James Bacchi-Andreoli: A Meditation upon Medium

James Bacchi-Andreoli walks the urban landscape of his home city, London, recording accidental encounters with pattern, light and surface using an analog camera with a powerful zoom lens. The results of this documentary process might usefully be separated into two distinct groups of work. In the first, Panel Series 1-4 (2010) and Closed Down (2010), swirls of window whiting and hasty brushstrokes on construction site barriers are extracted from the built environment and presented as examples of “found gesture” recalling that of Aaron Siskind, a photographer associated with abstract expressionism. The second group of works, comprising the Inversions series (2010) and Golden Hour (2010), capture extreme close-ups of light bouncing off metallic street furniture and architecture. During processing Bacchi-Andreoli digitally inverts the effects of this light, taking each image to some extent back to its negative state.

In this second, explicitly light-focused body of work there are little in the way of conventional signifiers to point back to Bacchi-Andreoli’s metropolitan setting: no grid, no evidence of human population, no hint at industry or commerce. Instead, each image’s shift from positive to negative, and in the Inversions from white flash to thick, dark stripe, recalls the tonal variations apprehended when moving through the city. Monumental architectural forms cast shade in irregular shapes, alternating with strips of brightness, while their polished glass, steel and stone surfaces reflect the gleam of light sources both static and in motion. Even without his active camera, as an urban inhabitant the artist is the receptor of a complex play of transient light and shadow.

In their technique and choice of reflection as subject, the Inversions and Golden Hour are, therefore, an example of reflexive practice, a meditation upon their medium. Their constitution as photographs, made by “physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface”[1] is replayed in their close-up focus on those moments when it is physically possible to observe light bouncing off an object. However, it is the digital manipulation of that light that furnishes Bacchi-Andreoli with the means to push the medium further.

White and yellow streaks of reflected light are inverted to form an ink-black “horizon” from which darkness spreads tendril-like across the picture in the manner of a wash. These works are painterly in their visual appearance, with what seem to be drips, scratches and gestural indicators of the handmade captured on film. The giclée process employed in the Inversions’ production involves inkjet printing onto high quality paper, allowing liquid colour to bleed into an absorbent ground. Often enlarged to a body-enveloping scale and hung unframed, one encounters the materiality of fibrous paper and densely applied ink. This perhaps reveals nostalgia for a surface physicality for the photographic medium in an increasingly screen-centric digital moment.

The giclée process has famously been used to realise Wolfgang Tillmans’ monumental abstract prints, which are the lyrical result of a camera-less, chemical manufacturing process. Writing on Tillmans, Lane Relyea makes a fruitful reference to modernist colour-field painting developed in the 1960s by artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Significantly, Relyea notes that the colour-field painters “initiated a dialogue” with contemporary photography that informed their staining technique – as instant “as if with a shutter click” – and their reliance upon the canvas’ “framing edge”, akin to the photographic crop.[2]

Bacchi-Andreoli’s own self-reflexive use of the camera recalls László Moholy-Nagy’s project to examine the conditions of abstraction in photography, using “light instead of pigment” to communicate “space through light”, and to articulate a photographic “space-time continuum.”[3] However, the passage from light to darkness in Bacchi-Andreoli’s works, their preservation of the physical properties of ink, and their painterly tonal gradations suggest a dialogue between light and pigment, rather than a privileging of one over the other. In other words, the Inversions embody an exploration of the limits of the painterly within the photographic realm. Though this exchange might be viewed as symptomatic of our current “post-medium condition”[4] in art, the push and pull between these two idioms was, as Relyea points out, at the heart even of specialized modernist enquiry.

However, Bacchi-Andreoli’s project encompasses more than mere repetition of the colour-field painters’ acceptance of photography and Tillmans’ contemporary extension of it. This is because Bacchi-Andreoli’s attempted “encapsulation”[5] of the city is filtered through his fascination with the much earlier, modernist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes, a series of near-monochromatic paintings of nighttime London made in the late 1860s. The Nocturnes’ layers of translucent glazes, narrow palette, deflection of realism, and, often, horizontal format, are reworked in Golden Hour and the Inversions. Like the colour-field painters’ conversation with the photography of their day, Whistler’s awareness of the camera impacted upon his working methods, while his Nocturnes, in particular, are credited with invigorating photographic practice at the turn of the century with a “transitional form par excellence.”[6]

Golden Hour, named because it was taken during the day’s last hour of sunlight, is a visual appreciation of director Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic focus on the qualities of light at the “golden hour” just before dusk. Whistler’s interest in the metamorphosis of twilight is demonstrated in his 1885 “Ten O’Clock Lecture”:

“the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens…”[7]

The city’s transformation from day to night, in its distribution of light from natural spread with areas of shade, to a collection of artificial, reflected, glowing pinpoints in blackness, is another analogy for Bacchi-Andreoli’s conversion of his images from positive to negative. This suggests, perhaps, a play with aspects of memory in both the modernist and the contemporary artist’s work. As alluded to in the “Ten O’Clock Lecture”, Whistler’s night painting removed the clutter of daytime vision, resulting in a clearing away towards the fundamental form of the metropolis that “hangs” in visual memory. In abstracting and inverting bright reflections, Bacchi-Andreoli produces a negative image with similarities to that hovering “shadow” registered by the eyes in the aftermath of a flash: an optical memory of light itself.

The question is now raised as to how the artist’s other distinct group of works, those employing found gesture, relate to the dialogue that has been set up between light and pigment. Ostensibly, Panel Series 1-4 and Closed Down present a typology of urban transitions: a shop changes ownership; a building is constructed. This might relate to the medium-specific, modernist dictum that photography work within its capacity for “almost ontological realism”[8], capturing the external world with hard-edged precision[9], in opposition to Moholy-Nagy’s notion of light as the crux of abstract photography. Yet, in these works, the smears, loops, drips and luminescent layers of thinned-down fluid brushed over a darker ground generate a sort of painterly presence, like blown-up examples of abstract painting cut from a glossy magazine or art monograph. Indeed, without the near-sculptural materiality of an unframed giclée print, these works, contained under glass, operate as imprecise, dislocated memories of painting.

As disembodied, anonymous marks removed from their context as objects in the city – tall, rough, protective boards; the glass façade of an empty shop – the images are similarly removed from any art historical specificity. What one sees is dependent on one’s art historical interests: there are hints of Cy Twombly’s scrawling marks and brushstrokes as in his mythological painting Fifty Days at Iliam (1978), and of Franz Kline’s brusquely flattened forms exemplified by Mahoning (1956), a work that Siskind paid tribute to in his found “painting” Rome 101: Homage to Franz Kline (1973), a record of urban graffiti.

Both Kline and Siskind, like Whistler, “transformed the tensions of the city into an artistic statement by abstracting and aestheticizing its forces.”[10] The tensions and transitions of both the urban situation and the photographic medium – dark and light, positive and negative – are played out, abstracted and meditated upon, in Bacchi-Andreoli’s Inversions. Here, the painterly occupies a prized position within the photographic realm in a dynamic discourse between pigment and light. However, in the works where gesture, not light, is the focus, there are hints of a more melancholic project, a flirtation with the failure of such a utopian artistic premise as expression. It is, perhaps, a broad exploration of the photographic capacity to deal with memory, as much as a test of medium, that binds this exhibition. Though, in the end, we are denied a consolatory unity of approach, in favour of a series of provocations to think deeply about the specific conditions of photography now.

[1] Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on The Index”, October 3, 1977: 75.

[2] Lane Relyea, “Photography’s Everyday Life and the Ends of Abstraction”, in Wolfgang Tillmans, 2006: 99.

[3] László Moholy-Nagy, in (ed.) Hal Foster et. al., Art Since 1900, 2005: 234.

[4] Rosalind Krauss, “‘Specific’ Objects”, res 46, 2004.

[5] James Bacchi-Andreoli, artist statement.

[6] William Sharpe, “New York, Night, and Cultural Mythmaking, the Nocturne in Photography: 1900-1925”, Smithsonian Studies in American Art, 1988: 18.

[7] James Abbott McNeill Whistler, in William Sharpe, 1988: 2.

[8] Albert Renger-Patzsch, in (ed.) Hal Foster et. al., Art Since 1900, 2005: 233.

[9] William Sharpe, 1988: 18.

[10] Ronald J. Hill, “Aaron Siskind: Ideas in Photography”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 39, 1980: 17.