Thursday, March 08, 2007

The shadows on the walls of our media cave

Jonathan O’Hara Gallery

Roberta Smith in the NYT on the Robert Rauschenberg transfer drawings of the 1960s, which helped usher in a whole new way for artists to look at the artifacts of pop culture, and which are being shown at the Jonathan O’Hara Gallery in New York through St. Patty's Day (as befits a good Irish name like Rauschenberg).
The transfer technique, which he took up in 1958, had remarkably few moving parts. It involved soaking newspaper or magazine clippings in solvent, laying them face down on drawing paper and then hatching back and forth across them with a dry pen nib. The results dazzle; in a flickering, almost strobelike effect, images seem to rise to the surface like memories through a scrim — or through the static of a television set. The critic Lawrence Alloway likened the fluctuating motifs to “a postcard stand in a windstorm.”

Crossing cameraless photomontage with paperless collage in a manner both improvisatory and mechanical, the transfer technique perfectly suits the time-capsule character of these works. Process and subject become one. Each fragment acquires the sheen of age without sentimentality, the veneer of touch without traditional rendering.
Smith writes knowingly of the formal, painterly properties of these works (accented by white gouache, ink washes or watercolor) and how they relate to the other art of their time. and what she says is penetrating and insightful.

But I think the appeal of these drawings goes beyond their purely esthetic qualities. They have a poignance and emotional resonance that seems to capture something real and somehow unnerving about life in an age as dominated by media as ours. So much experience is second-hand, illusory and all too transitory. It passes us by like flickering shadows on the walls of an electronic cave even Plato could not imagine. Rauschenberg's faded images, which seem to emerge from the paper even while fading back into it at the same time, suggest the fleeting images on the wall of our media cave in all their evanescence.

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