Describe / Depict / Encrypt
by John Semlitsch
Michael Corris describes the news. Michael Corris also depicts the news. His interventions on news headlines and press photography, however, do little to simplify or summarize their content. Rather, Michael Corris encrypts headlines and press photography. The most recent results of his efforts to describe, depict, and encrypt are abstract paintings and a three-paneled screen supporting LED displays. Both the paintings and the light works are almost legible: I can recognize letters and numbers, though their combinations do not immediately yield words or sentences that bear meaning.
In the case of the Invisible-Colors series of paintings, Corris has abstracted the letters that once spelled out headlines and the colors that composed a corresponding press photograph. He has accomplished this confusion by encrypting the letters of the headline and extracting the colors that dominate the image. Without knowing Corris has any interest in the press or photojournalism, I would take his paintings and sculpture to be a kind of concrete poetry, one in which the Latin alphabet and color are given an opportunity to sing a duet.
When I first learned about Michael Corris, I was told his art had an “odd conceptual spin.” An art historian like myself might be tempted to describe his operation as “Conceptual” and to depict Corris as a “Conceptual” artist. This is a designation that does not entirely illuminate the sensitivity that motivates and sustains Corris’s practice. A few details from the artist’s own history provide me with an alternative: Corris’s earliest work as an artist was as a part of a collective, Art & Language in New York, and as an editor of the journals The Fox (alongside Sarah Charlesworth, Joseph Kosuth, and Mel Ramsden, among others) and Red-Herring. He describes his practice as a part of these enterprises as “essayistic.” During this time, he and his peers generated artwork “through dialogue” noting that “an allegiance to any particular visual media was unfeasible.”
It occurs to me that Corris is still making artwork generated through dialogue and that this most recent exhibition of his work is essayistic. With this in mind, I might do better to describe Corris’s work as conversional. The word conversion connotes turning something over, transforming it. Conversion implies a push and pull, an exchange that may begin with a concept but travels far beyond it in the course of changing one thing into another. The exhibition provides plenty of tangible, material details to perceive and consider without fussing over art historical jargon.
Viewers may not demand a critique of the term Conceptual, yet I bring this matter up to help me make sense of how Corris is operating as part of a larger context. And because Corris is also an art historian. As such, he has devoted time and energy toward complicating the designation Conceptual and the history this word describes. He has practiced this skepticism with his writing (a descriptive and intellectual endeavor) and with his art (a depictive and expressive endeavor). A cursory look at Corris’s writings and artwork will yield plenty of concepts. Sustained looking, for me, reveals the ways in which these ideas find purchase through the media of paint and light. Here is the sensitivity I mentioned earlier, something that makes the artist qualified to draw out feeling from the colorless and commonplace news items.
I began this essay by writing that Michael Corris both depicts and describes the news. The news as I have come to know it takes many forms; these days, I most often read headlines and look at press photography on The New York Times’ website. Wherever I might consume these headlines and accompanying photos, however, I am accessing a secondary account of the events I call “the news.” When I look at Corris’s paintings and sculpture, I am looking at a tertiary account. As he describes (writes from) the headlines he reads and depicts (paints from) the photographs he sees, the account of the news I experience is aesthetic rather than intellectual. Something about the sense of the headline and press photograph is communicated.
This conversion from intellect to sensation is made possible by the third thing Corris does to headlines and press photographs: he encrypts them. The method of encryption he uses is called transposition coding. According to Corris this is an elementary cryptographic technique, and one that has been used since the Napoleonic Wars. Typically, people encrypt information to protect the information: if anyone without the proper cypher intercepts an encrypted message, the content is useless to them. Safe. But I think it is me, the viewer, whom Michael Corris is protecting when he encrypts headlines and press photography. By abstracting both of these things, he converts an intellectual experience into a sensory one. His encryptions buy me a little time, just long enough to feel something.
CHANGE THE IMAGE OR THE WORLD, WELL WHICH?
by Michael Corris
The continual stream of news detailing injustice, trauma, death, and disaster presents us all with a powerful and disturbing image of the world; pictures that are simultaneously informative and debilitating.
Even when we are not personally involved, the events being reported are apt to strike us as captivating and distressing. We are hedged in by global news coverage, along with the grievance politics and culture wars in its wake.
Palette-Talk — a new body of work that I developed over the past two years — asks how it is possible for a person to remain whole under such circumstances. How can we begin to recognize the distinction between random patterns of events and meaningful details? What prospects do we have to summon the will necessary for a continued commitment to social engagement, political activism, and art?
Speaking to my motivation for making the works in Palette-Talk: my aim is to impart a concrete, aesthetic form to the feeling of uncertainty that I experience in the face of world historical events. It’s important to point out that the discourse of contemporary philosophers on representation and depiction are a vital point of departure for this project.
The works in Palette-Talk are what you might call “amalgams” of text and image. Their contents are sourced from news media reportage, my reading habits, and memorable encounters with family, friends, and colleagues. A variety of novel techniques are employed to craft a nuanced approach to the transformation of vivid images and journalistic dispatches into cryptic texts and abstract fields of color. These works simultaneously conceal and reveal a picture of the world by their reconstructions of current events and personal encounters as captivating visual and verbal puzzles. Veiling content in this way enables the works to perform the function of a symbolic refuge while tacitly reminding us of the point to continue to maintain an interest in the world.
The intention to mitigate the demoralizing effect of global media coverage reflects a familiar compensatory attitude towards reality, examples of which may be found in the enormous volume of political commentary on social media. However, I recognize that works of art are unreliable; they may fail to provide solace, they don’t exist as an end in themselves, and they are an insufficient defense against hate speech. Here they are merely intended to be rest stops along the way to progressive engagement.
Why is this important? Reflecting on the relationship between omnipresent media, agency, and constructive resistance, it has become clear to me that the images supplied by global news media are obscene in this sense: I am captivated by them, in spite of the nature of their subject matter. The effect of journalism is paradoxical: it evokes compassion but also alienation, helplessness, and anxiety. What’s more, these emotions often have little or nothing to do with the geographical or existential proximity of the event. The key to overcoming defeatism seems to me to be my social or cultural relationship to the actuality being represented and reported. And that recognition brings me to the politics of the matter. My sense of solidarity with the subject(s) of the event is driven by emotional and rational behaviors. In this way, whatever emotional response I may experience is mitigated and channeled into a desire to act. Yet the scope of my solidarity is necessarily limited; not because I am less of a caring human being than I ought to be, but because as an individual my reach is limited. If genuine solidarity drives behavior, then there is a limit to what I can do to realize my social or political commitments while maintaining a realistic sense of my agency and its impact on the world. For solidarity to mean something, it must go beyond an expression of outrage. If solidarity doesn’t drive action, then it is just a display and ultimately self-defeating.
The visitor to the exhibition will discover that not all the events depicted through the works in Palette-Talk are dispiriting or tragic. There is good news, as well, celebrating important milestones on the path to justice, equity, solidarity and, perhaps more modestly, self-understanding. Whatever our emotional temperature is in response to the news or to our everyday social encounters, don’t we all need a space within which to consider the true measure of our agency? Who hasn’t wished for such a self-reflective moment? A pause providing us with the opportunity to consider how to engage with social and political issues impacting our lives and constituting our wellbeing. Not only for us and our circle of family, friends, and colleagues, but for our community and those outside it we chose to defend.
A NOTE ON PRODUCTION
This project was conceived during the summer of 2020. The assembled works present three approaches that aim to reimagine the relationship between word and image, and one approach that aims to reimagine the relationship between text and narrative. These are, respectively, “palette-talk”, “invisible-colors”, “word frequency specimens”, and “reverse palettes”.
The single work of sculpture — the first to be realized by the artist — displays three texts, of which two are encrypted in the format found in the series Invisible-Colors. Referring to these three texts, the attentive and determined viewer will be able to discover the key to decoding every text in the exhibition.
Palette-Talk.These works are based on news items that have particular emotional or political significance for the artist. The title implies that the words and images represented in these works exist in conversation with each other. Each panel is in the form of an imagined illustrated news article as it might appear in preparation for printing. For each selected illustrated news article, the text and image components are processed in the following way. The image, as a digital file, is run through a hex code extraction algorithm. This process yields ten hues that correspond to the dominant colors of the multitude of individual pixels that comprise the digital image. These hues are then matched visually and applied by hand to the left side of the panel.
Word Frequency Specimens.The text appearing on the right half of the panel is the result of processing the complete text of the selected article using a word cloud generator program. This program analyzes the text and displays its words according to their frequency of occurrence. From this list, the dozen most frequently occurring words are selected and represented in the form of a typographic specimen.
Invisible-Colors. The term, “invisible color” was conceived by the artist Marcel Duchamp to point out the significant contribution made by a title to the meaning of a work of art. Duchamp employed elaborate puns as titles for his works to emphasize is belief that the meaning of art had to be more than a visual experience. In a similar vein, Invisible-Colors strives for cognitive depth by presenting the viewer with an interpretive conundrum that is both visual and linguistic. In my “Invisible-Colors” series, a news article and the accompanying photographic illustration is transformed into a captivating, perplexing word and image composition. The text to be used is excerpted from the illustration’s caption and then encrypted using an elementary cryptographic technique called transposition coding. The color field on which this encoded text is superimposed is made up of the colors generated by running the illustration through a hex code extractor. The surface of the is literally a palette; the lyrical application of paint an index of the actual process of mixing and matching colors.
Reverse Palette.This manner of representation begins with a period of scrutiny by the artist of a selected news photograph. The aim is to devise a color palette, through direct scrutinization of an image, that could be used to depict the news photograph as a painting. The result is a composition that is both a potentially usable palette and a plausible “abstract” painting.
The Sculpture.“Welcome to Warkworth Farm: This Side, Paradise” (2022) takes the form of a free-standing, three-panel screen. Aside from the obvious reference to historical Chinese and Japanese screens, this work is also inspired by Ad Reinhardt’s unrealized plan for a free-standing painting conceived as a room divider. The title of this sculpture refers to the location of the studio of Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden in the Oxfordshire countryside. Baldwin and Ramsden are the sole surviving members of the Conceptual art collective, Art & Language, a group of up to two dozen artists and art historians in which I was active from 1971-1976. The phrase, “This Side, Paradise” — coincidentally the title of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel — is meant to draw a metaphorical boundary separating the Elysian “valley” of art from those forces in the world that would seek to destroy, manage, or misuse art.
The free-standing screen supports three LED displays. These dazzling fields of letters hold the key to the decryption of all the encoded text on view in the exhibition. The left-hand panel displays a matrix of text that reads, “WH AUDEN WROTE THIS FOR YEATS”. The right-hand panel shows that same text, but in its encrypted form. The central panel displays another text, excerpted from Auden’s poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”. Auden’s work celebrates the achievement of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, while offering a critical reflection on the value and agency of art.
I wish to thank the following individuals for their contribution to the realization of this project: Daisy Avalos, Liliana Bloch, Maureen Connor, Pol Bradford-Corris, Estate of Julius Eastman, Ryan Goolsby, Alfredo Jaar, Beverly Ann Mitchell, Pearson Moore, Ginger Price, Quin Matthews, John Semlitsch, Scott+Cooner, Richard Shiff, Sally Warren, and Marjorie Welish.
DECODED TEXTS OF INVISIBLE-COLORS
The parenthesis encloses the original unencrypted text.
Invisible-Colors: “America,” Day by Day. 2020-2021
(Less Dogma, More Nuance)
Invisible-Colors of March 9: Fog of War. 2022
(Costs of War Mount for Russia)
Invisible-Colors of November 15: Whispers in the Valley. 2021
(Poetry Makes Nothing Happen)
Invisible-Colors of December 18: On the Beach. 2021
(Forget NFTs, Surrender to Great Art)
Invisible-Colors of November 24: Through the Streets in Victory. 2021
(Yet Another Test Case)
Invisible-Colors of November 30: Blue. 2021
(Blood Diamond of Batteries)
Invisible-Colors of September 25: Dark Money. 2021
(We Had Better Get What We Paid For)
Invisible-Colors of January 20: Book Blockers. 2022
(I Know This Is Not 1965),
Invisible-Colors of December 20: Silent Spring. 2021
(An Album of Endangered Birdsongs)
Invisible-Colors of January 8: Glacial. 2022
(Let Others Wear the Hair Shirt)
Invisible-Colors of November 28: The Mystery of Self-Surrender. 2021
(A Vision or Just a Dream?)
Invisible-Colors of January 27: The Horror! 2022
(Cultural Politics Don’t Exist!)
Invisible-Colors of January 15: Our Beliefs. 2022
(Find the Facts that Prove Them)
Invisible-Colors of December 21: At Risk. 2021-2022
(The Water Is Rising Fast)
Invisible-Colors of November 29: The Feel For a Far-Away Past. 2021
(Tribes Buy Back Homelands)
Invisible-Colors of January 6: Paradise Lost. 2022
(To Be Weak is Miserable, Doing or Suffering)
Invisible-Colors of December 1: Rush ΑΔΟ. 2021
(Same Republican Denialism)
Invisible-Colors of December 16: Disappear. 2021
(Nations Close Borders, Regardless)