Thomas Ruff’s recent show of large color abstractions and fussily appropriate vintage negatives was a strange climax to the artist’s concurrent European retrospective and the publication of Nudes, his digitally blurred images of Internet pornography paired with text by the French enfant terrible novelist of the moment, Michel Houellebecq. The series Substratum offered an acid-tinged thought-provoking experiment in technology and art, photography and abstraction, while the less-inspired Machines series offered a glimpse of war and technology that might be nightmarish if it wasn’t so boring.
Known for his large-scale color portraits and landscapes that are too often quickly lumped together with those of his contemporaries Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, Ruff increasingly flirts with the boundaries of photography, using digital technology freely, not merely to enhance his photographs, but to create images that are far from the traditional camera-darkroom process. Ruff derived the Machines photographs from large-format glass negatives produced in the 1930s and ’40s by commercial photographers. He scanned the product shots of outmoded heavy industrial tools and then digitally added color to the machines, bringing them strangely up-to-date within the untouched ghostly background of forgotten factories. The army green and muted blood red applied to the soldiers of industrialization is initially eerie, but it’s a gimmick that wears off quickly and the photographs end up looking like an academic exercise in nostalgia and Walter Benjamin.
In the process of making the Substrats, Ruff did not use a camera, make a negative, or enter a darkroom. He took images of Japanese anime and manga from the netherworld of cyberspace and manipulated them into pulsing abstract color fields rendered ultimately on photographic paper by a mechanical printer. While there are numerous “camera-less” photographs, from Man Ray’s Rayographs to Adam Fuss’s darkroom physics, they retain the characteristic photographic quality of reliance on light to trigger a chemical reaction to produce an image. Similar to these camera-less photographers, Ruff produces no negative from which an image is printed; unlike these artists, Ruff’s images could be endlessly reproducible from their “original” file, and without any variation from human error in the printing process. But with this group of images that can barely be classified as photographs, Ruff seems to be laying claim to something beneath the surface of the image. Where he has said in the past that he photographs nothing more than surfaces, the title Substratum implies that these pictures capture something of the essence, the basis, of photography.
Together the whirling walls of color Ruff created optically assault in their intensity. In “Substrat 12 I” (2003) the outlines of distinct forms (to call them shapes implies too much geometry) glow like neon halos of naughty fluorescent forms blinking in the windows of sex shops. Composed of two panels with similar palettes and shared lines of color, the diptych at first appears to be one large image sliced in half. But on closer inspection, the two images do not neatly line up, foiling any comprehension of forms and questioning what we really see in digital information. “Substrat 13 II” (2003) reminded me of the stickers that I collected as a kid, filled with blue-green or red-orange oils that responded to touch and heat within the carefully molded plastic forms of hearts and stars. But the fire engine red, rosy magenta, pastel pistachio green, and cerulean blue swirl around each other in a mix that would seem destined to produce a dark brown mess if not for the impervious boundaries of pixels.
These prints are imposing. The swirling colors leave little room for the viewer to enter. Reminiscent of Al Held’s recent paintings on view last summer at PS1, Ruff uses the same overwhelming scale and electric palette to similarly science fiction-inspired ends. It’s a visual simulation of the digital information we absorb daily through every pore. The images are slick from their neat concept and their presentation— face-mounted on plexiglass, the prints appear to glow from within. The intensely bright colors seem to corrupt the controlled sparseness of the photographic minimalism of Ruff’s famed teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Despite the maniac energy of the psychedelic colors, so popular not only in lava lamps and Op Art, but again today in the riot of post-medium art that Roberta Smith recently termed the fruitful interaction of the counterculture and avant-garde, Ruff’s experiment in abstraction ultimately feels equally as controlled as the Bechers photo grids, from the constraints on source material to the lack of touch in the printing process.
Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida that “a specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent (as is the case for every other image, encumbered—from the start, and because of its status—by the way in which the object is simulated).” Although far from “straight photography,” Ruff’s images raise questions about the possibility of abstraction in photography, about the possibility of distinguishing the photograph from the referent, or perhaps doing away with the referent altogether. While the gallery press release announces the “source” of the images to be digital files of web-based anime and manga, the pictures themselves retain nothing but the neon cast of this repetitive genre of cartoons, full of detailed, childishly sexy characters moving through simplistic color-field backgrounds. Ruff’s garish colors swirling and undulating distill the energy and sensuality of a superficially cold, flat medium that traditionally finds warmth in its subject matter. Are the images significant without knowledge of their source? There is no trace of the subject matter, only the brilliant hues that suggest a digitally enhanced world. Too often, photography criticism is obsessed with subject matter; even when the abstract (i.e. formal) qualities of a photograph are exulted, the artist, the critic, and the viewer all somehow return to the “fact” of the “subject,” the sense of reality depicted in an abstract way. Ruff opens up a little bit the possibility that photographic prints might be about color and form, and all of the myriad associations we can use our imagination to devise.