Art My first encounter with a photocopier was at Tate Liverpool. It was during an school visit, when the education staff utilised various example of Manga, which was the comic trip ascendancy at the time, to illustrate how Roy Lichtenstein and the Pop artists chopped and changed and as we’d describe it now, mashed-up, various images and themes to create new images and themes. They demonstrated how the photocopier could isolate various colours, or reduce or expand images, edit together characters and frames to create new implications. For speed, this was usually done without the lid down, so you could see the giant strobe scanning light shift back and forth below the paper.
But I didn't stop there. I put my hand against the glass or my cheeks and which created strange human-like shapes against black backgrounds and for ages whenever I saw a photocopies, or scanner, I’d want to use it for something other than creating facsimiles of paper, for seeing how various objects looked when pressed against the glass how the light refracted against them in conjunction with one another and how they looked within the resulting imagine. To be honest, the results weren't ever that remarkable but every now and then there’d be some surreal or abstract image created in which that strobing light had hit something at an unusual angle and produced an attractive effect.
That’s presumably why out of the three exhibitions in Tate Liverpool’s current Surreal Landscape season (with Leonora Carrington and Cathy Wilkes), it’s Gyorgy Kepes I’m most drawn to. Back in 1937, the late Hungarian-born artist, designer and educator hit upon the idea for “photograms”, a sort of “camera-less” photograph in which images were developed in the dark room by as the press notes describe “arranging and exposing objects directly on top of light-sensitive paper; juxtaposing geometric, industrial and organic forms to create images that are poised between abstraction and representation.” Like me, he was interested in seeing how a model for capturing images reacted when faced with disparate objects. Unlike me, Kepes was an artist.
The exhibition includes eighty of Kepes’s photographs, photomontages and photograms from his Chicago period 1938-1942. After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1935, he settled in the city of big shoulders and became head of the Colour and Light department at the New Bauhaus School. Also during this period he wrote a book, Language of Vision, which was about his theories of how the new technologies of photography, cinema and television were having on visual culture. As this New York Times obituary notes, Kepes had a “long-held view that traditional art forms could no longer adequately speak to the problems of the modern world, a world too much conditioned, he believed, by chaos and alienation.”
If anything informs the work most, it’s the human eye. Although this features very specifically in two works, a photograph of an eye ultra close-up and a photomontage of various eyes from numerous sources, throughout the works are motifs of lenses and the mechanics of vision. Leaf and Prism exemplifies this, with its refraction patterns mimicking (albeit at the wrong angle) the veins of an organism which needs light to survive. There are also straight photographs of collections of objects, usually with an inventory of them for a title, Cone, Prism, Rock or Prism, Compass, Grid 2 in which the shapes of items rather than the items themselves which are important, how they merge into one another as we stare at them for longer than a glance.
As Kepes said himself (I’m quoting from in gallery text), “the master of nature is ultimately connected with the mastery of space; this visual orientation. Each new visual environment demands a reorientation, a new way of measuring”. We shouldn't look at all of these images in the same way. We have to recalibrate our expectations and perceptions as though we've never encountered something quite like that before. That’s important to keep in mind when encountering the exhibition. Few people stop to look at the close-up of an ear presumably because they've seen a few ears in their lives, but what is it about this ear? What’s important about this ear? What are its distinguishing features?
For old times sake and because there are a lot of images of what we must assume are Kepes's own hands in the exhibition, I decided to scan my own. Using the HP desktop scanner next the computer I stood with the appendage on the glass and waited for the light to stutter across the glass trying not to more. There isn't a black and white setting on the machine which is why its in colour. I'd expected it to be surrounded in black but I think the grey area is actually the ceiling above my hand. I suppose i'll have to take another scan with something pinned up there to check. Which suggests that my experimentation days aren't over yet...
György Kepes is at Tate Liverpool from 6 March – 31 May 2015. Admission Free.