A search for meaning (some textual fragments)
From Turner to De Kooning, wild-at-heart artists have forced the raw matter of paint, with its quick liquidity and viscous malleability, into artworks that reflect the rhythms of nature, their tactile sensuality differentiating them from the clinical gloss of landscape photography. Against this backdrop, Rick Copsey’s recent work confounds. On the face of it, these are proper photographs, Digital C-type metallic prints mounted on aluminium. Yet their imagery evokes universes of Romantic wonderment alien to the forensic exactitude of the camera. In fact, what we are looking at are blown-up photographs of minute details of the surface of the artist’s paintings. The common assumptions about photographic verity are brushed aside in Copsey’s trompe l’oeil shadows, perilous ridges and ambiguous refractions of abstract light and dark. 1.
The eight works of Rick Copsey’s solo exhibition, A Sublime Confluence, at Platform A Gallery in Middlesbrough, are all precisely 50.8 x 50.8cms. So far, so real. As recent extensions to his Paintscapes’ series, begun in 2010, the digital c-type prints mounted on aluminium appear, at first sight, to be black and white photographs of seascapes. Or are they black and white? Perhaps not. Lacking clear referents, are they even seascapes? We can see our faces reflected in their shiny surfaces and the gallery around us looms into sight within them.
The works are, in fact, hybrids, meeting in a confluence between painting and photography, between art history and the contemporary. Using the materiality of paint itself as their source, the Paintscapes disrupt processes from Copsey’s practice as a painter, and mirror his research into alternatives to Modernism’s treatment of the pictorial form as finite. This talk of the finite leads to thoughts of the Kantian ‘formless and shapeless sublime’ and to ideas of mapping the infinite and the terrible. The works may resemble romantic seascapes from history paintings, with paint becoming sky or sea, yet they are actually macro images of 3mm diameter sections of paint drying. Yes, paint drying. They are fictions about gesture, technique and the artist as genius, and as such, reform possibilities around image making and image meaning. Their scale is not that of much fine art photography however – they are not huge. As we stand in front of them, we could be looking out of, or into, a small, square window or screen at head height.
Copsey used to photograph tiny sections of paintings he was working on, but now the source ‘paintings’ exist purely for the photograph. He approaches photography, and its apparatus, as a painter however: as a voyager in new seductive territory. This exploration both questions and utilises the camera as a documenter of ‘truth’. While presenting one thing as a possible other, the process also homes in ‘autopsy-fashion’ to examine the volatile nature at micro-level of the objects that surround us. The gallery seems less real/more real/ hyperreal? This hyperreality, ‘a real without origin or reality’ (Baudrillard, Simulacra, 1981) is emphasised by the serial nature of the photographs, with their numbered titles, which appear as accumulations, a system of objects, ranked according to a subjective principle. As we compare the turbulent images to one another, we also compare them to the sublime real and to the sublime void. What is the image missing from the series that makes it seem alive? It is reflected back at us – it is ourselves. 2.
Rick Copsey’s Paintscape photo-series looks like photographs of seascapes but they’re really of wet paint drying. Despite his use of distinctly non-traditional picture-making processes, Copsey is a landscape painter who is in the business of enticing makebelieve and mystification. His thinking might be more in line with Baudrillard’s concepts of hyperreality – “a real without origin or reality” – but he also harks back, as have many contemporary artists recently, to Kant’s “formless and shapeless” sublime. But Copsey’s trick-visions of natural forces at work are less an empathetic depiction of the elements than perhaps a play of illusions for an age where so much experience is digitally mediated. 3.
In the Paintscape series the works are illusive as the images appear to be snapshots of an ocean in a state of turmoil with its voluminous waves that emerge as ripples on the water's surface; in reality, the images are a hyperreality, that is, "a real without origin or reality" [Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981]. Hyperreality, then, is the state wherein an image either distorts reality or does not even depict an external referent with a real existence; therefore, the distinction between reality and an illusion is irrelevant as hyperreality comes to comprise reality in itself.
The Paintscape series presents photographs of wet paint that seem to circumvent the inherent "truth" of the camera as the apparent verisimilitude of each image renders problematic what constitutes reality. Copsey's manipulation of the flow of paint to create an illusion of a "real" scene serves to typify a hyperreality, as the works do not have an external referent; they do not depict a reality that exists as they are not photographs of the sea. As illusions, the Paintscape works mirror Kant's idea of the sublime in nature as "formless and shapeless" such as the ocean or the sky; as such, the Paintscape works associate the viscous flows of paint with the amorphousness of the sea.
The Paintscapes series' allusion to the Kantian sublime is an almost Postmodernist attack on Modernism's exaltation of pictorial form as finite; instead, the sublime can be infinite as well as formless. As works that manifest the sublime, the Paintscapes' condition as a hyperreality presents what appear to be representations of various sea scenes as images without referents where reality and illusion are brought into question. 4.
In a further interplay of transcriptive processes, Rick Copsey uses close-up and amended digital photographs of ridges of paint on canvas to simulate semi-abstract seascapes - the sublime hidden in the mundane. They radiate the unnatural clarity of hallucinogenic CGI ‘stills’.
There is a common fallacy that the mass of the sea quickly becomes a projection for the viewer’s state of mind. It is probably more accurate to consider the dead minutes gazing at the folds and swells of water as analogous to the nullity of hypnotic digital screens; an abnegation of responsibility for physical engagement via the insidiously soporific curl and slap of wave after wave. The seductive surface quality of the medium becomes the actual substance of the work with paint, and therefore painting itself, the clear paternal reference point. By filtering it through digital media and (re)presenting it , the play of the visual becomes the arena under scrutiny. 5.
....combines both painting and digital photography in his work, the initial impetus for making comes from the 'modernist utopian grid' and an interest in materiality, manufacture and textiles. Copsey has used photography to forensically document his painting, and he also employs digital software to generate compositions and has printed these directly onto canvas and also reworked through paint. A referencing to the materiality of painting is tempered by a visuality, yielded through a variety of technical strategies, to create a virtually ambiguous space. 6.
...evoke processes of cutting and pasting from digital media. In conjunction with a confusing variety of technical strategies, his work is both ugly and visually compelling. Blobs of garish painted tartan float among solar systems of planet-like orbs, which incorporate the traces of twisting threads. 7.
Through his practice Copsey attempts to create a synthesis of the visual and the conceptual so as to image the cognitive space/site, for/of painting. To do this, he brings together references to the crudest and most essential foundation of painting - the warp and the weft of canvas - with allusions to the mechanical operations of new technology... 8.
...Rick Copsey mines the geology of canvas thread and modernist grids with an unstable cartography. The paintings are never complete; they never congeal into completeness with their inserts, snippets of other possibilities and the memory of paintings past. The painted exaggeration of a meshing of threads acts as a pointer to the modernist utopian grids and the literal material interweaving of clothing fabric; the raw material of surface-as-display with an unstable armature of paradoxical frames polluted by toxic amoebas... 9.
...Copsey constantly refers to this relationship as an interaction between a reference to the material structure of canvas - the fabric as warp and weft/horizontal and vertical - and of the active process of painting the surface as a process of fabrication. What results is a synthesis of a celebration of pure visuality with a concern for the processes of interpretation. In recent paintings Copsey has introduced a number of cell like forms into the paintings which operate both as pictorial devices and as suggestions of external reference... They then develop an ambiguity based on their potential to be read as medical or genetic imagery while maintaining a deliberate pictorial function as points of attention within a compositional dynamic. The resulting state of ambiguity impacts on the viewing arena where we are continuously shifted from position to position, at times uncertain, but driven by a curiosity and a search for meaning. 10.
The eloquent imageries derived from an intelligent interplay of order and anarchy, rigidity and playfulness, tradition and innovation, alludes to the spirit of the urban place, past and present. At the same time it opens up new possibilities for a visual practice that has been declared dead long ago. 11.
More recent paintings allude to the 'authority' of science and reference diagrammatic and scientific imagery. Rather than endgame statements about the limits of abstract painting, the paintings depict possibilities both within and outside the medium, looking outwards to phenomenal experiences, whilst playfully occupying a space within the tradition of the medium.
...Copsey leaves these works open rather than leaning towards any finished statement or closure... a saturated engagement between the act of looking and the layered object of contemplation. 12.
1. Clark, Robert (2015) review - Guardian 14.08.15
2. O’Donnell, Annie (2014) review - Corridor8 19.08.14
3. Clark, Robert (2012) review - Guardian 15.09.12
4. Rutherford, Katie (2012) press release - Untitled Gallery
5. Cordwell, Paul (2010) review - AN Interface
6. Rimmer, John (2008) Digitalis, University of Derby, ISBN 0901437099
7. Smith, Dan Art Monthly October 2003 No 270
8. Dunbar, Tim (2003) essay in Beyond the Endgame: Abstract Painting in Manchester, Manchester City Galleries ISBN 0901673633
9. Cordwell, Paul (2001) from an essay accompaning the exhibition Nought.One% Rick Copsey & John Rimmer, Chapman Gallery, University of Salford,UK.
10. Dunbar, Tim (1999) Departure Lounge (exhibition as part of MART) Trice Publications ISBN 0953191923
11. Mey, Kerstin (1999) from an essay accompaning the exhibition Banal Ground KMZA, Berlin, Germany
12. Ryan, David (1998) Maggie Ayliffe, Rick Copsey, Brendan Fletcher (Arts Council Funded Touring Exhibition) Trice Publications ISBN 0953191907