Reaching for the sky
dium, represents the polar opposite – the complete antithesis – to that which this art project is all about. This is because we perceive dium, the Latin word for ether, when we avert our gaze from Earth’s crust and look up into the open: into outer space, into nothingness – into an amorphous shape. By calling the project dium, Joseph Carlson instead implicates a genesis of shape, a genesis of formation. This may be a contradiction, but one with a purpose in that the ether is the primal impulse, the fundus and also – to use an image that is entirely inappropriate – the platform for this formation. In other words, dium denotes a beginning.
Gestalt psychology teaches us how shapes are created. However, it only describes it as a “status of a cultural achievement” and dismisses everything that has reached this stage of development through evolution. For our retinas, the environment that we perceive is one of shapeless chaos. And our retinal response is hardly any different today compared to that of our ancestors millenniums ago. It was our interpretive mind that learned throughout the ages to separate the individual from the general, i.e. to make shapes out of the chaos. Humans were forced to learn this in order to survive. Simply seeing was not enough. Humans needed to perceive as well: dangers that threatened them; enemies that followed them; fruits that nourished them.
The cultural achievement of perceptive seeing is a process of abstraction. We separate one piece from the whole; one shape from the continuum of hapelessness. We establish this shape as a shape and share it with others through language or a drawing. Leonardo da Vinci once said that the contour belongs neither to the body nor the space surrounding it. What he meant by this was that no contours existed in Nature. We create them after we extract something from Nature and define it with a line.
Joseph Carlson takes his shapes from the ether, i.e. from an area of reality that appears especially shapeless. It doesn’t matter if we look at a blanket of clouds or the Milky Way, we will only see the same shapes there because we seek them out. We associate and interpret. The ether is only one of the constituent elements for dium to take shape. An additional area of reality is involved as well – a world that is marked by extreme shapedness and an orderly built structure.
This structure is both uniform and diverse. There is hardly a metropolis in the world that exhibits this kind of development better than 19th century Paris. This is thanks to, planned and rebuilt by Baron Haussmann. One special feature is the famous inner courtyards, which become active for dium by giving it a shape.
These closed inner courtyards are only open on one side – the sky. And this means that the fixed and firmly established confined space corresponds with the endless expanse above it. The connection between these polar opposites – the keyhole – is a clearly defined shape. From the perspective of the inner courtyard, the sky has a shape. Always a different shape. And this is why each and every one of the many inner courtyards of Paris has its very own sky. There isn’t only one sky over Paris; there are many skies. The city projects its historical layout upwards and divides the sky into many sections without making the sky small. Each inner courtyard lends the sky a new size – in terms of shape and form.
The first step in attaining a shape is through photography – a medium that gathers images. Joseph Carlson’s photographic images are distinct on account of their neutral-looking sky in the centre surrounded by the familiar Parisian house fronts that vary only slightly from each other. What makes the photographs different from each other is the contour of the cut out of the sky – it is an identifying factor that arises from each individual inner courtyard. The unusual perspective from below upwards turns the inner courtyards into “providers of sky” and creates a series of images that offer silent but expressive harmony.
And yet for Joseph Carlson the important thing is not the identity of the anonymous inner courtyard but rather the independence of the shape that ensues. The photographic image – by keeping with the aesthetics that govern works done in series – is first and foremost the material for a visual product. The diversity of the inner courtyards only serves to make visible the diversity of the abstract shapes of sky.
The result is a stock of shapes that must be viewed as a subject in their own right. However, as manifold as the use and depiction of these shapes are, in addition to their graphic nature and their geometrical definition, they also have a semantic dimension. They contain the past. They carry a memory intrinsic to the image within them. This is because no shape is arbitrary in the photograph: all of them have been “gathered.”
Reaching for the shape
Joseph Carlson allows shapes to arise through photography through a clearly defined motif and perspective. Each inner courtyard in Paris, viewed from below upwards, punch out a different shape of sky. This principle becomes clear through repetition.
A series of photographic images with numerous motifs demonstrate the antithesis involved in depicting the same thing yet doing it differently every time. The subject, consisting of numerous motifs, is always one and the same: a piece of sky surrounded by the contours of the roof of an inner courtyard. The underlying logic behind the shape is always the same. On account of the invariable focal distance of the lens, the scale is also always the same. And the uniform brightness of the sky is also always the same. What is different in each photograph is the fact that the individuality of the inner courtyard is always different and thus creates a unique shape of sky.
The shape consists of sky with the same brightness and colour. The sky is a consistent, immaterial background in all of the photographs, and therefore – albeit with a different shape in each – the common “material.” The immateriality of the white sky stands in stark contrast to the tangible materiality of the light-coloured walls. The artist pits these two different dull white things against each other. By doing so, he gives the shape of the sky “spiritual depth.”
The homogeneity of the subject and the perspective emphasise the various faces of the inner courtyards. First and foremost, it emphasises the variety of the generated shape. This variety is the basis for yet another series of images. Parallel to the 60 photographs, the 60 shapes are treated as separate subjects. A series of photos and a series of shapes correspond to and communicate with each other. They are literally congruent and only depict different treatments, which means that different approaches are used to depict one and the same motif.
Through this parallelism the shape becomes the focus in the photographs. Photography alone makes the shape the main focus of the image. However, when Joseph Carlson complements the photograph with the additional depiction of the isolated shape, consciously perceiving this shape becomes unavoidable. It is with this isolated shape that the artist interprets the photograph. It gives it a subject and meaning.
This has consequences for both kinds of depictions. On the one hand, the photograph moves away from the genre of photography and becomes an abstract image. There seems to be some graphic art inherent in the photograph without the
artist having changed the photograph or manipulated it in any way. Nothing has been added. Everything is already at hand. On the other hand, the isolated shape depicted gains a dimension that is not characteristic of graphic art. The knowledge of how the shape was created influences the perception of it. In reality, the diversity of the abstract shapes proves to be the diversity of the inner courtyards of Paris and of life itself. The shape is given a story. It gains an epic dimension. An exchange of being, which is similar to that of a temperature change takes place: the shape becomes slightly more abstract in the photograph, while in the graphic it becomes more precise. In both the photograph and the graphic we see more than what actually exists.
In this way Joseph Carlson lends his double series of pictorial works both meaning and a message.
Reaching for the image
With dium, Joseph Carlson has created a shape inventory with great expressive power. The context of its genesis lends the shapes a great deal of semantics. In this sense, the numerous shapes are an artistic product.
However, the artist has not exhausted all of the potential. The shapes have meaning not only as an end product but also as material. This makes the idea of the project open to the future – as a source of new products.
Joseph Carlson uses shapes as artistic material by creating an active relationship to the space he uses. As long as he presents the shape in this way, the surface of the shape is a place, a “platform” and an aura. The shape alone is the image. The step taken from the surface of the shape to the surface of the image means that the imaginary energy of the space is being activated. The surface joins with shape as an element of the image. It creates a counter shape and begins a dialogue with the original shape. The result is a composition made up of two elements: shape and surface, which is the same as shape and shape – a positive and a negative shape. The composition as a whole communicates the semantic, or more accurately, the epic content of the shape and its reference to the ether. This is because the contour that describes the shape and its counter shape in the image is – in the “mater” of the photograph – the line that divides the building and the sky. The shape and the counter shape play a game of being full and of being empty. What the facades leave open in the photograph is perceived as empty space. This is the interpretation of the actual natural phenomenon. The interpretation of the abstract is entirely different. This is because the central shape creates imaginary fullness on account of its weight. This is what the composition of the image works with. It exploits the epic background and employs shape and counter shape, fullness and emptiness, positive and negative as pictorial players.
Joseph Carlson further employs shapes as pictorial material by going beyond the active relationship between shape and surface. To do this, he not only uses the tension between surface and form, but also that between shape and shape. Shapes appear as the majority in the image and result in a triadic relationship of shape/shape/surface.
The individual shape loses its status of uniqueness and the exclusiveness of its opponents. Up until this point, the only opponent was the photography that generated shapes. Now it is the shape that also becomes its opponent. It also becomes one of many possible signs within a formal alphabet – a module. The correspondence between shapes releases energy that belongs to the formal abstraction. This makes each shape substantially more abstract, but less mimetic, naturalistic, semantic. It does keep its epic dimension, but it is less distinct than before.
This is not quite equatable to a loss. In fact, the opposite is the case. The dramatic tension increases – especially when the solutions are not exhausted in a superficially formal aesthetics but rather create an expressive quality: when the shape gains a physiognomy. When the shape attracts the viewer. When the shape becomes alive beyond its planimetric range of expression and therefore nearly becomes a personal partner of the viewer. The artist gains the physiognomy of the shape merely from how it is treated compositionally, i.e. from an insightful and fruitful combination of shapes. This alone allows for expression. This expression is enriched and enlivened – as if from a long way away – through the knowledge of the genesis of the shape and through the reference to the situation that was photographed. Expression conjoins with expression. And the newly created formal expression conjoins with the intrinsic semantic expression. Initially these factors have little to do with each other. However, they exponentiate each other as soon as they come together. They lend the pictorial solution an imaginary yet semantic depth.
The state of being one thing as well as being something else conveys an ambivalence of expression that Joseph Carlson takes even further when allowing two shapes to enter into dramatic dualism with one another – as shapes in the scene or as three-dimensional bodies, in monochrome white or in stark black and white. He also uses multitude and variety as a pictorial factor. A shape’s individuality is secondary; the shape’s value is intermediary. The image thrives from this. It is a pulsating life-force where the shape of the sky perpetually changes. Whether individual contours join to create long lines of many shapes, or rows of shapes become moving bands distancing themselves from the original image, the artist doesn’t weaken the connection to reality. He intensifies their epic nature.