“these tomatoes are reproduced synthetically, with only the memories of the sweet flavor from the original. If we keep repeating the process, this fruit will eventually become the real thing.” – Gordon Rosewater, Bio O, Episode 12: “Enemy is Another Big!”
The Bill Brady/ KC gallery is full of John Houck’s digital-op-art-nerds. The nerds, or, ‘archival pigment prints, creased to make unique prints’ are initially anomalous and vexing. They’re not flashy in their neutral or low-keyed color shades. Inoffensive, but certainly not head-turning, just like actual nerds, once they start talking, you can see how smart they really are – if you happen to understand his jargon. But first, let’s enter the newly renovated building at the Stockyards District in the culturally developing West Bottoms.
An overwhelming welcome still embraces me when I enter Bill Brady’s two-story capacious white cube. Its architectural height slights Houck’s rather large prints (40×60” and 26×32” framed). It makes me think of the same rule one has in the locker room, just look straight ahead and resist the urge to focus on either pole.
In an interview, Houck explains that he uses software he’s designed “to generate every possible combination of a given grid system.” Creased across at angles, photographed and repeated, the final products are distinct, with real and trompe-l’œil creases. With his mostly mechanical means of production, he does create individually unique prints, though it’s a bit like being the highest paid KC Royal.
We mustn’t discount the importance of programming in Houck’s process. It is much more involved than what first meets the eye (or can ever meet the eye – but more on that later). Having done programming myself, it’s a frustratingly, super-logical way of thinking that most don’t do well with and where much of what the artist says is in a foreign language. He writes code to output every combination of 2×2 (or 3×3) grids in a preset number of colors, indexed into an incomplete array. It’s not grid as goal, merely making a predefined length by width array. Inspect the edges closely enough and you’ll find one incomplete edge (on every piece – I checked) as the indicator of a group’s index. You see how much jargon we’ve stumbled into: which is indicative to one of his points. We are so accustomed to the digital manner of representation, but we know so little about the means; we contemplate it even less. So he makes his folds and rephotographs his prints to reflect and to reclaim some part of the process for himself. “The final print is shown with one or two real creases, and the traces of earlier creases remain as photographic representations,” he states in another interview. However, in his increased responsibility of the photo’s atomistic development, he posits bottom-up methods closer to painters than photographers.
You can’t do research into repetition – at least not in the “a lot of stuff” or “again and again” everyday sort of way. No, you’ve got to be more specific about how you press repeat. Repeat 1 and repeat all expands to: recursion, iteration, permutation, combination, duplication, replication, copying, self-reference, fractal, echolalia, echo, looping, renewal, multiplicity….
These photos display the results from his programming recursion (the process of repeating items in a self-similar way). In this Recursion, Houck presents all permutations (a particular combination of a given set) of 2×2 grids (or 3×3) with variable number of colors. He’s done the math for you to present a range from about 50-125 million squares. 50 MB – 125 MB may be a more familiar nomenclature. Having spit out similar terminology, we move on the folds.
CREASES AND FOLDS
He makes the viewer detach and focus on modes of perception but the work doesn’t allow you to pierce the veil, except in a small way: the fold. The trompe-l’œil and actual folds are an interesting gambit. Without the fold as inlet to a larger body of water, the bit of humanity to an otherwise digitally cold, mechanical operator, I move on. When you venture close enough to discern, it’s done a very good thing: make you, the viewer, inspect from multiple distances, vantage points, as is the way of better art. It makes one contemplate, or at least more conscious of, the artistic production. His folds should be sharper because the current folds, although precise, are easily given away by the tiny crinkles along the fold in too obvious a way. Though discerning which is which isn’t really the point, strong episteme deserves equally strong techne. His folding should be cleaner and sharper – done with a bone folder or messy and human, say ripping off some portion, then photo and redo. Or multiple prints could be ripped, layered, and photographed (repeat all) so that the analog, human act contrasts more with the staid given prints.
The strength of his works is their ability to exceed the particular viewing environment, be it digital or in person, seen small or large. It does do well in the prevalent digital viewing. Although strengthened by size (as do nearly all works), its visual gains and losses due to apparent size are smaller than most works. The more neutral color and modern rectilinear form will allow for a broader statement that won’t appear dated as quickly as previous artists who have considered the means of mass communication.
It’s the nuance of his repetition that both hides and reveals the simple wisdom in his work. Compare his work to KC artist Anne Lindberg, whose multi-genre drawings are as warm as Houck is cold, as imaginative as he is lingual and experiential as he is theoretical. Her process is birthed from a top-down design. The dazzling effects are line crossed upon line; color as variable. They make use of repetition by iteration (the repetition of action that builds upon the previous).
I would describe his work to a child like this, “It’s a colored square, in a square, lined up in a … almost square (a rectangle) that then appears to dance with each other.” The self-similarity at any scale is the hallmark of fractals. From a fractal dimensional perspective, Houck shows self-similar combinations of a square inside a square (pixel in a grid), in a grid (index) that aggregates into group interaction (Moiré pattern). That higher level display of fractal iterations isn’t as apparent. It’s like snow, whereby to see the individual snowflake, you must be so close that you can’t see the broad snowfall.
Lindberg presents similar combinations of a thread (lines wrapped around a central axis line), in a rectangle (or short, fat line). Lindberg’s repeated caress soothes and excites, pleasing in its touches. Houck’s touch is latex gloved, probing for indicators, deformities. It’s harsher at first, but with sufficient exposure, the discomfort wanes if not altogether ends.
The contemplation of the real vs. apparent, digital vs analog, is important as you submerge yourself in these deep currents. It’s an exploration of means of communication. It’s methodological exploration. Rather than settling on the mere generalities of one to the mass, you can focus on the individual’s self-relationship (their psychology), as apart from and a part of a family grid, and the family grid’s role as self-similar unit of the societal whole, as well as how the constituents contribute to society’s continuity, it’s Moiré social contract at work.
As a purely visual experience, this print version I’ve got on hand (KC Star review ) has grown on me, although it started at the level of some piece of technology you see but don’t really want: objectively proficient, clean, and well-produced, but not something I’m interested in having.
In showing alternatives to mechanic-automatic-digitization, Houck points to avenues for possible desire. The work is strong on its mediation on how we get what we see, rather than what we see. I’d put on glasses to see John Houck: New Works in 3-D, but who knows, the studios rarely give us what we really want.
All images courtesy of Bill Brady/KC