The Superpositional Schemata of Georges Rousse
by Malcom Broderick
Memory of Spaces and History
Sunset Coffee Building
March 1 - April 1, 2002
Barbara Davis Gallery
February 23-March 23, 2002
Things and spaces exist in three dimensions. Photographs of things and spaces exist in two dimensions, but imply threedimensions through visual cues. So strong are these visual cues that we cannot easily see photographic images of real things as two dimensional without isolating fragments and depriving them of their thinginess. But structures and spaces can be manipulated, and cues subverted with the result that objects become ambiguous, lose their discrete identity. Georges Rousse's images do just that.
To accomplish this transformation of things and spaces, Rousse uses a manipulation I call the superposition of schemata. In Gombrich's terminology, "schemata" are systems of images or symbols that are somehow logically complete and identifiable. Geometrical figures, maps, words, blueprints, newspapers - these are schemata. Combinations of such schemata can be used for various poetic purposes. The surrealists have long used disparate elements to subvert a comfortable sense of reality and in the process to tap into the subconscious level where the disparate becomes coherent. Collagists, especially Kurt Schwitters, use the textural aspect of these schemata to assemble essentially abstract constructions while still retaining recognizable references. Rousse uses aspects of both approaches.
But first a dilemma. Rousse's works typically involve two creative stages with two independent, but related, products. First there is a construction of some sort with painted images or an image painted directly upon a preexisting architectural interior. And second is the photograph of the construction. The photograph becomes simultaneously a record of the construction and an independent work of art. The first is something like painting or sculpture and is part of that tradition. These structures are embedded in real spaces that we walk in, sampling the multiple views, perhaps even noting the smells. The photograph, on the other hand, is part of a very different tradition. In any case we must address the architectural sites and photographs somewhat
separately. Problems concerned with where aesthetic value resides in the photography of art in general (that is, in the depicted art object or in the photograph) seem not to apply here. Rousse's photographs are clearly independent works and are not simple or even complex representations of existing structures such as, for example, the architectural images of Frederick Evans or Alfred Stieglitz, artistic as these may be. The difference is, I think, that with Evans and Stieglitz the photography of architecture is used to evoke a mood presumably present in the architecture itself and is therefore in some sense representational in intent. In contrast Rousse's images tend to negate the space or at least attenuate its identity with superimposed meanings. The resultant amalgam expresses artistic ideas not present in the images or spaces themselves, but rather in their combination. This kind of image manipulation is more willful. The formal expression of this negating will and its aesthetic potency derives from a number of technical devices.
The most important device, covering the images in the installation at Allen's Landing and the photographs of the installations exhibited in the Barbara Davis Gallery, is the superposition of schemata. By superposition I mean the literal projection of one kind of image upon another with the result that schemata are somewhat foreign to the spaces they inhabit.
Let us consider first the installations at Allen's Landing, Memory of Spaces and History. Downstairs we find two paintings of classical architectural elevation drawings (i.e., facades without perspective) in black and white superimposed on the otherwise empty warehouse-like space. But what is seen depends upon where you view it. From a particular privileged site of viewing the image looks a seemingly black-and-white drawing in a rectilinear format. But as you move in the space, the image changes in startling ways. If you approach the base of the architectural drawing, the space diverges in an inverted perspective reminiscent of classical Chinese painting. If you walk at the sides, the straight edges are seen to be wildly bent and even physically interrupted as the image passes over steps and elevations. All this is a consequence of the literal projection of this image against the irregular background of the space. Viewed from the privileged site, our line of sight has a perspective with a fixed convergence point. As soon as we move, this fixed perspective is violated: our new perspective is inconsistent with the painted image.
Upstairs is a geometrical white construction that incorporates elements of floor, wall, ceiling and beams. Once again there is a privileged line of sight that produces the image of a centrally located "lifesaver." Through the hole of this donut the dark blue back wall can be seen as a contrasting element. If you walk to the sides, once again the image becomes irregular. In fact if you walk behind the sculptural forms you discover them to be unfinished, hollow structures. Nothing is as seems to be. But there is more. The images are articulated in their spaces. The steeples correspond to the rectangle defined by the two support pillars of the space. Similarly the roof of the "fore" building corresponds to the pillars. The point is that these images literally fit the spaces; the spaces actually become the framing units of the images. The spaces, but not the photographs are also subject to time of day and the vagaries of lighting. A passing cloud eclipses the sun streaming through the windows, resulting in a radical shift of feeling. Even the ambient atmospheric conditions become part of the piece. But aside from these environmental features, what is really crucial is the superposition of schemata.
A most important feature concerns the contrast of the images as schemata to their spaces. In virtually all of Rousse'sworks we are confronted with images that don't seem to belong. We ask ourselves what are those images doing displaced in such unlikely venues. The perfection of the two-dimensional architectural drawings of the downstairs contrasts strongly with the dinginess of the physical space. So we ask ourselves, what is classical schematic architecture doing in this abandoned space? Perhaps a memory? Perhaps a surprise of discovered beauty? Perhaps a yearning for perfection? And why does the image distort and fall apart as we walk around?
Perusal of another image reveals many parallels between the architectural features of the space and features of the construction. Positive and negative spaces are repeated in great complexity in the shapes of the sculptural projections and the various construction beams. The whiteness of the construction fits tonally with the whites of the site. Even the distant windows seem to be part of the overall rhythm. But again, we ask ourselves what is that giant life-saver doing in the middle of this empty space? The tension created between the idealized images and their dilapidated, or at least contrasting spaces, is at the heart of these pieces. And indeed the placement of imagery and textures within alien surroundings produces surrealistic overtones. Perhaps we recall some forgotten world or imagine some Platonic geometrical ideal? The unsubtle contrasts and large scale almost assault the viewer, force our attention. At the very least, they seem to elevate the meaning of the image much as rhyme elevates language.
Most of Rousse's images are embedded in abandoned, empty and even decaying spaces. As such, these images cannot be merely decorative or part of an ongoing economic ambience. No bank sculptures these. Such venues, by default, aestheticize their contained images. These spaces suggest the ravages of time, with all its attendant nihilistic poetry, acting on urban constructions. Indeed, many of the spaces are destined for destruction, making the art works themselves transitory, anti-museum-ish, much as Tibetan sand paintings that are swept away at their completion. And yet the constructions with their superimposed painted images are uplifting in their assertive and positive presentation of pure and ideal values.
What about the photographs? Well, first of all they present the most ideal confrontation with the image. The geometrical form, most often a rectangle or circle, is shown clearly. The images tend to be strongly centralized and symmetrical in rather large formats. For example, most of the images at the Barbara Davis Gallery are about three to four feet. Moreover, the viewing distance is such that the images must be seen within a space of about ten feet. Often color is a striking element, the geometrical shape being in dramatic contrast to the space, as in the green circle of Metz, 1994, or the red circle of La Fleche, 1993.
And, of course, they are impeccably printed. The initial effect is imposing and confrontational in much the same way as the abstractions of Frank Stella or Kenneth Noland. It seems at first as though a colored lens or painted window was strategically positioned. Continued vigilance reveals the underlying space and its deformation by the painted image. And your mind, in an almost involuntary reflex, begins to unravel the contradictions of form and space, especially if you have visited the actual space. The resulting dialectical process produces a kind of emotional mystery, more than a game, more than merely clever. Tres bien. Whereas the spaces tend to be transitory, the photographic images constitute an enduring record. Museum-ish. Not only do the photographic images represent a particular line of sight, but also a particular moment, all the more poignant for those that know its fate, since the space and the contained images may no longer exist.
The photographs, though perhaps not the spaces, tend to be devoid of people. And whereas the images tend to represent the icons of civilization: geometrical objects, architecture, elements of language, abstract designs, they do not often represent actual human activities. Both the spaces and the photographs seem to operate in an ideal realm of the mind for which human presence would be too much of an intrusion. While portraying the ideal embedded in messy, real spaces, these images also present a perceptual tug-of-war between two-dimensional and three-dimensional representation. It is through the combination of this perceptual tension with the tension resulting from the juxtaposition of the ideal and real, that poetry is ultimately produced.
Clearly, these works must operate on the cerebral cortex before they can tickle our hypothalami.
MALCOLM BRODERICK IS A POET, COMPOSER AND ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PHYSIOLOGY AND BIOPHYSICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS MEDICAL BRANCH IN GALVESTON, TEXAS.
Georges Rousse was born in Paris in 1947. An initial interest in medicine gave way to art and photography culminating in his first exhibition at the Paris Biennale in 1982. His association with the artists of the Figuration Libre led him to investigate the possibilities of painting in architectural spaces. Initial figurative work gradually gave way to more abstract conceptions. In these works he combined photography and painting. Starting in 1984 Rousse embarked on a project to make complex photographic images of buildings destined for destruction. He is the recipient of various awards including: the Villa Medici fellowship in New York in 1983, a Villa Medici fellowship in Rome from 1985-1987, Prix de Rome in 1986, top award from the International Center of Photography in New York in 1988, the Drawing Prize at Montrouge in 1989, the Remain Rolland Fellowship in Calcutta in 1993 and the Grand Prize of La Bibliotheque Nationale de France in 1993.