The more we look at the painting, the more we see the photograph

Augusto Pieroni

in Hotshot, June-July, feature article, ed. Hotshoe International, London 2007

I shall put my digression first: the threshold between vision and visuality might correspond to that same imaginary line that Hans Holbein the Younger marked by using a double perspective in his “Ambassadors”. Symbolic interpretations were commonplace in every painting of antiquity, but Holbein – as many after him – didn’t want the viewer to just sit and ponder in front of the huge canvas; not at least the implicit viewer – as reception aesthetics had it – who was inexorably meant not only to advance towards the finely detailed painting and then recede, so to catch a proper sight of the powerful and magnificent whole; but also twist, bend and make a wide range of both mental and physical contortions so to compress the anamorphosis of the skull. Anamorphosis in facts used to be a visual tool often used in order to emphasize the importance of what postmodern criticism might indulge in calling a constructive gaze.

Many visual devices are still operating nowadays, even though photography and all the newest media have taken the place of painting; and also despite the digital drift luring technology geeks into its swirls. Ready-made visual seductions have always been at hand relieving the visual artists from the toil of conceiving works that should – or rather could – have the same degree of complexity of life, although presenting themselves with the astonishing simplicity of nature (or of  commodity: see at the enter Duchamp).

Silvio Wolf (born 1952 lives and works in Milan) is among the accomplished contemporary artists born and raised within the domain of photographic images. Studies in Philosophy, graduated in Advanced Photography at the London College of Printing and a teacher worldwide, his works always include those features that make art a rich, complex, unfathomable – yet highly rewarding – experience. An experience at times both delightfully preverbal and difficult to exhaust. Among Silvio Wolf’s many photographic series two in particular bear witness of his unexhausted creative attitude: the Icons of Light (Icone di Luce – from 1991) and the Horizons (Orizzonti – from 2002). Nothing could appear to be visually more different and no less far apart in chronological terms. As the former series is baffling, awkwardly perspectival and dazzling (in both senses of the word), the latter series looks aesthetically serene, flat and luminous, deceptively simple. And yet the two series are but different inflections of the same discourse. As we shall see, every time Wolf deploys a different language in order to create a new set of images, immediately he deflects our attention on a nearly timeless issue: the language of photography. Despite the infinite variations of a photographic image in itself, how do its operational tools turn into conceptual features and work within both us and our cultural framework? No matter if some could call one series iconic and the other abstract, we shall see that all over Silvio Wolf’s career the transparence of the medium is always equally exploited, scrutinized and questioned.

The “Icons of Light” should be considered as photographic objects or perhaps, and even more so, tangible photographic thoughts. Each and every one of these art pieces, before being a photographic image whatsoever, already presents a distinct irregular trapezoidal shape, a bodily consistence that casts a shadow on the wall where it is hung, and also an evenly varnished glaze that makes it shiny and slick. Therefore, first comes the object, then the photographic picture arrives; as direct, wordless, both complex and plain as ever. Every “Icon of light” is but the photograph of a painting, a nameless painting, for once, and a featureless one too. All we can see are old gilded wooden frames, slanted for their being caught from unnatural angles. The available lights have been searched accurately in order to let them bounce on the reflecting canvases, and into the camera, effacing their representations. No staging of any sort, no fiction takes place here. Once confronted with Wolf’s art piece, all we can see is just a found object in its ordinary perceptual conditions. Perhaps a little enlarged for the sake of amplification and for conveying an immediate sense of artificiality. Everything conceptual resides in the chosen vantage point. In the picture of a celebrated painting we would sneak in a museum, we would at least try to catch a readable memento of our having been there, despite the blurs of motion and the streaks of unwanted light. But no, Wolf prefers an accurate rendering of the wrong sight; and for more than a reason. An image – the painting – dissolves while another – the photograph – gets ground. The more we look for the painting, the more we find the photograph. The more we peer through that transparent media we are accustomed to, the less viable it appears. The language at work becomes visible, its protocols taking tangible shape, while the actual subject of the picture remains forever a figment.

The “Horizons” are but a set of faithful, unretouched, analogic prints of the initial parts of different strips of photochemical film. That part of the roll which is usually overexposed to the light when the camera gets loaded. It is a rarity nowadays, to find this sort of scraps Wolf has been collecting for years. Reframing and rephrasing – so to speak – the roll of film, cutting off the traction holes, allows the author to focus on the found imagery provided by complete casuality. The different hues depend in fact on the type of film, on the sort of light they have been carelessly exposed to or on the amount of time of such exposure. Where the film was protected from light, darkness dominates: blackness becomes then a metaphor for the total lack of information. Where light flooded uncontrollably, whiteness explodes instead, dyed with randomized chemical tints. White becomes in its turn a metaphor of the complete overload of information. The threshold between the two areas – between the two metaphors – is marked by the gradual fading caused by the felt rim of the canister; which makes for those blurs which we would interpret as horizons.

I believe it to be quite relevant that the emergence of Silvio Wolf’s subjects is as casual as any decisive moment would be, thus reinforcing the proverbial attitude of the photographer who searches and waits. While we overestimate their symbolic values as if they were true or reconstructed horizons – or worse, as if photographic equivalents of a Rothko painting – these prints declare their simplicity instead. This is not exactly an understatement anyway, for their aim is higher. That the image is obtained entirely from photo-chemicals, that it restrains itself to being but the image of the memory support, that it promotes noise to signal, are all features underpinning the similarity between the Horizons series and the Icons of Light. For both series implicitly ask us some unsettling questions: what makes us think they represent what we see them fit to? Why couldn’t we see them for what they are? Perhaps because what is seen doesn’t correspond, for once, with what is represented even though there is nothing artificial in the mechanisms of its representation? And why don’t we give more attention to this, usually?

It would be equally true and mistaken to say that Silvio Wolf’s works defend the basics of photography against its hybridizations. It is true, on one side, that Wolf never messes photography with what it is not for the sake of a captivating final effect. His discourse inextricably coils up around the pivot of the very notions of photographic experience and, in this sense, his work could never inadvertently tramp on any of its practices or languages. Besides, it should be acknowledged to Wolf’s oeuvre a constant effort to reroute photography off the beaten tracks of straight black-and-white candid-witness analogic photography. In this sense Silvio could – and I suppose would – never be considered an orthodox officiant.

Such – perhaps exceedingly – intellectualized interpretation does not stem from an opaque or introverted set of works, occasionally or obliquely lit and enlightened by someone else’s gaze. There is in fact a long and established tradition of artists such as Ugo Mulas with his Verifications (“Verifiche” – 1971-72) end especially the “Hommage to Niepce” where the subject of the image is but a contact print of a roll of unexposed film witnessing the basic materials and procedures of the photographic. But also Franco Vaccari, Mario Cresci, Luigi Ghirri and others – on different battlegrounds – have fought from the early Seventies onward for establishing, in Italy and abroad, a richer and more self conscious practice of photography as a contemporary art and, as a consequence, its deeper and wider understanding. Silvio Wolf is one of the benchmarks of such tradition which is, at the same time, at the very core of the constant renovation in photography; not just within the technical domain – fickle and ephemeral as this is – but a poetic, philosophic and cultural one.