When is a painting not a painting? When it’s a photograph. Many of Thomas Ruff’s images might, at first glance, be paintings by an American abstract expressionist. There is an irony that while so much contemporary painting aims to look hyperreal much current photography has the gestural appearance of painting. The old chestnut that the camera never lies is stood on its head by Ruff’s work. “A photo journalist has to be really honest. The artist does not”, he says. “The difference between my predecessors and me is that they believed to have captured reality and I believe to have created a picture.”
Ruff has been taking photographs for more than thirty years and is one of those responsible for photography’s enhanced status; its shift from the twilight zone of the art world to high priced commodity. His studies at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the 1970s coincided with the political terrorism waged by the anarchic Red Army Faction and his ensuing Portraits made during this period reflect a preoccupation with surveillance. It is as if his subjects had been shot by Big Brother’s camera. No emotion is shown, no flicker of a thought is revealed.
He has always had a passion for technology, for both cameras and telescopes. His fascination with astronomy started young though, as a boy, he was always rather disappointed by how little he could see through his own small telescope compared to what was visible in the professional photographs taken at observatories such as Mount Wilson in Pasadena. In 1989 he presented Sterne, his first images of the night sky based on archival photographs acquired from the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Almost twenty years later he has again returned to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. In his Cassini Series, 2008, in which he caught Saturn’s hazy moons and rings, he enlarged the images to breaking point, so that they collapsed pixel by pixel as if disappearing into a vast black hole. He works, he claims, like a scientist, beginning with research and creating a thesis or concept that he has to prove. As he can’t prove anything with just one photograph he makes groups and series in order to explore his ideas.
ma.r.s.15 I, 2011
A regular visitor to the NASA home page, this was the inspiration for his recent series ma.r.s. Here he has created monumental photographs, manipulating the raw black and white scientific images taken from their website, digitally altering their angles and adding saturated colour so that they resemble abstract paintings. Textures and surfaces become ambiguous. In one we might be looking at sand dunes in a desert, a planetary mountain range or a crumpled cloth stretched taut. In another the black splodges on a yellow ground could be the pitted indentations on a rock face or mutating cellular forms. What is already strange becomes stranger, as science mutates into art.
In addition to these large C-prints he has experimented, in the smaller side gallery, with photos of Mars that can be viewed with cheap red and green 3D glasses. This technique of 3-D imaging is actually quite old, resulting in an anaglyph image where flat surfaces suddenly become precipitous rocky terrains and steep ledges hang over plunging crevasses. Starting with the raw scientific data he creates worlds that are at once fictional and realistic, flights of fancy as well as enhancements of the truth.
Ruff has had an enormous effect on a generation of artists who have turned to the internet as a source of inspiration. In his Jpeg series he created pixilated images of subjects ranging from fake landscapes to war. In the Britannia Street gallery a large photograph of white blossom – the flowers and branches blur to become a grid of form and colour – formalises nature making it into an artificial construct, while in another image – a pool of dirty water lying on waste ground and surrounded by electricity pylons – becomes a reflective lake of purples, greens and blues, proving the mendacity of the camera.
nudes dr02, 2011
Over in Davies Street, Gagosian’s other gallery, there are series of his large nudes culled from pornographic sites. These are enlarged to the point where the women’s bodies are veiled in a gauzy haze of pixels curbing the images more blatant in-your-face sexuality. The nude is hardly a new subject for art and turning titillation into culture, whether in Courbet’s the Origins of the World (1866) or the Pre-Raphaelite, John Collier’s Lilith (1892), – simply an excuse for a bit of snake bondage given respectability by a biblical title – is what male artists have always done. But Ruff’s blurred distortions, while distinguishing the images as ‘art’, also rob the women of their individuality so that they become mere screens (as is always the case in pornography but is not always the case in art) onto which all male fantasy can be projected. Unlike the work of other artists who work with photos, such as his compatriot Gerhard Richter, the images are not transformed or taken to another plane by his interventions. Blurry they may be but they still remain, essentially, what they started as – porn – and are a reminder of John Berger’s perceptive statement that: “A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. By contrast, a woman’s presence … defines what can and cannot be done to her.” The postmodern insouciance and ironic knowingness of these buffed and polished, no doubt consenting and highly paid, models somehow doesn’t alter that fundamental fact.
Thomas Ruff MA.R.S. is at Gagosian Gallery, Davies Street, London from 8 March to 21 April 2012
Thomas Ruff Nudes is at Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London from 8 March to 21 April 2012
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
Images © Thomas Ruff 2011. Courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery