Perceptual psychologists have long dismissed the notion that our brain records images like a camera; seeing is an interactive process of grazing, in a visual field that extends around us on all sides, rather than a series of flat images projected to a single point. Yet photographic images retain special authority as records of visual experience. In his current exhibition, James Hyde undertakes to dislodge this persistent prejudice. Assuming the liberty of abstract painting, where elements can be combined freely, Hyde rotates, crops and juxtaposes his photographs of California landscapes, while disrupting the natural continuity of their spaces with large dots and curved bands of color.
On ViewLuis De Jesus Gallery
October 24, 2015 – December 19, 2015
For Hyde, who has morphed paintings into tools or furniture, these works are relatively sober and refined. He has used digital prints as raw material for over a decade, originally working on reproductions of paintings and then on prints of his own snapshots, generating dialogues between depicted images and painterly interventions. Here, he offers lessons in close observation, pitting his carefully selected pigments (which he prepares himself) against the richness of colors recorded by his camera, which he manipulates with a specific process he designed in Photoshop. Among the four large painted dots that occlude the hazy view of arid hills in PARTICLE (2015), for example, two at first appear black, but closer scrutiny reveals that one, located in the lighter sky, is actually a dark umber. Believing it’s important to challenge painting with an “other,” Hyde brings an Ad Reinhardt sensibility into the outdoor arena of natural colors.
Hyde unites as well as divides, as when he sutures together with great subtlety a pair of related images in LOCATION (2014); he also uses digital technology to fuse multiple small exposures into large, pictorially-dense prints. These photos demand attention as equal partners in a dialogue about seeing. Taken around a mountain reservoir near Los Angeles, they recall historic topographic photos and engage with the larger context of Western landscape art. Hyde alludes to Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, especially to her SUN TUNNELS, while poignant glimpses of water in the arid hills remind us of California’s current drought.
While sometimes content just to frame or punctuate the photographs, Hyde also applies topological transformations. The blue band in WASH (2015) seems a considered response to the man-made dams that articulate the rugged hills, while TRACK (2015) uses a band of subdued colors to graft a landscape with blue-green water onto one with golden fields. In Ripples (2014), stark curves of black and white enhance the blue atmosphere of a sequence of repeated frames that suggest animation. More radical, TRIANGULAR TREE (2015) harkens back to Hyde’s installation works, applying the print of a tree and its accompanying band of red to a triangular wood frame that leans against the wall. In these hybrid works, the effect of the interventions is not just to disrupt the photographs but to enlist their support in suggesting some higher order, a meta-perception consistent with abstraction’s agenda to transcend everyday reality. Hyde’s curving bands recall the colored discs generated by Photoshop’s color selection tool, and the blindfold-like barrier in ATTEND (2014) resembles the cross-section of a lens.
Two large prints of an oak tree recall Carlton Watkins’s classic portrait of a madrone but also allude to the staging of photos, to the conventions of the frame. One has colored corners, like the corner mounts in a photo album, while in the other the tree is inverted and the frame is a white circle that could be the lens of a camera obscura; it might also represent the apocryphal inverted picture we never really “see” on our retina. Hyde constantly reminds us that what we think of as “natural” vision is a highly mediated construction.
Photographs also involve time—AXIS (2015) invites close observation, which discloses the blurring of wind-stirred leaves, a record of the exposure, and viewers aware of Hyde’s composition with multiple images will understand the large prints as “durational perceptions” (to use a phrase coined by Peter Campus). Somewhat paradoxically, these digitized images acquire weight and substance—“grounds” not just in the sense of substrates to be painted on, but as some material evidence of lived time. Alfred Stieglitz spoke of the details revealed by high-resolution photography in terms of the “subconscious pushing through the conscious.”
The meta-perceptual verges on the surreal in LOCATIONS: Do the paired dots, which recall Malevich, allude to the blind spot on our retinas? Or, in an inversion of AXIS, are they a gaze directed at us, a doubling of René Magritte’s False Mirror? In Hyde’s works, the collision of different image technologies and their attendant visual cultures goes beyond shock or disorientation; there’s a dwelling in contradictions that extends the viewer’s experience and encourages meditation on their making.