Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies (Part 5c: Painting, Screens and Simulation)

Fig. 24 Lonesome George Juan Travieso 2012

Fig. 24
Lonesome George Juan Travieso 2012

Painting has the capacity to utilise the reproduced or screened image of the animal and in its physicality eliminate the distance created by these simulations.  In his work Why Look At Animals? Berger investigates the visual encounter of the animal and writes of a growing absence of contact between them and humans, notably referring to photography by pointing out that ‘the camera fixes them in a domain which, although entirely visible to the camera, will never be entered by the spectator.  All animals appear like fish seen through the plate of glass of an aquarium’.[1]

In reference to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s writings on simulation, simulacra and the subversion of the real, one of the contributing factors to our disassociation with the non-human in the 21st century is progression from the mere mechanical reproduction of the photograph to the ubiquitous screening of animals via the Internet and television.  Animals are abundant and accessible in ways never thought possible, but only in simulation; previously unknown species can be viewed at the click of a mouse or by viewing a wildlife documentary but they are never experienced as real encounters in which the human and non-human exchange a gaze or physical contact.  As Baudrillard states, with video, interactive screens, multimedia and the Internet, ‘distance is abolished in all things’.[2] Through the Internet the viewer is brought into a false proximity with the animal by ‘immersion’; we interact with the multitude of images and videos in a virtual space.  Baudrillard goes on to say that ‘machines produce only machines’.[3] However, painting takes these machine-made images and brings the animals depicted back to a physical level using the human gesture and subjectivity within the medium.  Many artists use this concept to highlight the effects of the screen.  Painter Judith Eisler for example, says ‘I am not trying to create a distance from the original image so much as to describe a distance that results from so many layers of technological interference’.[4]

Fig. 25 Genus Deconstruction Juan Travieso 2012

Fig. 25
Genus Deconstruction Juan Travieso 2012

Cuban artist Juan Travieso exemplifies this ‘technological interference’ by appropriating imagery from photographs and producing paintings which contain an anomalous geometry of colours and shapes similar to the pixelated distortions present in screened images.  His subjects are collections of taxonomically similar species or iconic individual animals acknowledged for their imminent extinction (Fig. 24 and Fig. 25).  While the choice of subject may be for aesthetic or ecologically-motivated reasons, it is the choice of medium and its application that holds the viewer enthralled.  Travieso adopts a style currently prevalent among contemporary painters, one that art historian Dario Gamboni describes in his work Potential Images: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art.[5]  The act of omitting parts of an image and deliberately forcing the viewer to decide what they see has been employed by many artists since the 19th century but appears to be more popular than ever in recent decades.[6] Travieso’s ruptured animal faces and bodies burst with brightly hued blocks and patterns, thus challenging audience expectations of depicted animal physiognomy.  As Schwabsky in his essay on Everyday Painting recounts:

It functions…as a way of allowing the paint to linger in the condition in which things are still unsettled, metamorphic, in transition.  Many such artists seem determined to catch painting in an in-between state, a sort of amorphous lability in which any given mark can read as abstract or as image-bearing, depending on how you look at it.[7]

In a similar vein of art using the screened image and the theme of threatened animals, artist Charlie Baird has produced graphical works such as About 400 Sumatran Tigers (2008) (Fig. 26).  In this piece a collage of photographed tigers is simulated in paint, assembled grid-like into a mock digital, pixelated visage of a single tiger.  It could be read as a reference to the accumulation of the species in the virtual animal-mausoleum of cyberspace as they vanish from the real world.[8]

Fig. 26 About 400 Sumatran Tigers Charlie Baird 2008

Fig. 26
About 400 Sumatran Tigers Charlie Baird 2008

[1] Berger, p.26.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out (London: Verso, 2002) p.176.

[3] Baudrillard, p.177.

[4] The Hayward Gallery, ‘In conversation with The Hayward’, The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s to Now (London: Hayward Publishing, 2007) p. 169.

[5] Dario Gamboni, Potential Images: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art, (London: Reaktion Books, 2004) pp. 13-20

[6] Phaidon Editors, Vitamin P2: New Perspectives in Painting, (New York: Phaidon Press Ltd, 2011) p.12.

[7] Phaidon, p.14.

[8] Akira Mizuta Lippit, ‘From Wild Technology to Electric Animal’, Representing Animals ed. by Nigel Rothfels (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) p.126.


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