It would seem as if there is very little that the painting and the poor image could have in common. Each format’s circulation and production scaffold different fields. Sometimes the painting and the poor image fold in on one another: a too-small thumbnail of a painting printed in the back of an exhibition catalogue, or a low resolution jpeg published on a gallery website. This is where any possible encounter between the two would apparently end. The poor image, as Hito Steyerl describes it, is the detritus of the digital file-sharing world. Imperfect, disturbed. Its constituent parts are stretched. A pockmarked surface makes us hyper-aware of quality, of a definitive low-ness. What can the distribution of slumped pixels across a digital file tell us about the veracity of images and image-making? The slumping and pockmarking on a quick cellphone snap of an instance of state violence at a protest, or of a low-res drone attack on civilians visually cues a file’s volatility: the file was leaked, the file was stolen. We know that it is showing us things that we are not allowed to see: ostensibly, reality. Yet the poor documentary image obfuscates. This is true for all images, even the clean ones, the ones on the top of the visual hierarchy. Yet it is the sagginess of the low-res surface that disturbs the documentary image’s claim to truth so well; subjects and moments and situations are made almost opaque, a truth is told and a truth is obscured. It is apt, then, to position the poor image as tending towards abstraction. What the poor image tells us that the closer we get to real events, the more abstract they appear. “It is a visual idea in its very becoming”, writes Steyerl.
Why enter a reading of through the extent, a painterly body of work, through the condition of the poor image and documentary claims to truth? Such an oblique entry can be tempered by some propositions around the conditions of abstraction under which imaginaries are produced, circulated and received. Abstraction in painting is often countered with critiques of utopian and transcendent claims to the work of formalism. In this sense abstraction is somewhat obsolete, a closed category of a modernist and art historical engagement. But abstraction is also manifest in the economic, the social, and the political – as a gesture of movement, fluidity, obfuscation, power, modulation, and triangulation, that can and has been theorised and lived beyond the canvas. What of abstraction as it is lived? Abstraction modulates between different modes of representation, different signifiers that aid in the production of spaces. Economic abstraction most clearly is manifest in the circulation of money and in financial networks and systems. This is an abstraction that mediates the space of neoliberal practices. It is in this sense that art historian Sven Lütticken writes that we are all “natives of abstraction”, that abstraction is lived through the mediation of state and market policies. The flipside of this proposition is that abstraction has very real, concrete and material consequences and accruals for people and the spaces in which they live, traverse, and think about. In an act of temporal complication Maria Lind has put forward the suggestion of reading abstraction in the contemporary by returning to the Latin etymology of the term: abstrahere, to withdraw, to step aside. For Lind withdrawal, intentional obstruction, and entering a conceptual space at an angle are all signs of a kind of abstraction that is being pursued by socially engaged artists, and particularly as a form and strategy of contemporary collectivisation and self-organisation. As a performative tool, Lind positions abstraction squarely in the realm of the political and as part of an activist practice. What we can see is that abstraction as it is lived is divergent. There is the abstraction of a neoliberal present and the abstraction of resistance. And so there is a tension between validation and retraction.
These oscillations are important. Moreover, they might point towards abstraction as gesture, not in the general artistic sense of brush mark on canvas, but of an on-going negotiation that fluctuates between different forms, geographies, selves, and sensibilities, and in many ways it is the work of the imagination that filters and re-mediates these points into a particular constellation. Arjun Appadurai writes that “the imagination has a projective sense about it, the sense of being a prelude to some sort of expression, whether aesthetic or otherwise…the imagination is today a staging ground for action, and not only for escape”. Appadurai describes the project of imagining as that of an active and selective appropriation, of ordinary people throughout the world collecting various senses of being and inhabiting into future senses of existing. Also important is that the work of the imagination is not only for escape, or to a use a previous term, withdrawal. The space of the imagination is invariably an abstract space, but in Appadurai’s sense it presents an abstract possible. Of course, Appadurai stresses the importance of a collective imagining on a cross-national trajectory, yet the bodily space of imagination remains a kind of interiority that can only be individual.
And here is where through the extent moves across abstraction. The painterly works in through the extent propose a gesture (negotiation) between the sensibility of the painterly and the spatial. At various levels the act of making the work describes interior and exterior abstractions. One of these abstractions is an imaginary of Johannesburg, of its foundational planning structure, the grid, and a subsequent destabilisation of the grid. Amongst the painterly grids is a single canvas of thick slanting lines, crossing each other and so crossing parts of each other out. Against a backdrop of grids it evokes, for this writer at least, the cut across Johannesburg that is Diagonal Street; the oblique, the skewed, in an otherwise rationalist impulse towards a linear abstraction in town planning. It is apt to connect this skewness to the term’s original etymology: eschew (from the French), to shun or deny. Speak to Wepener and she will tell you that her process in producing abstractions is about establishing a system and then cutting it off at the knees. “Kill your darlings”, writes Stephen King, “kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribblers heart, kill your darlings”. Destroying particular marks and scores on the canvas plays with the tension between the possible and the impossible and Wepener describes the gesture so: “…through that death comes something, something more. More than you could have anticipated, more than you are actually aware of”. Of particular interest is Wepener’s phrase, more than you are aware of. It is what the artist, writer and curator Emily Roysdon might call “ecstatic resistance”, a strategy that seeks to develop the potential of imagining the impossible as a mode of resistance. Roysdon has produced a diagramatic schema where movement, struggle, and improvisation intersect strategy, plasticity, and “telling” to cross into the impossible, the imaginary and finally into pleasure. This schema can be folded up, pyramid-like, to map abstraction within social and relational phenomena. From a two-dimensional diagram that is first an idea and a proposition, to a three dimensional structure which has valency in space. The act of folding the paper pyramid into being is the important act, the imagining at work. Steyerl again: “a visual idea in its very becoming”. Wepener lives in Krugersdorp and her daily commute into Johannesburg represents a traversal of differing social circumstances, which engenders for Wepener “the understanding that people are using different modes of being”. It is in a mediation of interiority and exteriority that Johannesburg presents itself. While Roysdon works on the imaginary from schema to object form, in through the extent the imaginary is worked on through the painterly as it can be used in space. A line is drawn from the city, to the canvas. This negotiation requires a surface, a substrate of sorts, and Wepener builds hers up with structural, supportive elements that renege on their promises: masking tape is ripped off and flays the canvas of lines of paint; a primer is used that sees paint dissipating, running off in pools instead of attaching to the canvas with certainty. Like the city the traces that remain from any action are vital, but elusive. We cannot guess precisely what lies below them, what the subterranean might give us.
Another painterly work stands independently from the wall. It, instead, requires the flat plane of a floor to stand upright. This series of canvases that are joined into one movable structure take on the atmosphere of an instillation. Detached from the wall, it can run diagonally from it, can obscure it, can face it, or efface it. It is made to withdraw from the ideological dominance of the wall that Brian O’Doherty describes in Inside the White Cube. Again, abstrahere is invoked, the abstraction formed from a deliberate withdrawal and obstruction. It asserts a claim to a space apart in which to manoeuvre.
“What is possible” asks Roysdon, “to think within the installation that before you approached it you cannot have imagined?.”