Carl Aigner


Painting and digitality in recent work by Jürgen Wagner

We look through matter ... Franz Marc

"It's about time to not only observe media images as an appearance outside of our work but also to consider the materiality of new media", wrote Monika Wagner in her impressive 2001 publication, "The Material of Art". What the author here emphatically addresses, is the challenge in general of new media technologies for contemporary art: that is to say, the question of references, feedback and transformations of already existing visual media qua newer technological image possibilities.

At the latest with the invention of the first apparatus produced image (photography), this challenge has since modernism been a permanent process. With the invention of the photograph, as much as painting was declared dead: with equal force, painting revitalized itself in many ways as a reaction to photography. New themes, new aesthetic perspectives and new approaches were the result that ultimately led to a new definition of painting itself. Photography and painting were long regarded as adversaries (which, image- and socio-historically in some respects was indeed the case); thus, a highly productive, often hidden relationship developed. What is more, photography began step-by-step to generally shape the dispositive "image" and to evolve a feedback effect; a fortiori as painting to an ever greater extent, initially not overtly, but in the course of time ever more sustainably acquired quasi proto-photographic dimensions: (excerpt, understanding of reality, details, worthy image, aesthetic self-perception). The brief period of photographic imitation by painting in the late 19th century led quickly to an artistic impasse. The new image medium after all implied aspects such as time, movement or light as immaterial image production factors, which represented an absolute novelty and challenge for painting. However, how much painting also co-opted photography was shown in the Photorealism of the 1960s with its appropriative photographic tendencies.

It is amazing how many parallels in this respect can be found between the new digital image forms and painting since the 1990s. The challenge of digital image technology transformed painting into two opposing positions: on one the hand, into the emergence of a new energetic gesture in painting and on the other hand, into the artistic analysis and aestheticiszation of specific media parameters of the digital. They also led to two basic artistic intentions: the techno-imaginary was the focus of the digital image, while the so-called "Reality" began again to determine the discourse of painting (keyword "New Objectivity, "New Figuration").

In this regard, works of painting found themselves again as a reflection focus in the digital immanence of the "pixel" (= picture element). As small "pixels", i.e. units of the electronic image, these "image cells" are the sensors and signals for the "grid" and image production in general. They represent, in biological terms, the basis gene of electronic images. At the same time, they are carriers of image resolution capacities, which are decisive for the perceptibility of the representational or figurative. Therefore, the pixels generate a new form of image raster, as we to some extent find with the earlier central-perspective designed paintings: and then especially in reproductive printing possibilities since the 19th century, such as offset printing or the technically simpler screen printing.

For several years, Jürgen Wagner has worked intensively with the possibilities of a painterly exploration of digital raster images, that is to say, pixels as a basic visual form. The starting point is usually photographs of various subjects that are scanned, i.e. digitized, and transformed into a pixel structure. A pattern of many small squares is sketched on canvases, which as it were, imitate a digital pixel pattern. The digital pixel structure of the scanned image is then in different depths of field rendered in oil paint. The resulting mosaic colour pattern, depending on the depth structure and the resulting pixel size, results in a sometimes more and sometimes less distinctive figuration of the respective subjects. The less the pixels are "zoomed" in the process of the translation from digital to painting, the more "abstract" the mosaic-like depth structure appears

Thus, in exploring the aesthetic possibilities, the strategy of the translation of the digital pixel structure plays a decisive role in painting. It effects not only the tension between representational and abstract, but also the perceptibility and imperceptibility of the subject. It is less about the effects of defamiliarization, and more about essential questions concerning our basic perception of the world in the face of digital media. What is "seeing" in digital media? Which image external references are (still) affected; does the digital image function in terms of its world-relatedness pre-photographically? The photographic metaphor of depth of field undergoes here a new semantic charge: the deeper the pixel structure is penetrated, the more detailed, but less sharp is the subject delineated.

We recognize this effect to some extent not only from Impressionist painting (or perhaps from Byzantine mosaic art), but also art-historically especially in the Pointillism of the 1880s and 1890s. Based on the latest findings of colour theory at that time and knowledge about the functioning of our eyes (retinal rods and cones), the subjects were dissolved in points which at first by distanced viewing allows a figurative recognition, while by close viewing a dot-like pattern becomes visible.

Jürgen Wagner pays meticulous attention to painting as painting in the process of translation. The pixel squares (by the way pixels are not exclusively square) are applied individually, to some degree they are impasto and expressive especially in the earlier works: they are always pulled out of the grid, rudimentarily organic and no longer strictly geometric. From this "collision" of technological structure and "organic" handwork, a fascinating and disconcerting view of the image results. The eye is torn between these two possibilities for picture production and "scans" back and forth as between two visual worlds. As a painter, as much as Wagner in turn removes technocratic image structures, one also recognizes that he has recently broken up the square structure of the pixel, carried out further subdivisions: and so, proceeds subversively against the technological image.

Far from the ideas of a colour field painting, as we have since the 1920s known, the new smartphone technology enables retranslation of this painting into the digital dispositive. The pixel structure and their colour fields remain in very coarse resolution (whereby the figurative readability of the image with the naked eye disappears), so it can on the screen of a smartphone be in turn merely by digital recording retranslated into its figuration. However, this picture production process reflects again a vivid metaphor for "seeing" in a totally media-centric world. Perception becomes electronic-digital based parameters. In this "deconstruction", technological image universes turn seeing into a game ball of the virtual. The power of painting achieved a fresh sensualisation and substantiation of seeing in light of the disappearance and disintegration of the world into digital worlds: tactile, thereby voluminous, and in the case of oil paint even "smellable".

If a perspective of art means the expansion of the world, even a world view, then the dialogue between painting and digital images is an extension of both image possibilities. The exploration, step-by-step approach to the possibilities of these "translations" is certainly a driving force in the paintings by Jürgen Wagner, who not least due to his work as a conservator, can bring a special sensitivity for the material of "painting" to this image discourse - because each image is also always something other than it seems to be!

© Mag. Carl Aigner, director of Landesmuseum Lower Austria


Carl Aigner


Digital image artefacts as time diagnostic strategy in the work of Jürgen Wagner

In a publication, which appeared many years ago, the English physician and author Patrick Trevor-Roper traced the influence of perception disorders and deviations, i.e. visual defects in artists with regard to newly opening aesthetic possibilities. Thereby, he made important artistic tendencies bound to these physical conditions visible, which led to innovative and progressive pictorial inventions. These intrinsic conditions of the eye, which are based on certain physical changes, are the "logical" consequence of the physical "matrix" of the eye. The author succeeded in making "seeing" discernible as a highly dynamic process. The feedback effect of the physical changes to the eye on its perceptive faculty include phenomena such as blurring or distortion, but also visibility and invisibility in the act of perception, which leads to unexpected pictorial inventions. It is as much the "unconscious" of our "seeing" that leads to artistic reflection as is chance a pictorial principle: as at least since the invention of photography, image-technologically it became a major artistic image factor.

Jürgen Wagner titled a resulting 2010 work series "Interferences". They were based on digital image interference on television screens caused by badly installed satellite dishes or by weather-related antics. Similar to the physically caused "visual disturbances" of the eye, these digital artefacts in their aesthetics and form were evoked in their pixel structure through the matrix of the digital itself. We also know this phenomenon in analogue television as so called "noise" or "flicker". They represent, as it were, "autocatalytic" techno-media image patterns of their techno-intrinsic pictorial potentials.

In physics, "interference" denotes the superimposition of waves or oscillations of identical origin. The series of works refers not only thematically thereon, but also to a media specific medial transfer of digital "images" whose digital photographic realization as well as the final "rendering" refers to a way of painting. The digital image interference on television screens resulting from external factors therefore becomes the "operator" of multilayered image transfers, based on the principle of contrapuntal procedures. The ephemeral digital image interference is with hundreds of digital photographic recordings "fixed" and subsequently selected. It is essential that no digital processing of the completed digital photographs takes place. This selection constitutes the basis for the realization of the painted picture, whereby additionally a dialogue between the instrument-based and the handwork-based arises.

"I'm a painter, in this respect deeply influenced by my grandfather, Josef Maria Svoboda (1918 - 2003)", said Jürgen Wagner firmly on the question of why a pictorial translation took place in the painting. In the first works, a preliminary freehand drawing was applied to the canvas, this is followed in the newer works by a light projection of the template which is traced by hand on the canvas. Through the exclusive use of a palette knife as a tool for the application of oil paint and its linear application to the canvas, a pixel-like structure remains in the painting: which however, through the contingent image disturbance leaves a pixel-like, torn open, often frayed impression. The diverse subjects from various television shows are visually only rudimentarily recognizable (for example a football World Cup in South Africa or movie image fragments). Picture puzzle-like, the canvases composed of individual building block-like paint fragments refer to digital photo patterns of television programmes. In the interplay between recognizable and unrecognizable, they fundamentally "discuss" ontological modes of digital image information.

Through the act of painting, the pixel-like seemingly chaotic image structures acquire a new inherent sensuality and material existence: they imagine a multi-perspectival pictorial space based on the technique of palette knife application and intense light-dark contrasts. Post-Cubist formations of geometric structures simultaneously diffuse and blur in their pictorial ambivalence any possible visual keystone. Thereby, this complex of works simulates a real condition in the digital universe: in a pixilated world to which decades ago in his book "In the Universe of Technical Images" the originally from Prague South American media philosopher Vilém Flusser drew attention.

Through diverse reception disturbances and interferences; de-composing, immaterial media images themselves thereby make anarchistic both the media images per se and simultaneously as receptive effect, our perception of these media images as anti-naturalistic and anti-realistic. The apparent smoothness and reality efficiency of the nonstop intruding virtual world of images is undermined and as media-construct deconstructed. What is in the first moment felt as a personal visual disturbance, unlike an astigmatism of the eye, is a media intrinsic experience and irritation.

It is about more than just the moment of an alienation from images and thus also our perception which confront themselves in the dialogue between media worlds and painting. In the focus of the "interferences" stands one's own visual experience and reflection on the visible and the perception of reality. The dictum "I see what I see" becomes an unsettling and also often beguiling experience in the seeing of "seeing" itself. Not what one sees is relevant, but how one sees something.

For Jürgen Wagner this does not happen in the form of an intellectual, theoretical art discourse: but much more by means of painting as an intuitive exploration of our everyday digital image experiences. The experience of pictorial dysfunction due to defects in satellite receiver systems was for him both fascinating and irritating at the same time, as if he had suddenly discovered visual defects in his own vision. That he has long traced modes of being of our media realities and formulated them as media translation, is more than a pictorial concern; it is time diagnostic perception of our digitally all-consuming image-society.

© Mag. Carl Aigner, director of Landesmuseum Lower Austria