photocentric Paintings by Richard Heipp will be on view June 2 to August 25 in the Dorothy Jenkins Gallery.
Excerpts from a February 2018 interview conducted by Laura Randal. Randal is the Registrar, Archivist, and Scholar in Residence at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, FL. She received her M.A. in Art History from the School of Art and Art History at the University of Florida.
Laura: Can you explain the difference [between photocentric and photorealist]?
Richard: Photorealism suggests that the photograph is representing reality, the real, and its not. Photorealism implies simply paintings made from photographic sources. There are painters that are really committed to painting from life and their works are very different than photo-based painting. The idea of using the term "centric" is that it’s not just about what the photograph looks like, its about what the photo represents in terms of image capture and it’s role in society, not realism. We often think of a photograph as a surrogate for truth, or at least we used to, but it’s actually only a surrogate for the image. And that’s another thing that has changed with images in the digital age.
Laura: One thing you’re interested in is the way we are inundated by images today, especially in the digital age. Do you think that inundation affects too the way we explore museums today? We can only focus on quantity instead of quality.
Richard: I think that’s the inherent crux, if you want to call it a problem, some would say it’s just a shifting paradigm.
Laura: An evolution in seeing.
Richard: That’s the thing about today, seeing so many images all the time, images from billboards to magazines to our devices. It all goes back to when mechanical reproduction happened. It soon became the main vehicle for selling goods, creating commodity, then they started blanketing images everywhere. And now there seems to be a total democracy of the image. Most people don’t look at a work of art as capital “A” art. It’s all just stuff. Now it seems it always has to do with contextualization.
Laura: That context being in an artist’s studio,
a museum or gallery.
Richard: Yes, I think it has to do with looking at things through the institution, right? The thing is, in a way you might say artists are intending to sell ideas, where advertising images are made to sell products. I think artists try to make things to get people to think and feel. Some artists approach things more through the thinking mode others a mode of feeling. Certain artists try to enter first through your brain, others enter directly through your soul, and some do it simultaneously.
Laura: It’s a slower relationship; it takes time to build your relationship.
Richard: It requires more of the viewer to engage at a level that’s not superficial. I frequently will tell students, imagine what it was like to look at a painting in the 17th century prior to mechanical reproduction. Most people didn’t have books in their house, there was no TV, and there were not images everywhere. When you saw a great painting, it was like going to see a high-tech Hollywood blockbuster film at the theaters. It was state of art visual technology and story telling at the time. In the 17th century you might see a very limited number of images in your lifetime, today we see hundreds in less than an hour. It’s just like pollution.
Abbreviated catalogue essay by Adam N. Justice
Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art
Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina