Nathaniel Stern at Art on Paper Gallery
by Michael Smith
The trope of compression is one that underpins much in our age. Distinct from reducing or editing, compressing implies not so much a loss of detail as a pulling together of information or matter so that it occupies a smaller space, digital or actual. The central characteristic of the compressed unit of information is not that it is necessarily inferior to the original/experiential, but that the nuances of its detail are hidden, hermetically encoded into a language that reveals the inadequacies of our sensory system. For some time Nathaniel Stern, an interesting and prolific fixture on the SA contemporary art scene, has been employing the process of compression as a productive one through which images are produced. More than a little tongue-in-cheek in reference to the grandeur which history of art confers through its 'isms', Stern took to calling his creative process 'Compressionism'.
The references that radiate from this term are numerous, and are backed up in Stern's work on 'Call and Response'. As the visual qualities of the works shift them towards a somewhat violent abstraction, the inevitable association is with Abstract Expressionism, more specifically the gesturality of Jackson Pollock's and Franz Kline's action painting. Yet Stern's choice of subject matter for this show also recalls the near-abstraction of the great Impressionist Claude Monet's latter day output. As is well-documented, Monet's seemingly tireless obsession with water lilies and the surfaces they floated on occupied much of the last third of his career. Certain connections can be seen with these images and works of Stern's like Satin Bed 2006 and Emmarentia Lilies 2006.
Yet with the Abstract Expressionists and the Impressionists before them, the physical matter of paint was the real stuff of their focus. Surface was of primary importance for both. This is where Stern and his forebears part ways. To call Stern's images 'painterly' on the strength of their swathes of colour and digitally rendered striations that recall brushstrokes is to tell only half the story. The tantalising quality of the surfaces of his works comes from the sense that they contain much that they're not readily revealing. Here and there one glimpses recognisable passages of images: leaves, sections of flowers, combinations of colour that hint at their real-world origins, but for the most part the digital processing, the deliberate compressing and stretching of the images, rather than any matter, becomes the subject of his formal exploration. The process of encoding visual information into digital information takes the place of painterly push-and-pull.
And the process of gathering visual data, one often facilitated by the use of a homemade digital scanning device with which Stern spent many hours scanning foliage in Emmarentia Dam, speaks subtly of Stern's continual interest in performance, most obviously manifested in his 2004 work Step Inside. The 'call and response' loop suggested by the exhibition title becomes an interplay, as Clive Kellner states in the exhibition catalogue, 'between media, between performance and print'. The process of scanning the dam foliage is distinct from one of documentation: it is avowedly performative. And the images that result, while obliquely documenting the images chosen by Stern and his passages through the water, operate on a level far more speculative that documentary.
Stern's entire process expands to encompass fairly traditional printmaking techniques, and a great tension is established by this. With some works on the show Stern establishes a trans-technological connection between digital image-making and the venerable technique of etching. Working with master printer Jillian Ross of David Krut Print Workshop (DKW), Stern spent many hours extrapolating powerful passages of line, shape and colour from his digital scans, and translating them into etching marks. The results are compelling, an amalgamation of visual languages from two very different ends of Western Art history. As bookends of printing technology, etching and digital image production have a distant connection. Yet, these works seem to bend time back on itself, compressing it through the juxtaposition of the two modes. What is especially effective is the curation of the show in the large expanse of Art on Paper Gallery, which allows for etching images to be shown alongside the resolved digital works from which they derive. While Nude Descension (again a playful gesture to history of art) has a fluid, otherworldly quality, the print which accompanies it, Nude Descension II, accrues a salacious, lo-fi quality that adds another dimension to Stern's formal repertoire.
It is not only Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism that are deliberately referenced by the works on the show. Jo'burg Boogie Woogie, an image that looks like a cross-section of a grim face-brick wall, is a play on high Modernist Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie. But the optimism in modernity that manifested in Mondrian's confection here morphs into a snippet of urban realism, entirely consistent with Guy Tillim's recent photgraphs of inner-city Johannesburg buildings: the intensity of visual information crammed into the format surely hints at the overcrowding of downtown Jozi living spaces. The image is forbidding in the truest sense of the word, denying spatial access by enforcing the impenetrability of the picture plane. Yet Stern's technique allows for moments of slippage, vertical slashes across the format that give visual and conceptual relief from the rigidity of bricks and mortar.
The work that remained with me long after I had left the gallery space, however, was Epics and Anthologies. Probably the most tongue-in-cheek work on show, and the most direct explication of ideas around compression and the opacity that attends it, this lambda print appears to be derived from scans of Stern's bookshelf. It is the title that lends the work its humour: epics are distinct from most other works of fiction by virtue of their length. Similarly, while anthologies are often collected examples from numerous poets, they function like archives filled with information, often fairly exhaustive attempts to represent an area of poetry. Yet in Stern's image, their spines stretched and compressed to the point of illegibility, the books become like blocks in a warped Tetris game, the layers of creative history piling up so quickly and disjointedly that one is powerless to effectively decode their meanings and implications.
The work proves, if any proof were needed, that Stern's performative interests expand to include 'performing' a relationship to history, a quietly anarchic deconstruction of the creative person's position in relation to history. This work, and much of the rest on show, reveal that Stern's is a position of productive paradox, of signalling his debt to the historical archive of creativity yet resisting the impulse to politely replicate its terms.
Opens: January 27
Closes: February 24
Art on Paper Gallery
44 Stanley Avenue, Braamfontein Werf (Milpark), Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 726 2234
Hours: Tue - Sat 10am - 5pm