Why do people see what they see? There must be conventions. There must be expectations. We see nothing otherwise; all would be chaos. Types, codes, categories, concepts.
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World, p. 58.
According to Hito Steyerl, the new normal is not seeing anything intelligible. This is because information passes through as a set of signals (electric charges, radio waves, light pulses) that cannot be perceived by human senses. Since contemporary perception is largely machinic, human vision can only cover a tiny part of it. As a consequence, vision has lost relevance and is now replaced by machinic filtering, decrypting and pattern recognition. This means that unless signals are processed and transformed, humans are unable to see them, because images look different to machines than to humans1Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art (London and New York: Verso, 2017), pp. 47-49.. In other words, an unintelligible reality is being created by images imperceptible to humans and thus reality itself, has become, to a certain degree, unintelligible to human consciousness.
What stands between us, and reality, is for the most part mediated through screens (I can’t help but to think of army soldiers’ pixelated camouflage uniforms). As machines now decode reality for us, how is it that we perceive anything at all if objects have become information and lost physicality? Without a doubt, the becoming data of everything and the circulation of information influences the sensible and the way in which we perceive. For the painter Elsa-Louise Manceaux (born 1985 Paris, works in Mexico City), this situation demands that painting be thought in relationship to screens and data, and that painting intervene the new sensibilities.
For her last solo exhibition at Lodos Gallery in Mexico City, Manceaux was inspired by the fact that Medieval philosopher Hildegard von Bingen had visions and represented them in paintings. The painter was interested in the idea of “being enlightened” not in a mystical sense of receiving an epiphany, but as having agency in the act of vision. As a frame for her pictorial investigations, she coined the concept “Desilluminations.” Her starting point was internet-based research of two categories of images from the 19th Century: machines and nature. Through a series of exercises of pictorial processing, she translated them to pictorial surfaces seeking to bring the industrial and biological imaginaries together, striving to reach an image of a “primal being.” Pictorial processing (or thinking) implies separating language, memory and vision to express perception through color, texture, tensions between foreground and background and figure and abstraction. Pictorial thought is not the same as “visual thinking,” and it gives primacy to perception and vision and painstaking attentiveness to the materiality and technicality of painting. In Manceaux’s work, the processed shapes are emblazoned in different supports through different techniques and materials and may function as transitory images or final images. In her exhibition, the passages or moments that forms undergo in her work are present. To sum up the process: images gleaned from the internet (data) acquire material substance and volume through pictorial processing and become visible as energy, waves, particles and surfaces folded into other surfaces. Through this process, it is not that the painter tries to emulate machinic vision, but in thinking and inscribing images, she seeks agency in the act of vision. This is why Manceaux compares her paintings to inventing new words. As “desilluminations” is a new field of pictorial exploration, her paintings are new fields of perceptual thought.
We know that the whole Western tradition of painting (and art) can be summed up by the following aphorism attributed to Claude Monet based on a quote by Marcel Proust and actually (mis)quoted by Jean-Luc Godard in his 2014 film Adieu au langage: « Il ne s’agit pas de peindre ce qu’on voit, parce qu’on ne voit rien, mais de peindre ce qu’on ne voit pas » [It is not about painting what we see, because we cannot see, but to paint what we do not see]. According to this tradition, the act of painting is blind and delivers timely visions. In contrast, Manceaux “desilluminations” rebels against this tradition as she seeks to deconstruct the Western notion that truth (or a vision) can be unveiled by light, and to demystify the notion of vision as epiphany. For her, we see everyday, and we choose what to see. Her concept of “desilluminations,” moreover, goes against the grain of Walter Benjamin’s term “profane illuminations” to describe the central component of the Surrealist perception2Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (1929) available online: https://bit.ly/2QuehEV. It describes a process by which, sometimes aided by dreams or hashish, a person perceives everyday objects as uncanny, supernatural, and irrational. “Profane illumination” is thus a method that enables Surrealists to disorient and estrange vision. In contrast, Manceaux’s concept “desilluminations,” means to create our own conditions of vision beyond the idea that an image “reveals” itself to us. “Desilluminations” is moreover, a form of pictorial thinking which forces the painter to focus on the present, looking at the future while forgetting the past (of the history of painting and of visual images). For Manceaux, an image is rather something that happens in practice, a process through which an image finds its own logic calling out for intuitive moves. But above all, an image is never a single image, but always is in relationship to others. This is why the blank surface is for the painter the starting point as full of random noise; gradually, she tweaks the surface to a familiar shape or form. Through apophenia (the perception of connections and analogies between unrelated things), forms, things and patterns become recognizable.
For instance, in the left hand wall of the gallery we find four diptychs carved on the wall which functions as both their frame and support. In the first diptych, we see the waves of a signal on the left while on the right, a visual analogy of the waves suggests the vertebral column of a four-legged being. Moreover, the shape of a “primary being” (an orangutan gleaned from the internet which could be said to be one of the visual matrixes of the series of paintings gathered here; the second matrix is the Wifi icon) reverberates as an echo in many of the paintings. The shape appears in the painting in the back of the wall that divides the gallery space titled M-M-M-M. Titles in Manceaux’s work are indeed guides into her intentions; like codes, they may (or not) decode the painting. For the most part, the titles open up the paintings to polysemic interpretations as we realize that they are sometimes relevant as clues into reading the image or serve to introduce ironic signifiers. M-M-M-M depicts what seems to be a blue figure exquisitely painted with almost translucent blue framed by thick red and blue lines. The format is clearly the portrait (the exhibition uses as matrixes the art historical genres of the portrait, the landscape, the still life), but of whom? M-M-M-M stands for “mono” (monkey),“muerte” (death), “Mary” (the Virgin) and “mona” (female for monkey but also a reference to Mona Lisa). All four signifiers are readable in the painting, a clear example of how apophenia works in Manceaux’s work. What makes this painting legible is whatever visual code or codes are in our minds when we encounter it. In formal terms, “desillumination” implies for Manceaux a series of formal decisions or gestures: to change the passage of light to another surface by deviating a certain condition; to shut down something in order to light up something else. It also means to create an effect beneath a layer created by a different effect. Or to positively affect an image to increase the possibilities of delivering multiple meanings. In Manceaux, it is not that the pictorial plane corresponds to the background that enables human seeing or the screen, but is a visual atmosphere that contains something like “after images,” sensuous surfaces constructed by textured nuances juxtaposed with sharp contours. Her sensuous surfaces are the result of careful studies deployed in a field of pictorial thinking enlarged by the concept of “desilluminations.” This implies to shake up images by manipulating or enhancing them through light, texture, layers3Manceaux’s description of “Desilluminations” is available at Lodos Gallery and at their website: https://bit.ly/2Me1RCV. Beyond the logic of the frontier between figure and abstraction, the point of legibility becomes in her works relations established amongst the paintings surrounding the image. Finally, in the lineage of rebel painters like Lee Bontecou, Lynn Umlauf or Lynda Benglis, for “Desilluminations”, Manceaux chose to extend the pictorial field using space as an extension of the act of painting and architecture as the support of her images. Manceaux’s ways of mobilizing the gaze, create images that address us by surveiling and scrutinizing us. Also by making us laugh.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art (London and New York: Verso, 2017), pp. 47-49.|
|2.||↑||Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (1929) available online: https://bit.ly/2QuehEV|
|3.||↑||Manceaux’s description of “Desilluminations” is available at Lodos Gallery and at their website: https://bit.ly/2Me1RCV|