PJ Hickman: No image available 


Nearly everyone would agree that abstract painting no longer commands the same privileged meaning or value that it had for much of the twentieth century.  Working in the absence of any shared criteria of aesthetic judgment, artists today are consigned to continually reflect on the death of painting and the modernist project that underwrote its progress as a medium.  The question of what to paint is thus increasingly replaced with the more difficult question of whether one can continue to paint at all.  This is not to say that the history of painting has come to an end.  While it is clear that there can be no simple return to the practices of critical negation which formerly defined the historical avant-garde, the implications that derive from the dissolution of modernist painting remain far from settled.  Since the 1960s, painting has been caught between two contradictory impulses: the first pathologically mourns the passing of modernist painting and attempts to makes good on its failed ambitions; the second asserts that one cannot paint after Duchamp since the advent of the readymade, coupled with the rise of the mass media, have rendered traditional artistic practices obsolete.  This places artists in an impossible position: either one accepts that painting is over and gives in to a crudely linear conception of history, or one participates in the fiction that modernism is an incomplete project, as if its forms and procedures can be unproblematically recovered and made to speak to our present digital age. 

Resisting this blackmail, the most recent work by PJ Hickman at Conical seeks to complicate a particular view of modernism that has become increasingly hegemonic in the art world.  It is a view that strips abstract painting of its complexities and contradictions in the name of a critical postmodernism.  Rather than declaring the legacy of abstraction to be discredited or fully assimilated to the laws of the market, Hickman attempts to articulate the continuing importance of painting amidst the ever-more massive onslaught of mass media images.  More specifically, his latest work compels us to imagine a future possibility for painting that is founded in the double recognition that modernism marks both the beginning of the end of painting, and a response to the end.  For Hickman, the commitment to painting is not premised on a denial or affirmation of the end but on working through it.  In much of his previous work Hickman had set himself the task of unpacking the legacy of minimalist sculpture, transposing its serial structures and industrial modes of fabrication back into a more immediate concern with the material properties of standardized building materials (screws, paint, timber frames and steel stripping) and their relation to the traditional support structures of painting.  The work featured in this exhibition is centered on a critical engagement with two no less important paradigms of twentieth century art: the monochrome and its many reiterations (from Kasmir Malevich to Gehrard Richter) and the language based critiques of visuality initiated by Conceptual art in the mid 1960s culminating in the work of Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and Mel Ramsden.  What links these two disparate strands is a common effort to reach beyond the traditional parameters of art by literally withdrawing rather than adding visual information to the work. 

Beginning with Malevich’s Black Square of 1915 , the first wave of pure abstract painters were preoccupied with the problem of liberating painting from the contingencies of iconic representation.  The ambition finally to succeed at severing painting from empirical reality is motivated by the impossible dream of being able to paint Nothing, which is to say, an absolute image stripped of every quality that serves to materialize or limit it in any way.  In this logic of abstraction, meaning is not visualized as a result of what the painting pictures, but rather as a function of the play of differences between opposing terms.  It is this differential concept of meaning that Ad Reinhardt alludes to when he writes of his “black” paintings that “what is not there is more important than what is there.”  For Reinhardt, the empty space of monochrome painting functioned equally as a space of hermetic resistance to the ideological work assigned to art under capitalism.  In the work of his European contemporary, Yves Klein, the monochrome was emptied of the last vestiges of spiritual transcendence.  In his notorious 1957 exhibition of eleven identical but differently priced blue monochrome paintings, Klein radically undermined the cult of the rarified, auratic masterpiece, subjecting each work to the operations of pure exchange value for which it stood as an empty sign.  Far from being a source of pure vision, abstract art’s very modes of production—its paintings being executed in serial runs—were shown to carry the imprint of the industrially produced commodity object.  The metaphysical pretensions of the monochrome are further ridiculed in Klein’s outrageous claim that the powdery ultramarine pigment, which he famously patented under the name “International Klein Blue,” represented the physical manifestation of cosmic energy that, otherwise invisible, floats freely in the air.  Klein thus considered color to be a means for envisioning an immaterial reality outside of “the psychological world of our inherited optics.”  To the extent that he actually succeeded in reinvesting painting with a mystical significance, Klein’s deployment of the monochrome undermined the empirical certainty of modernist art with all of its claims to a pure and self-evident visuality.  More than this, his paintings articulated the contradictions of abstraction as a sign of machine regularity and uniformity on the one hand, and radical contingency and social anomie on the other. 

Conceptual Art took the anti-representational logic of modernist painting one step further, replacing the object of spatial and perceptual experience with the idea of the work of art as an analytic proposition constituted by linguistic definition alone.  This shift was signaled in Joseph Kosuth’s First Investigations (Art as Idea as Idea) 1967, a series that included photostats of dictionary definitions of words such as “image,” “meaning,” and “idea.”  By divesting art of its material dross and actively promoting its assimilation into a newly ascendant information economy, Conceptual Art offered the most systematic challenge to modern art’s will to silence, its capacity to wall the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality free from the intrusion of speech.  Hickman’s own use of language, which borders on tautology, has two notable precedents in the history of art.  The first source to which it is indebted is the work of Lawrence Weiner.  For the most part, Weiner’s works consist of prosaic statements spelled out on a wall using commercially available, black adhesive or stenciled, drawn or painted letters.  The subjects of these statements often take the form of lists of materials or descriptions of a physical action or process.  They also usually refer self-reflexively back to the concrete situation in which the linguistic utterance takes place, as in his work ONE QUART GREEN EXTERIOR INDUSTRIAL ENAMEL THROWN ON A BRICK WALL (1968).  Weiner’s use of language therefore serves to foreground the extent to which the meaning of a text is always a function of the context in which it is produced.  The medium of language also releases the work of art from confinement to visibly demarcated boundaries.  More precisely, Weiner’s work insists on destabilizing the relationship between the linguistic sign (the marks on the wall) and the material referent (the thing in the world to which the marks refer). 

Similarly, Mel Ramsden, whose work also figures as an important point of reference for Hickman, uses language to contest the primacy of the visual in modernist art.  In Secret Painting (1967-68) the positivistic notion of a purely empirical approach to vision (a position exemplified in Frank Stella’s tautological statement “what you see is what you see”) is undermined through the addition of a textual supplement which calls attention to the discursive operations that had previously been hidden from the view of abstraction.  What is at work here, then, is a recognition that painting is not only a set of materials and procedures to be dealt with in terms of a phenomenology of visual experience, but a system of representation that is always already inscribed within the conventions of language and the social practices regulating its use.  The necessarily public dimension of language also works to displace the hidden, private intentions imputed to the artist.  Moreover, the alignment of image and text makes it difficult to differentiate the work as such from its supporting elements.  In a manner consistent with the aims of Conceptual Art, Hickman uses the artisanal procedures of sign writing to interrogate the relationship between visual and verbal communication.  The phrase “no image available” from which this exhibition derives its title refers to the standard message displayed on computer screens when an image is withheld from public view on technical, legal or ethical grounds.  Hickman himself speaks of these paintings a response to an increasingly prevalent aspect of contemporary life: the digital reproduction of works of art on the Internet.  Except here the process of digitization is, as it were, reversed and translated back into the material dimension of painting.

Much of the existing hype surrounding new media suffers from an abundance of different, even contradictory views of the digital and its effects on older technologies of image production.  For our purposes it is enough to distinguish between two basic belief systems that the art of our time (and painting in particular) is forced to contend with.  The first of these concerns the imagery of “information,” and the idea of the world being robbed of its materiality by a truly global, truly totalizing apparatus of virtualization.  At the center of this system is an image of knowledge visualized, taking place in screen space and being altered in its very structure by that new tide of images.  This leads on to belief number two: that the proliferation of electronic media represents a decisive shift from a world where the Word was the ultimate source of knowledge to one ruled by the global exchange of images.  Reversing the widely held view that the verbal is over and the visual has replaced it, the art historian T.J. Clark contends that the move towards digital convergence is predicated on making words over into images, most of which are used to promote a univocal logic of consumption: “The system’s notion of image clarity, of image flow and image density—they are all essentially modeled on the parallel (and unimpeded) movements of the logo, the compressed pseudo-narrative of the TV commercial, the product slogan, the sound bite…Web pages, billboards, and video games are just visualizations—magnifications and speed-ups—of this prior and continuing world of the shouted (or whispered) sentence.” [1]    Within this logo-centric economy of sign exchange, the crucial differences between the painted marks on a material surface and its twice-removed representation in cyberspace are progressively leveled out.  By insisting on painting as a practice involving not only particular kinds of manual labor but forms of visual literacy, Hickman reclaims the medium as a site of resistance against the worldwide web of images which threaten to subsume it.

Chad Elias

Department of Art History, Northwestern University, Evanston, ILLINOIS, USA



[1]   T. J. Clark, “Modernism, Postmodernism and Steam,” October 100 (Summer 2002): 174.