DECEPTIVE REALITIES: ON CONVERGENCE AND CONTRADICTION
Laura Lantieri Interviews Paul Adair
Encountering the work of Paul Adair can be a jarring experience. Hyper-real, hand-cast replicas of everyday objects – stools, basketballs, take-away coffee cups – are so true to life that, at first, only their presentation in the gallery betrays their mimetic nature. On closer inspection we might notice a subtle join, or a colour that is a little too bright, indicating something else is at play. This object, no matter how many times we might doubt ourselves and look again, is not an original.
Since 2005, Adair has explored the ambivalent relationship between truth and artifice, or object and image, through photography and sculpture. Following an Australia Council studio residency in Los Angeles in 2009 – during which he met a curator who encouraged him to examine sculpture further – polyurethane resin cast moulding has come to form a considerable part of his practice, often supplanting the physical product of photography altogether.
In two recent works, entitled Circle Jerks and Beach Boys, a sculpted series of similar-sized, circular objects and identical bar stools form the contents of installation. Along one gallery wall, stools are stacked beside their piled cushions, and along the other, a variety of ‘balls’ are scattered on the floor as though deserted by their users. One lone inflatable beach ball sits forward, seemingly deposited after outdoor activity with water (it’s really resin) sprayed across its surface.
Despite a material absence, the photographic remains a central consideration in these works. By investigating the two mediums’ corresponding technical processes – that is, creating a positive from a negative in photography and an object by moulding and casting in sculpture – Adair follows what he calls a post-medium specific ‘photographic’ logic. In other words, he fabricates his sculptural replicas according to photographic principles of reproduction, copying and multiplying. The result is a resemblance to reality that is, as I’ve said, unnerving. But to what end?
In his 1967 manifesto, ‘The Death of the Author’, Roland Barthes famously expressed the idea that authorship, authenticity and singularity in art are superseded by “a space of many dimensions, in which … the text [or image] is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.” (1) Adair, who cites the Pictures Generation and the work of Sherrie Levine as conceptual stimuli, embraces this inexorable system of cultural referencing openly. “I’m very interested in the Pictures Generation in terms of appropriation … if I wanted to use an image that already exists, I’m okay with that. Essentially a lot of my work is copying images that exist.”
In fact, it is the ‘tissue of citations’ – or associations and mis-associations – which arise as a result of re-presentation that most interest Adair. For all his formalist approach, there is a decisive open-endedness to his work that induces the viewer to make his or her own psychological connections. By interrogating the relationship between object and image, he asks: How do we look at something in the context of lived experience?
The answer is decidedly an elusive one, and as our discussion revealed, Adair’s practice is not a simple marrying of two artistic disciplines in material or abstract terms. Rather, it is a complex meeting ground of art historical, sociological and quotidian references, as well as processes, techniques and ideas, which give rise to a greater photographic discourse. It is simultaneously a reflection of human experience and an entirely artificial guise, a fluid site of convergence and contradiction.
The interview that follows is taken in part from our conversation on a Sunday afternoon, 14 July 2013.
1) Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, trans. Richard Howard, UbuWeb Papers, Aspen no. 5+6, item 3, accessed http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf; July 2013
LL: Although you began your career as a photographer, your work has increasingly focused on the relationship between photography and sculpture. In your recent practice you have omitted the material photographic product – the print – altogether. What initiated this investigation?
PA: Casting first came into my work during my Honours year when I made a series of eleven photographic images that essentially looked like dioramas on all-white backgrounds. There was one particular image of a fire, which was made up of bits of actual wood that I had painted to make appear ‘flat’, more than anything, and which ended up looking kind of cartoon-like. But I had a series of rocks that were surrounding the assembled sticks and whatnot, and I cast one rock and then another, and repeated the same cast rocks within that particular image. That was my first entry point into casting, and this idea of copying, multiplying and repeating objects within an image. It wasn’t really immediately obvious as to where that would go, but I thought it was quite important in terms of how casting relates to photography and using it within photography, but also then pulling the object out of a photograph and into the gallery space itself.
PA: My interest between object and image expanded, through not only the construction of these objects to photograph, but then thinking about the relationship between the two. Basketball, an image from 2008, directly references Jeff Koons’ Total Equilibrium Tank series. When you think about it, it is an obvious sculptural work that has this relationship between an object and an image. It’s of a basketball that’s free-floating in space, within a solution inside a tank – which frames the object. You can look at it from all four sides and it’s very similar, and that idea of presenting an object to be looked at a certain way has a really great relationship to how photography may inform how sculptural objects are presented within the gallery space. So I decided to make this image that would reference that, and hopefully start a conversation between what I was doing by making sculptural assemblages to photograph within these white spaces. I was also thinking about how sculpture is documented and re-presented in publications, magazines, and the internet – and how a lot of artwork is accessible only through those means.
LL: Do you find that sculpture conveys your ideas more effectively than the printed photograph?
PA: It’s not about photography or about sculpture being better than the other. I feel like my work is generating a language facilitated by the relationship between sculpture and photography, or the confluence of object and image. Which is ultimately driven by my interest in the relationship between reality and representation.
LL: What are you particularly interested in communicating about this relationship? Is it a sort of ‘programmed’ recognition in the viewer, and a jolting of our perception when we see something that is a representation but looks so real?
PA: I’ve used the words ‘perceptual anxiety’ before. I want people to look at these physical objects, and start thinking about the possibility of something else, which is very much part of ‘photographic’ thinking or language. I’m really interested in associations and mis-associations, and this idea that we relate one thing to another – and when this relation that’s made is completely not what the original is – and what that process does. The newest work for me [Circle Jerks] is moving somewhere I feel is quite interesting, in a way. How can I make an object, and change the colours of it to make it seem like it looks like something else?
LL: In Circle Jerks the ‘balls’ appear incredibly real, and until you get up close you might well question whether they are legitimate objects or not, with the exception, I think, of your cast of a pumpkin. How important was it to include this one object that borders on cartoon-like?
PA: I think it actually became an entry point to the work. But when you think about it, it could potentially be the most realistic out of all of them. Because you can buy these artificial pumpkins for Halloween that look exactly like that, and the interesting thing is, the leather football – which is not leather – is cast from a replica of a replica. So there’s this other level of the objects being removed from their ‘original’, and it’s actually quite interesting as to what sticks out first to a viewer.
In that particular installation there’s not supposed to be a hierarchy between the objects, but one generally emerges, based on an individual’s particular mode of perception, I guess. You can’t help that. But also, pulling one object out from the wall, or singling out another that has this ‘wet’ effect over its surface highlights my interest in dual relationships between objects, particularly association and mis-association. You could ask, “Is it really wet or is it artificial?”, but it could also be seen as a representation of perspiration or a nervous sweat.
It also relates these finely crafted objects back to their image of themselves; this idea of documenting or photographing something in a commercial sense, and representing it as an appealing object for whatever particular reason. It’s like a merchandising effect really, that aims to communicate a feeling even if it is uneasy or perhaps absurd.
LL: That actually brings me to my next question. This tousle between reality and construction seems all the more pertinent in an age where pictures are incessantly thrown at us as advertising and marketing tools. Do these ideas come into play when you are creating your work?
PA: I think a lot of these things are coming from within the work. They might not necessarily be things that I’m looking for, but I’m definitely aware of them. For example, the influence of advertising or stock photography is there, but it’s not one that I seek out. I tend to shy away from saying that things are directly related to something else. If it’s within art history, like the Jeff Koons work [Total Equilibrium Tank], then definitely. But I think it’s necessary to highlight that historical reference.
Speaking of other artists, I think one of the most interesting artists working with objects and images today is Elad Lassry. He does these small, fit-in-your-bag type framed prints of a variety of objects – like food, lipstick and other things – that are sometimes arranged on small plinths in front of, say, a bright green background, and then the picture frame will be the same green. So there’s an object and image relationship, and they kind of look like little showcases, and the frame definitely becomes part of the work. He also uses a technique with a double or multiple exposure and talks about that in line with this idea of ‘flickering’ and ‘flickering mental images’, and how this relates to our perception of realistic representations like photographic images. That has become quite relatable to my work. I find pleasure in those moments of ‘flickering’, where one thing could be seen as another.
LL: Your work generally elicits an immediate perceptual recognition from the viewer. What objects do you choose to prompt this reaction, and what determines your selection?
PA: Within this particular work [Circle Jerks], the objects had to be somewhat ‘round’ or ‘circular’, or a ball. Originally this selection came from the Basketball image, as a continuation of that original reference. And I was interested in using objects that are accessible, or everyday, in that they prompt a memory or like you say, immediate perceptual recognition. It sounds kind of silly but there’s a really interesting relationship that occurs when you look at something, an object or whatever, in comparison to how you think about it, how you process it mentally – and the relationships or associations the mind generates, be it similar or conflicting.
Some of the selection choice is actually done through Google images – when I make an object, I take a photograph of it and use that image to search for other images of similar objects and see what else comes up. If you do an image search for the word ‘basketball’, a range of pictures relating to basketball come up, but if you search with an image of a basketball the search engine locates a series of ‘visually similar images’. That’s how I originally justified including the American Football within a group of ‘round’ or ‘circular’ objects. I mean, they’re all jerks, but possibly it’s a bigger jerk – if you know what I mean.
With the repeated bar stools in Beach Boys, I had two other chairs on the go to potentially cast as well, if this one didn’t work for whatever reason, but I think it did the job. And you know, I also just come across things. I found the stool outside my studio …
LL: So sometimes it can be quite arbitrary, depending on what you happen upon in your life?
PA: Yes, I think it can be quite arbitrary. Whenever other people have asked me that question, I say, “It could be anything – but then, it could be nothing”. It really is the most common question. I think it’s important, but I also don’t think it’s important, in that it’s specific yet open-ended.
LL: Would you say the greater significance here is that it’s a recognisable object, and that we all generally know its function in everyday life?
PA: Definitely. The only ‘unrecognisable’ object might be one that seems absurd within the grouping, but then there’s a context for it. Like you were saying with the pumpkin, it might be the most artificial, but then, potentially it’s the most realistic. So those are the kinds of things I am looking for, which dictate what can and can’t be chosen, outside of it being somewhat circular in form and of a similar colour or patternation to another ball.
LL: It’s clear you work in very calculated terms, balancing a number of conceptual and aesthetic considerations. What is your line of reasoning when you take this approach?
PA: In regards to my most recent body of sculptural work, yes it is controlled. I think it was important for me to set up certain parameters as I was exploring new territory, which I felt would expand and essentially change my practice. But for the most part, I was trying to follow a logic. And more specifically, a ‘photographic’ logic, which explores three points of enquiry: the production, presentation and perception of sculptural objects. This can be as simple as relating the process of producing a negative mould and positive cast to the traditional technique of producing a photographic image, through to thinking about the presentation and display of sculptural objects within the gallery space.
I was thinking about how photographic documentation of sculpture might have changed the way artists present and display sculptural objects, to include compositional frameworks like a showcase or vitrine, and how they enable us to view three dimensions like an image. But also, to further expand that line of thinking, to look at the white cube as an ‘inverted plinth’ (which are not my words, but it explains it really well) – the gallery is this compositional space that we’re in, a pictorial space that’s between reality and representation, where you make compositional gestures with your perception. This is actually a good point to talk about the function of the bar stools [Beach Boys]. The aim of the stools was to essentially set up or activate the gallery space as such a site, which includes both object and viewer as part of the work.
LL: You’ve talked about flattening the image even when it’s in three dimensions, while encouraging a spatial and performative aspect of the work to develop. Is this juxtaposition something of which you’re particularly conscious?
PA: I never really considered the fact that those things are potentially working against each other, but I guess I didn’t think it was a problem.
LL: I think that’s really interesting about your practice, as there’s room for contradictions to play off each other in a way that perhaps strengthens the investigation.
PA: That’s what I kind of hope. It’s like a contradictory association but also possibly a mis-association. I had a peer email me back after I sent out some invites to the show. He said, “The exhibition title makes me blush a little, but maybe I’m mis-associating it.” The thing is, if that’s happening, it’s really good, I think. It’s not meant to be a one-liner, but a multiplicity of associations, and if it is incorrect it is also correct.
LL: I want to ask about your production process. You have a very strong hand in what happens with your work, and yet your presence is minimal once it’s in the gallery. How important is the process and quality of technical execution to you, and to what degree do you aim to remove the artist’s hand from the final product?
PA: I think this relates back to the Pictures Generation and Appropriation Art. I’m quite happy to get my work made for me, and I’m not interested in the artist’s hand. If I wanted to get something made, or to use an image that already exists that I could just copy, I’m okay with that. It might not be a whole image; I might just take an element from it or use a colour relationship or something. I have no problems with that, as I’m obviously interested in copying as a culture and concept. The artist’s hand is unimportant, in ways. I think it’s quite interesting that I make these objects that are incredibly laboured, incredibly–
LL: But then you don’t want any evidence you were there?
PA: No, because it’s not about that. I mean, anyone can produce these objects – anyone can go and make a replica of whatever. I’m not doing anything unique with the process of casting. So it’s not about making these artisan-crafted, unique artworks. There’s a greater language outside that, which surrounds the culture of the copy within society.
LL: Because they’re art and not everyday objects, does that mean you always present your work in a gallery or a dedicated art space? Do you feel this environment is essential to communicate your work?
PA: Yeah, I think they lose … they just become everyday objects anywhere else. They already run the risk of that in the gallery. I mean, somebody sat on a stool once.
LL: Did it handle their weight?
PA: No. [Laughs] Definitely not.
LL: So that means the gallery is in effect part of your art, and your choice of location is as much a part of the making process?
PA: It’s not dependent on site specificity, but there is a strong idea of working with the gallery space as a framework. To take these objects out of the gallery and out of this specific framework for viewing them, the whole system becomes flawed … and they cease becoming signs or images, they become the object. This emphasises that a viewing space, and the role of the gallery is integral. The gallery space dictates not only how the work functions within that space, but also how it’s to be read.
LL: What’s next for you?
PA: Currently, I have a work in the churchie national emerging art prize at Griffith University Art Gallery. Following this, I am making new work for a solo show next year at Stills Gallery, Sydney.