It has been over two years since I last wrote about my work. To people who are getting to see my new series for the first time it may feel like a very different approach, but at its heart my process continues where I left off.
Since 2011 I have made art based on photography that shows the human figure. Through four different series I have shot a body of work which I call Nudes in Steel. I created images showing men and women, and printed them on different paper and acrylics. I physically cropped the images, and framed the different elements in steel, thus creating a layered version of a picture that lets the viewer focus on different parts of the composition. There was, already then, a definite sculptural element to my work.
I stopped creating narrative images years ago, and have preferred to focus on the human body as a kind of abstraction. My nudes have never been intentionally sexual. I have depicted the human figure in terms of light and shadow, letting the poses communicate a vulnerability, or a liberation. The crops I’ve cut out of my pictures focus on hands, shoulders, torsos and backs which highlight those feelings.
All of this remains true in my new project. So, what’s changed?
After years of thinking about how light interacts with the bodies in my photographs, and what happens around the edges of my metal crops and the frames that cut through my pieces, I began thinking about light around the final artwork, not just at the moment I shoot the picture.
I fell in love with the work of Italian 1960s avant-garde artists who often referred to themselves as Spatialists, and were members of the ZERO group. All four of them focused on the sculptural spaces just beyond painting. Lucio Fontana and his slashed painted canvases is probably the best-known artist of this group, but several of his contemporaries left an even bigger impression on me. Agostino Bonalumi produced inventive “extroflections,” shapes that emerged from taut canvas impressed into relief, then painted a solid color. His work broke through the two-dimensional picture plane to engage with space and texture in new ways. Enrico Castellani wanted to rid art of its pictorial expressionism and instead focus on materiality. He made many pieces with monochrome surfaces, which produced disorienting effects using the play of cast shadows and angled surfaces that emphasize and remind the viewer that a painting is, in fact, a physical object and not just an illusionistic window. Paolo Scheggi made the most complex and inventive monochromatic canvases of this group. His abstractions created shallow space and light by superimposing surfaces and overlapping elliptical holes. All of these artists produced beautiful, intelligent, deliberate work. It wasn’t painting, it wasn’t sculpture, but it lived in the light and shadows.
This Spatialist artform from the 1960s was all about pieces made from canvas with wooden frames and painted a single color, but that was all they had left in common with paintings. All of these avant-garde artists were interested in what happened to the surfaces when light landed on ridges and openings, passed through parts of the work, and created spaces beyond the typical flat piece of art on the wall.
This was exactly where I wanted my work to go. I saw a creative opportunity to combine the Spatialist approach with photography. I wanted to pull parts of my work out of the wall, to create the spaces that would disorient a viewer by extrapolating my sets from the photograph, but I didn’t just want random openings in my surfaces, that felt too haphazard.
I envisioned creating final pieces where the physicality of the set elements would extend beyond the photographic image itself. I’ve always produced my own minimalist stage sets, but what I had in mind for this series was more complex and tactile. I realized that hand-making these set elements and props was going to be far too difficult, so my team and I designed them using parametric architectural software. I had to rely on technology to get these sets right. I found myself developing my stage props with the same applications and plug-ins that Zaha Hadid or Santiago Calatrava used to design their buildings.
What makes this project so contemporary is the use of 3D manufacturing technology to create the monochromatic surfaces. I needed to use computer-controlled CNC robots to carve out the final piece from blocks of ultra-high-density polyurethane. Originally, I wanted to form the white surfaces out of Corian, a modern-day white stone material that reminded me of marble or granite. But it was incredibly heavy, and after my team dropped three different pieces, each time shattering them like giant porcelain tea cups, it became clear that I would have to use a more modern substance. I opted for polyurethane coated with a white lacquer pigment.
In other words, the stage props and elements we used were programmed on a computer and were then produced by manufacturing machines. After the shoot, the same data set that was fed to the CNC robots and 3D printers to produce the props became the basis for producing the final sculptural piece, which physically emerges from the photograph. Technology has enabled me to break through the two-dimensionality of photography and create not only the light and spatial interplay within my images, but also beyond them.
Here’s a photo of “Emilie at the Wall,” one of the few completed pieces. It was shown in Shanghai this year for the first time:
But technology alone is not enough to make art. I want my work to elicit an emotional response, and in my heart I remain a photographer. Unlike the Italian Spatialists, I use the textures inherent to the sculpture as a departure point, not the final goal.
I have attempted to combine all these elements in my Spatial Concepts series. Fine art nude photography ties into the oldest art forms of humanity across the world, from prehistoric “Venus figurines” to Indian cave paintings, which depict our bodies in their most vulnerable states and express ideals of beauty and other human qualities. This series pays its respects to the Italian Spatialists, who saw light in its rawest form, creating work that changed throughout the day as the sun moved across their manipulated canvas surfaces, at times sinuous, erotic, or even violent. Though the use of the most modern technology available allows me to make infinite copies, I make the artistic choice of producing only one, in the firm conviction that this art form should be considered as unique as painting, though the process may be different.
Over the next couple of weeks I will write in greater detail about the various pieces, because there are distinctly different approaches. Not every image is a direct homage to the artists that inspired me. This work below is called “Charlene in Zaha’s Light,” and has a deep slash reminiscent of Fontana into the surface at the lower edge, but also a parametric extrusion that evokes Castellani’s style.
In this particular image the body is inside the crop, I loved the elegance of basking in the light. The element that was hanging above her casts a distinct shadow, but continues as a solid object coming out of the surface at the top of the piece. The big white element she was laying on when I shot the image continues out of the photograph, and folds into itself.
This alternate view rendered in the modelling software shows the left side. You can see that it’s a relatively simple piece, with a single slash carving the white surface. You can see the grid growing out of the white flat area above the metal frame.
Here’s a rendered close-up of the parametric grid I built as a set, and then extruded from the surface in the final piece:
I will show more photos, renders and production details over the next few weeks as I get ready for my first solo show in several years. At the end of April, I will show this new series as well as some older pieces at the Galerie Camera Work CWC on Auguststrasse in Berlin. There’s also a book of my Nudes in Steel series coming, so please stay tuned.