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Mark Stafford- Mortal Data
At once the most familiar and the most contradictory of paintings genres the portrait may limit the painter's use of abstraction. The value and pleasure of the portrait is simultaneously to draw from an individual subject or group both their psychological distinction and their representative value. A portrait is both a portrait of a subject and of her times.
Sandro Kopp's recent skype portraits are the first examples we have of a painter who accepts and introduces into the portrait the hybrid space of the on-line. In this he follows those painters who have recognized that the extension of media, radically with photography, and subsequently with film and television, does not proscribe the significance of canvas, but rather re-defines it. In recent writings he has alluded to an intangible difference between the photograph and the presence of the sitter that he seeks to explore. Kopp's reserve regarding the photographic image may be in order to move closer to elements in the skype call that resemble a model for an interactive cinema.
In Kopp's investigations the instability and distortions of the data pixel is accepted as a dimension of visual experience. But for him this instability offers openings into the depiction of form and space. While the painter is clear about the personal importance that the human subjects have for him nevertheless the portraits do not display any nostalgia for the analog or pre-virtual.
The trope that links the individual achievement of Kopp's paintings is that of suspension. The sitter appears to move in and out of a mist of information, at one moment breathing life into the raster grid, and in the next fading back into binary difference. Most distinctively we recognize the struggle of the sitter to find the gaze of the painter. Working with the unpredictable flows of data and focus the painter attempts to free the subject from their pixel Other. In a portrait from skype the sitter cannot provide the artist with the kind of visual center point that a "from life" sitting offers. By juxtaposing "from life" and "from skype" Kopp has produced an interstitial space. A space that streaming and online media has made ubiquitous, but which the painter now asks us to try and name.
Despite his recent questioning of the relevance of photography in his own practice, the effect of technologically produced images is crucial to the significance of Kopp's investigation. Photography changed the nature of belief in the image, producing both a new form of idolatry and a new relation to the materiality of paint. The importance of materiality in the making of an image has most recently been (re)discovered by photographers. The history of media technology teaches us that the invention of the telephone made possible the transformation of the image into a signal. Is the image in a skype conversation not a form of idolatry, trying to make us believe that the voice we are listening to is present? I have said that these portraits are without nostalgia for the analog or pre-virtual, but they do (inadvertently perhaps) produce nostalgia for life. The lives we led before the socializing of the media, when are friends and family really went away, vanished.
In this personal archive of family and friends Kopp has depicted our hybrid existence, our new frame, our new country where the Other is almost always accessible. Nomadism has led us into this strange country where no one is fully at home but everyone has equal status as a resident. The pathos of these portraits is that, aware of the context of their creation, we know that we have been deprived of the conversation that partly created them. Paint has sealed them in a real silence that virtuality abhors. To be painted is anathema for a pixel, it (im)mortalizes data.
The art theorist ( can the visitor to today's gallery avoid being one ?) knows that the photograph, or rather the photographic apparatus ( following Jonathan Crary and Vilhelm Flusser) generated in painting a new figure - identified by that most brilliant of all commentators on painting, Charles Baudelaire - as the Painter of Modern Life. Is there not a link between the flaneur and the surfer, the dandy of the digital, always open to new forms of extension and presentation. To create a surface evocative of data shifts requires an agility and tolerance of restlessness. This "sketchiness" places the work in an unexpected but genuine relation to nineteenth century drawing or everyday scenes.
The nomadism that skype sustains and serves finds its apotheosis in the desire of this painter to bring the constant flow of data to a timeless halt. A painted portrait is the record of a time that never existed, this is what painting gained from the time of the photograph, a moment that will never return. For a painter who wishes to paint contemporary life the challenge is to find a momentum of creation that responds to the speed of events. And the speed of everyday life - immediacy -is a form of destruction. The destruction of time that social bonds and links require in order to emerge.
When Kopp refers to the "intangible" it is not the difference between the photographic image and the skype-image apart but rather he is finding the unnameable place in his own experience. The intangible refers to his own struggle to present different and contradictory experiences of painting. His artistic wager is to see whether the tensions within his practice are useable as a metaphor for the contradictions that emerge in the use of social media. In the pleasure he takes portraying those who he loves and admires he has staged our everyday uncertainties about time and place. The paradoxical way in which are attempts to stay in touch reveal and disguise our moments of subjective instability and isolation.
Mark Stafford is a Faculty Member of the Photography and Related Media Department of both the School of Visual Arts and the Parsons School of Design (New York) He also teaches in the Design and Technology Program of the New School University (New York). His research involves the relation of psychoanalysis to contemporary technology and art. He is the editor of "Being Human:The Technological Extensions of the Human Body" with Paola Mieli and Jacques Houis (Marsilio-Apres-Coup Editions)