Writing Art History Since 2002

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João Ferreira | Cape Town

Dialog, 2004 Towards the end of the nineteenth century, among an onslaught of inventions, was an intriguing laboratory device called the tachistoscope. It measured the speed with which items could be visually recognized. Although few predicted it at the time, it was to prove massively important to the psychology of perception. Katherine Bull’s Data functions a bit like the tachistoscope in its exploration of shifting perceptions of self, sitter, scale, time, printmaking and its processes. Data features an elegant, delicate display of ‘painted’ digital prints, ranging in size from a monumental self-portrait to miniature, pinkie-nail “anti-portraits” (a term used by one of Bull’s sitters); and a series of ‘symbiotic’ in situ portraits.For the latter she has simulated a studio environment with easel (laptop) and ergonomically-designed sitter’s chair. Her medium is an inkjet printer, which uses a process colour system based on subtractive primaries of yellow, magenta and cyan. Photoshop is her paint box, and her brush is, of course, the computer mouse. It is a space that is clinically futuristic; yet curiously traditional, nostalgic given the portraiture genre in which she works and the fact that she is painting from ‘life’.The relationship between visuality and claims of knowledge has always been intimately tied to technology. These days, especially, the truth of illusion and the illusion of truth essentially function as two sides of the same coin. In many respects Data is pretty much attuned to Bull’s relentless questioning of the ‘honesty’ of the printed record. But her endeavours entail not a simple revisionist exercise, but a process of rigorous re-visitation. And while we might know ourselves primarily through our visual relationships with that which is not us – as Lacan suggested – Bull does not cushion herself behind the yaddayadda-isms of psychoanalytical discourse. Her approach is more personal, less theory-heavy – and more self-confrontational. Despite the high-tech paraphernalia, Data is about getting back to the basics of self-identification. It also reflects a desire to reconnect with the more primal processes involved in (re)producing images – the alchemy of making art – while monitoring the shifting relationships between artist and subject. Yet the paradox of ‘unlearning’ is also patently obvious, because the accoutrements of knowledge cannot simply be erased. This does not invalidate the quest; each portrait entails ‘unlearning’ or beginning again.Each relationship with the sitter has an idiosyncratic rhythm. The musical terminology is not inappropriate. Despite her acumen with the tools of digital technology, Data is Katherine Bull Unplugged. The ‘touch’ is still refined, but rawer and rougher round the edges. As has always been the case with portraiture likeness is all. And if representation is about ‘fixing’ the image, then Bull has taken the double entendre to a provocative place. Photoshop, after all, is about fixing images. But Bull does not aim for an overworked verisimilitude. Instead of producing the artfully manipulated, pristine surfaces that are the digital hallmark her strokes are loose, capturing a truth of fleeting perception, embracing the paradoxes of portraiture in its desire to immortalise the momentary.If Data is basically about re-looking, then the key to knowledge is in the monumental self- portrait, Catalogue. It serves as a template, a matrix of sorts, for the rest of the show; it is from this face – the self – that the others emerge, literally. It serves as a surface guide to the personae that have played various roles in Bull’s life. They are microcosms, depicted like pixels or beads, on her face and in the tendrils of her hair. They recur as separate self-contained entities on the adjacent wall, re-presented without contextual clues. As part of her re-investigative process, Bull has invited visitors – this critic included – to sit for their portraits. These are then exhibited on the third wall – each one literally evolving from the one before. ‘Sitting’ becomes a heightened, slightly unsettling experience in terms of site and (in)sight. The click-clicking of the mouse, exerts a soporific, almost hypnotic effect, dulling the sharpness of the critic’s eye. All sense of detachment becomes dislodged as one’s own ‘subjectivity’ emerges, layer upon layer. A second computer screen enables the sitter to observe the process. This subverts the dominant-passive entanglement of portraitist and sitter, transforming a relationship of control into a more “negotiable” process. And the screen simulates a mirror, becoming a symbol of self-reflection, criticality and narcissism.Despite the surface insularity of this exhibition, there is a plethora of data to absorb. Some of it so subtle, so subliminal, that it might be overlooked. And there is definitely a tentativeness in Bull’s re-investigations of self and subject. She is clearly on the threshold of an intriguing phase in an already prodigious oeuvre. Data might well do for the emerging historiography of printmaking what the tachistoscope did for the psychology of perception.

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