Artists: Francois Morellet, Manuel Knapp
The exhibition space is divided into two separate areas for the exhibition in default of appearance. The artistic positions of François Morellet (born 1926) and Manuel Knapp (born 1978) are set apart from one another spatially and are apparently presented in juxtaposition to one another. Elements that initially seem common to both bodies of work are the obviously analogous geometric and formal vocabularies used and the reduced black-and-white palette. However, a much more fundamental relationship is evinced in the approach to the theory of space underlying both artists’ works. The geometrically intoned, structural investigations of spatiality and the modes of spatial perception are not merely focused on phenomenological notions of space but also address the perception of visual spatiality and the visuality of space. Real and imaginary space, the experience of space, and the space visually “projected” into an image by the viewer are often indistinguishable, so that it is difficult to clearly define the status of what one sees. The “polysemy” of the events unfolding in the space of the image encourages the viewer to critically reflect on the relationship between the image and the three-dimensional and, on a more general level, on the relationship between the perception and conceptualization of space—and their respective cultural codifications.
In their works, François Morellet and Manuel Knapp use construction to challenge the premises of construction. They create iconic (Morellet) and installation-based (Knapp) pictorial spaces, which they explore within, or better said, according to the framework dictated by their respective visual and spatial systems. Both artists are interested in liminal instances of perception, in the temporalities of the “still ongoing” and “already occurred” in visual experience. When does a non-coherent interaction of forms become a composition, and at what point does a constellation of forms become semiotically viable visual information?
Morellet and Knapp challenge the notion of space derived from Euclidian geometry, the former in a deconstructive manner, the latter through the use of reference and irony. The convention of objects contained in space as defined by triaxial coordinates is called into question phenomenologically (Knapp) and iconically/iconographically (Morellet) by a relational, dynamic notion of space with the viewer playing a cental role. The artists generate geometrically-based pictorial spaces, which transition into “unstable” and accidental (Knapp) or ambivalent (Morellet) scenarios confronting the viewer with a situation of spatial indeterminacy. Knapp’s work is dominated by existential questions pertaining to elements in visual space—the question as to whether the seen object is an image or ephemeral manifestation of light—and customary forms of spatial perception are undermined. In contrast, Morellet’s work, in particular his Défiguration, focuses on conventional and canonical modalities of viewing and incorporates a dimension of visual perception drawing on iconography and the history of thought.
In his works from the 1980s, including the Défigurations series, François Morellet engages in a stringent but consistently charming and ironic investigation of the visual perception of apparently common and familiar objects. In Défigurations Morellet draws on reproductions of important works from the history of art and replaces the heads of the portrayed figures with uniform white squares that reflect the prevalent, historical dimensions of the portrait painting. With the founding of the Académie de Science in the seventeenth century came the establishment of specific formats and sizes for different genres. Morellet employs the standard size of the portrait, 92 x 73 cm, for his iconoclastic interventions. His Défiguration (after Titian‘s Madonna of the Cherries)illustrates this method as a constellation of five white canvases mounted onto the wall, sometimes overlapping one another in a three-dimensional gesture. In keeping with the two-dimensional “original,” several of these canvases have been cropped off to correspond to the outlines of the original work. This formal constellation seems to outline the imaginary rectangle of a painting and thus seems to be invisibly framed. The “negation” of the image content, the replacement of the individual heads of the portrayed with canvases, foregrounds the compositional arrangement of the figures and their "behaviors" towards one another as the central action of the pictorial installation. Morellet thereby inverts the concept of the portrait genre. In contrast to the notion of the uniqueness and individuality of the person portrayed, the stand-in rectangles represent just the opposite—visual conformity, uniformity, and exchangeability. Through this act of “de-individualization” Morellet not only casts a critical gaze on the norms of subjective representation dating from this era but also on the cultural codification of subjectivity itself.
In the Défigurations series the composition and iconographic structure of the painting become autonomous agents driving the formation of Morellet’s works. The abstract substitutions generate a dynamic field within the image, both in terms of their relationships to each other and in terms of their relationship to the implied rectangle of the image as a whole. Morellet’s approach of emptying the pictorial space not only makes visible the dynamics inherent to the image and the composition; the resulting constellation of white canvases also functions as a projection surface, which recalls familiar iconic works of art history. The Défiguration assumes a dual visual status. It can be read in a purely abstract and relational-compositional manner. At the same time, the image also functions to activate an emphatically schematic mode of observation. One could describe this as an abstraction of a secondary order, which opens up a space of metapictorial perception, that is a reflection on the image, initiated by and through images. The artist attempts to convey the experience of visual polysemy as oscillating between an abstracted reading of the image and iconographical-semiotic reference. By activating the visual memory of the viewer, Morellet places the mental and symbolic selection mechanisms of visual perception at the core of what initially seems to be an abstract-relational reflection. In this manner Morellet subtly incorporates the codification—through the sociology of art and the history of ideas—of a geometrical and abstract visual language, without either instrumentalizing the abstract-phenomenological effect of the work or ironically deconstructing it.
At first glance the drawings of the Fold Cornersseries have the appearance of potential geometric abstract interventions in space. In accordance with the accompanying instructions of the artist, the simple linear forms can be proportionally enlarged and installed in actual, three-dimensional space. The presentation of the “sketch,” however, emphasizes the imaginary potential of the linear but three-dimensional forms, causing the imaginary space of the drawing to become the place where the work unfolds. In this manner the works appear as designs of potential spaces, or even better, as figurations of potential spatiality. The sketches each have an incision running from the center to the bottom of the paper in parallel with lateral edges, indicating how the sheets of paper can be easily folded to produce a corner space. The cut and the markings indicating how to fold the paper (up/down) encourage the viewer to “create” this space. The drawing becomes a medium that suggests the transition from the two- to the three-dimensional as the object of playful investigation. Inherent to the drawings is an implied activation of space that does not require a concrete “actualization” in space. The motif is thus not a form that can be reconfigured into another form but the element of transition, the process of a possible transformation.
On a superficial level, one could view the piece of paper—when folded—as creating a triaxial constellation. The drawing and the space produced by the folded paper are thus automatic equivalents to two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality. The visual and spatial scenario of this folding has a model-like and exemplary function in Morellet’s work, which represents a playful potentiality instead of a binding assertion. Although one does fold the paper along three spatial axes, it becomes evident that this is a problematic assumption. Whereas in the Défigurations the conventions of visual composition become the object of meta-pictorial perception, in Fold Corners attention is focused on the limitations of the definition and depiction of space. Although Morellet draws on conventional notions of two- and three-dimensionality, he skillfully undermines them by making the reproducible forms seem potentially alterable through the real or imagined intervention of the viewer. Morellet thus does not allow triaxial space to appear as the ultimate medium of the indicated action but as one stage of potential configuration or translation. Space and spatiality are not given but are variables of alterable manifestations of form. Morellet uses geometry to challenge geometry—and herein lies an important parallel to the approach of Manuel Knapp. Both artists use geometric-abstract formal vocabularies in order to subvert the authority and suggestive power of a given order, on the one hand, and to make its socially imposed structure and codification apparent, on the other.
The works of Manuel Knapp consist of simple geometric components. Orthogonal lines, rectangular shapes, and grid-like structures come together to produce a triaxial vision of space. Although one initially might gain the impression that his works are based on constructive or even constructivist intentions, something does not seem quite right with these visual-spatial constructions. The lines constituting the geometric forms are not so much descriptive of real things in the sense indicating the contour or the break-down of a geometric object; instead they have a disjointed and even isolated appearance. Neither adhering to the rules of central perspective nor of the triaxial organization of space, Knapp’s spatial constellations become more and more precarious over time. Contrary to the initial impression of order, the viewing experience becomes dispersed and disjointed; disruptions and spatial discrepancies predominate. The element and act of construction are presented as the basis of a fictional representation.
Knapp’s installations are guided by an immaterial agency. Light is not merely a technical medium, which projects moving geometric elements onto an arrangement of abstract objects. Instead, light is employed to both evoke and dispel the effect of space. In int/ext 08 Knapp projects abstract, geometric animations onto a loose arrangement of white objects (slats, boards, beams), causing the floor and wall of the exhibition space as well as the objects to all serve as projection surfaces for fleeting appearances. The physical objects thus function as integral components of abstract and permutative visual activity. The projection field is formed by three individual projections, which neither separately nor collectively form a clearly defined rectangular frame. The borders of the image are constantly being disrupted, shifted, or broken down. The result is thus a complex opening of space, a field in which visual forms penetrate and overlap one another and in which the experience of space is staggered. For example, on the floor a deconstructed shape recalling a cube becomes a carrier of visual information. Although accentuated by its physical presence in the exhibition, the cubic object functions as a conveyor of images, acting as a threshold between real space and virtual space, whereby differing between the two becomes increasingly difficult. This synthesis of visible elements of varying ontological status produces a visual space undergoing constant transformation, a space in which objects and projections, the three-dimensional and two-dimensional, refer to but do not correspond with one another. Governed by the ambiguities inherent to the medium and liminal perceptive events, the visual space creates an awareness for the “intermediary” spaces of perception, the space between differing perceptions. This is a space that cannot be medialized, and thus the limitation of the cognitive apparatus becomes the actual “material” of the work.
The initially perceived order and structure of int/ext 08 becomes thoroughly precarious; as the time-based work unfolds it does not progress in a manner suggesting the construction or the generation of space, but instead it generates a deconstruction of space with a scattered, disassociative effect. Knapp generates discrepancies and disruptions on a visual-pictorial level as well as a phenomenological one, in order to focus on a decentralized position within a supposed “order of things.” It is impossible to draw on or concretize the kind of spatial perception substantiated by a fixed viewing standpoint or a consistent spatial order. The variability and inconsistency of the images manifested as well as the temporalization of perception cause the space to no longer be conceived as a fixed set of points or merely as a constellation of objects. However, not the work itself generates this precarious spatiality, but alone the viewer, who through the evocative dimension of the gaze engaged in the act of perception links real-physical and visual-imaginary elements, thus facilitating the production of space. Space is not “given”; it is not a metaphysical reality that can be translated into a system of coordinates. Instead in Knapp’s work it forms a system of perceptual events, which is constituted and promulgated by discrepancies and interference.
In the work of both François Morellet and Manuel Knapp the radical reduction of a few simple geometric forms and the eschewal of color are neither intended in a (neo-)constructivist sense, nor do they reflect the concepts of a monochrome pictorial void or an aesthetic of absence. Instead, the works of the artists raise the question as to how a supposedly empty (Knapp) or “emptied” (Morellet) field can have an iconic impact or be iconically (re-)charged. In very different ways the evocative aspect of seeing plays a determining role in the work of Morellet and Knapp. Describing these geometric works as possessing a rigidity or stringency simply falls short. In both positions, the process of viewing and perceiving the works reveals that the artists are in fact concerned with an inversion of reduction and geometric order. Structure and chaos, composition and fragmentation do not exist in a dialectic relationship, but a reciprocal one. Knapp and Morellet’s works confront the viewer with perceptive, alterable, and “unstable” visual formations and activity in space. They aim to convey seeing as a conscious form of seeing, to produce a modality of perception that reveals the subroutines of seeing. In the process, the artists present a transitory space between imaginary visuality and real perception. They present the phenomena of the point of transition between surface and space, which calls into question the supposed certainty and reliability of seeing. The alleged order, the appearance of things as subject to rational logic and control, is inseparable from the opposite elements of paradox and irrationality.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Laura Schleussner