When the English and German Romantic painters created pieces, they began with an aspect of nature which seemed to evoke something meaningful but ineffable, and they then created a super-enriched version of that aspect of nature on paper or canvas. The viewer then engaged the super-enriched nature, which was divorced from nature through artistic creation, and then was able to go back into nature and engage other aspects more deeply or fully due to the exposure to the artwork. The Romantics realized that gazing intently at ruins, rock formations, gnarled and twisted trees in old cemeteries, the moon etc., could engender a euphoric and trance-like state approximating (or even accomplishing) a type of communion with the world. It seemed to be their goal to spread this experience.
Lyle Rexer, the curator of the John Messinger show at UNIX, references the Romantics a couple times in his notes to the show by way of contrast. While discussing Messinger’s new pieces, he even conceives of Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ as gazing instead at a giant video screen enhanced by Dolby Surround-Sound. So what is Messinger doing? Using a Polaroid camera, he takes zillions of photos of a large computer monitor either as it is blank (but glowing a soft blue color) or after he has accessed various images, often of some natural phenomenon/a. He then organizes these photos of a blank screen and images from the internet into patterns on a large grid, creating a large but soft, abstract design.
So what’s going on here? Well, since Rexer mentions the Romantics, let’s start there. The important thing about the Romantics is that they were not interested in super-realism. Turner once said, “Indistinctness is my specialty.” Friedrich was said to have painted the ‘tragedy of landscape’ and suffered due to his desire to fully embrace, in his art, everything nature really made him feel. The Romantics were the middle-men of experience. They engaged nature, found something amazing about this engagement and tried to pass it on.
Messinger does not start from nature as a source. Messinger, to quote Rexer, “…sits in front of a computer screen, prepared to merge with the images gathering there, but separated from them by the camera he holds, a Polaroid, which he snaps compulsively, generating a mounting pile of paper and chemical images, a ‘real’ alternative to the virtual world that threatens to engulf him.” The photo removes the image again from the electronic gadget and brings the image back into the world as a three-dimensional object. The internet was supposed to be the information superhighway, but the information and image sewer, which the internet has become, is now scoured for anything meaningful among all the dross, and this is photographed as a way to save the image from being lost among what the internet has become. Messinger is not the intermediary the Romantics were, he is the ‘curator’ combing for that which can engage and enrich.
A grid can be used by an artist to develop perspective. Or a grid can be used to demonstrate movement or action. Muybridge, also mentioned in the notes, used a grid of photos to show how individuals moved through space. Here the grid is serving another function. It provides the opportunity for the creation of an over-all geometrically abstract image comprised of the absence and presence of engaging imagery. The blue screen, not meant to ‘represent’ anything, nevertheless, when photographed and brought into the world on its own, becomes as pacifying, if not more so, than the image of the sea, waves, soaring birds or clouds. So what type of experience is Messinger shooting for? You can scrutinize each of these large pieces and see the individual aspects of nature being photographed, in contrast to the blank images, or you can step back and be affected by the overall structure developed by contrasting types of images. In either case, the artist awakens the sense that there is some type of extraordinary, indefinable immanence to be experienced here. What the Romantics tried to do by highlighting certain aspects of nature, Messinger tries to do, perhaps, through repetition and contrast. He begins his process completely divorced from the natural world and works back to find and present an immanence as engaging as that presented through a direct encounter with nature.