Sandro Kopp’s Calling – Poems to Love, Lives and Looking
by Bill Arning, accompanying the exhibition FEEDBACKLOOP at FIVE11
Sandro Kopp’s practice aspires to the forever-unreachable, yet much aspired to goal of “The Truth in Painting.” His modestly scaled canvases are based in painting but not in any way constrained by the medium’s formidable history. Instead, they are freely augmented by sound, video, cyber communication realities and the unlimited intimacies of close friendships. Painting, and the particularly fraught relationship of portraiture to the truth of the person depicted, are poked and prodded by Kopp in all his choices. What begins for Kopp as an organic process of engaging interesting and beloved people takes on a philosophical gravitas when considered within the rubric of our demands on the medium of painting for otherwise inexpressible truths.
Painterly truth always runs aground on the place where human vision hits a limit; our eyes, our comprehension and our memories are naturally finite in terms of information and detail. When we attempt to earn access to ever-greater painterly truths, we reveal only the imperfections of our visual acumen and our scopic machines. Visual data that is infinitely recoupable, enlargeable and searchable exists only in the cyber realm, not in biologically based vision.
The scientific truth that the human eye’s evolutionary origin is as an extruded piece of the brain is the reason the eye itself is seen as the model of rationality. In recent decades, the tricks and failures of the eyes have taken on a profound fascination for both artists and philosophers, and each of Kopp’s works embrace and exemplify several of those intellectual conundrums.
Kopp is best known for his signature method of painting portraits not from the traditional in-person sittings amplified by consulting photographs, but through the simulacrum of contact known as Skype, (the video chat service that lets you see who you are talking to as big as your computer screen is.) The illusion of actual in-person discussion is better every year.
For those of us raised with the science fiction promise of videophones, this day was always imminent; now it’s here, and it is indeed a marvelous development. Kopp’s studio is in Northern Scotland, far from any recognized art capitol. And while the location serves the seductive myth of the artist as mystic hermit, Kopp’s art is nothing if not social – the walls of his exhibitions are crowded with personalities, or occasionally beloved stuffed animals that channel their humans’ spirits.
For anyone who has, like Kopp, led a peripatetic life and who has people they care about scattered hither and yon, the ability to chat face-to-face in real time is a blessing, and his shows make manifest the human desire to gather the tribes of those we love around us. Skype becomes an endlessly addictive pastime, and while new platforms are popping up daily (FaceTime, Google Hangouts) we can rest assured that these will be ever improving in terms of quality. If only because the global sex industry tends to invest heavily in making every simulation of human contact more real − the resources available from that side are staggering.
This new reality we must remember was the stuff of science fiction not that long ago. Consider the film that seems to have predicted the future best, 2001 a Space Odyssey. To make that great film in which writer Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick met with researcher Marvin Minsky at MIT to ask what the not yet real technology that was going to be called “computer” might be able to look like and do. In the film Interstellar, travel is no problem at all, yet the video chat interface as shown is cumbersome, grainy and flawed. The new wearable computing power of the next generation of Apple watches was something only Dick Tracy in the comics had. The actual manifestation of next wave tech is sure to startle even professional futurists.
The art of portraiture in all media hits the limit of our brain’s ability to hold the complex thought “I am looking at an arrangement of colors on a surface that creates for me a semblance of someone I recognize” rather than “that is Aunt Alice” or “that is President Obama.” The complement “you really captured them” has so many odd implications, the most fortuitous is that people’s likenesses are by their nature born fugitive. A subject’s truths will do their best to elude you. The same has always been true with technological representations of human presence. Telephones were redesigned to be more face-like so new users could accept that the tiny voice on the other end really was their Grandma.
Kopp’s subjects are artists and intimate friends. Many are well known enough that they can safely be said to have constructed public personas that are layered with their other selves, which Kopp knows as a friend. That they are famous as well as creative puts Kopp into a fascinating trajectory, which traces from Sir Joshua Reynolds to Elizabeth Peyton, in which the constructedness of the subjects’ personas is made in direct analogy to the way the painter constructs their likenesses. In the case of Kopp, he is focusing on visually taking the arrangement of colors down to its core arrangements, showing painting progresses as a continuum with portrait panels that are almost fully abstract, the colors in classic modernist grid, tilted toward the cool purple blue of the computer screen.
The process by which Kopp paints is rarely evident just from looking at the finished works, but the sense is clear that their likenesses are not made from looking at a single static photographic image. That these are sittings over-time is evident even in the single panels, with a woozy sense of flowing words and glances between model and artist. There are hints of the volleys of conversation − these are but an approximate blending of multiple moments extracted from the stream. The nature of painted portraits is characterized by the period of time in which artist and sitter needed to linger near one another, in order for the artist to visually observe the sitter, to either describe in paint − realistically or metaphorically − the aspects of that human’s appearance that would convey a truth. The model is almost always talking, to not die of boredom or discomfort, except when to do so would alter the details visually needed by the artist – tales of harsher painters who allow their sitters no distraction are the stuff of art historical malicious gossip.
Viewers’ desire to peak behind the studio door and survey the dynamic between sitter and artist. This prurient desire is also teased and satisfied by Kopp. This relation is historically constructed as a seduction, whatever the actual erotics between artist and model. Kopp has engaged that exchange in an ongoing series of nudes in landscapes employing his Skype methodology.
During some sittings Kopp has recorded the sessions and will show them in the split screen form that video chats on Skype have, which today always show both speaker and listener – the better to keep us all reminded that the cameras are, in a sense, always on. In these video-documents the painter is never less than charming even when jousting verbally with the sitter and brings to the fore what Kopp feels for his friends. Even the studio sounds – the literal scraping of paint across a surface − will be present in Kopp’s exhibition; an ambient and remixed environment. This studio, that according to the artist few art worldly folks have ever journeyed to physically enter, is in Kopp’s shows an unusually public place, typified by a lively interchange with the outside world.
The phrase, “The Truth in Painting” derives from a letter Cezanne wrote to Emile Bernard in 1905 that states, “I owe you the Truth in Painting and I will tell it to you.” The ambiguities and valences of the phrase are dense enough that Jacques Derrida wrote a long four essay book taking the words apart and recombining their potential meanings. While Derrida’s turf is language, specifically why a painter is telling rather than showing a truth, Kopp’s work provides a similarly dense discursive field. In Derrida, “The Truth in Painting” cannot be apprehended without considering all the aspects that make the fact of a painting visible − the frames, both physical and metaphorical. While Derrida died before the idea of a portrait via Skype was possible, it is tempting to use a few deconstructive techniques to look at Kopp.
Cezanne and Manet changed the way the world is understood to look. They provided the impetus for a robust analysis of both the phenomenological sense of how human vision is in fact constructed, the slippages on the edges of our visual field and the nature of human attention. As photographic techniques became widely available, they were seen as arbiters of truth – far better than the eye. Even to this day, painted images that resemble photographs are seen as remarkable for their affinity to reality, even though photographic images function in the way that two human eyes deliver external reality to our brains. Yet when I chat with Sandro Kopp in his painting studio, his realness and his verisimilitude is outstanding and remarkable. Skype chats are more real than real.
A quick Internet research mission to understand how Kopp can talk in Scotland and see my facial expression in real time in Texas requires some serious reading beyond my level of scientific literacy. For the image to travel that quickly, it needs to jump in and out of supernodes at the speed of light. Individual bits of information travel indirectly between us, and there is not a single fiber optics cable that traverses the real space between us. Yet these visits feel real, and if asked I say that I have visited his studio.
When visual artists started foregrounding reproductive technology, be that Roy Lichtenstein’s dot matrix or Andy Warhol’s imitation of Xerox, the knowledge that our visual landscape was made up of dots and slippery images was startling. Now the flawed seams of reproductive regimes are ever harder to see; yet even school kids know now that when Facetiming with their parents on their smart phones, visual illusions of reality are a birthright and the apparatus is increasingly invisible, and therefore unquestionable.
So when Kopp, after several years of successfully painting the real via Skype, starts breaking down these images into broad, folky-feeling squares − poetic, soft and seductive − is this not a falling away from the celebration of the miraculous futures we get to inhabit?
Instead, I see the resolving into chunky squares of seductively subtle colors as an aphoristic poem of sorts and in homage to the flawed machines that are our receptors, our eyes, our heart’s memories. The search for truth in painting still calls Kopp, but its attainment is fragmentary, and always incomplete. The sounds and smells of the actual people vanish and can be reclaimed only in parts. What we are left with is a reminder that human contact is the desire that gives lives meaning.
The most intimate view of the faces that embody the most charged and psychologically complex relationship remains finite. Although these faces shape every aspect of our sense of our lives, more cannot be known or experienced more deeply by looking “harder.”
Waking up inches away from the face of the love of our lives or kneeling beside the body of a dying parent does not add insight proportionate to the visual information we garner and commit to memory. We repeatedly hit the soft edges of the truth of the visual world, the edges of what representations can do for our hearts. Our Facebook pages and Instagram feeds are merely evidence of how hard-wired for connection human beings are.
Kopp reveals a process, a belief and an ideology through sharing so much of his process and world in this exhibition. These are poems to the intertwined nature of love, lives and looking, and they stand as a tribute to the joys and limits of our frail visual machines.
Bill Arning is the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. After arriving in Texas in 2009, Arning organized solo exhibitions of Marc Swanson, Melanie Smith, Matthew Day Jackson, and the late Stan VanDerBeek. Jackson and VanDerBeek were jointly organized with the MIT List Visual Arts Center where Arning was curator from 2000-2009. At MIT he organized shows of AA Bronson, Cerith Wyn Evans, and a retrospective of the work of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler. From 1985 to 1996, Arning was director of White Columns in New York City where he organized groundbreaking first solo shows for many of the best known artists of his generation including John Currin, Marilyn Minter, Andres Serrano, Richard Phillips, Cady Noland, and Jim Hodges, among many others. In 1993 Arning organized the first exhibition about gender and sexuality in South America, Maricas at the Center Cultural Ricardo Rojas at the University of Buenos Aires and Powerful Babies-the Impact of Keith Haring on Art Today, at the Spritsmuseum, Stockholm.
Arning has written on art for journals such as Artforum, Art in America, Out, and Parkett, and multitudes of international museum publications, including texts for retrospectives of Jim Hodges, Keith Haring, Christian Jankowski, and Donald Moffett as well as other writing for books by Elmgreen and Dragset and Lawrence Rinder. He has written an essay on the art market and AIDS for the upcoming publication ArtAIDSAmerica being organized by the Tacoma Art Museum. Arning co-organzied with curator Elissa Auther and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver a survey exhibition Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty and also the first large scale museum exhibition of Mark Flood, entitled Gratest Hits in 2016.