And the book went flying. The thing that bothered me was that Joseph willfully wrote out all personal depth and information from Rauschenberg’s silkscreens, that he makes no allowance that an image of Kennedy, or Venus, or a weather balloon could mean anything personal for Rauschenberg – this individual rubbish did not seem to matter to Joseph and his tired October thinking just made me angry. I don’t think that Joseph fails to see these facts about Rauschenberg, he even mentions them in the book from time to time, but they just don’t matter to him, all that personal stuff is just a hangover of expressionist impulses and mid-century narcissism, mere footnotes that can lead to confusion when wider, more engrossing facts and general, weighty issues of culture are stake. This bothers me. It is like telling one to focus on a loud bulldozer but to not get overly involved with the engine parts, the ignition switches, or any of the things that make the machine operate.
These things came back into my mind with the work of Scott Short, a very interesting painter whose work I have been familiar with for sometime. Short uses a photocopier (early on an analogue device and now digital) and builds up sheets of what I guess one could call the remnants of imperfect light containment on the copier’s surface. As parts of the page darken, expand, and flow through the light registry, Short chooses moments that he finds aesthetically interesting, turns the moments into a transparency, projects the image on a canvas, and painstakingly paints bit by bit until he has a copy of a copy. Admittedly, just thinking about the process, it is hard to believe this not insufferable, tedious, and outright boring work (sort of grad-student tricks performed to avoid painting and expression, the kind of art souped up on Walter Benjamin without the benefit of his authentic emotions). However, Short is interesting and the paintings get better and better.
Now, I think about that theory of Brandon Joseph, and that endless rush of information that forms a leveled, heterogeneous tapestry of over-extended boredom across our lives when it comes to Short. Subsequently, I can think about Short choice of imagery as perhaps a choice from just such a tapestry. Actually, it is much easier for me to buy the argument about Short than it is to buy it about Rauschenberg. The photocopier’s remnants are, after all, randomly determined and sprawl out into patterns form according to a number of conditions that are difficult to fathom. Random order indeed.
However, Short, like Rauschenberg, makes choices, and there he is, performing painting inside of gluts of information. He is looking for old things like visual punch and beauty. He is not afraid to get involved with the optical effects he finds in the random passages of black and white. Honestly, at the level of surface and image, there is no difference between the passages that Short chooses to paint and the passages that he choose to exclude other than that they are special to him, that they do something for him that the excluded passages don’t. The choice matters. We choose to care about images and that is what makes them meaningful. Our ability to focus, garner our attention towards them, animates them in a way that the market and the glut cannot completely kill. There is a significance to that and outcomes in Short’s paintings, so reminiscent but not quite like works by Christopher Wool or even, brace yourself, the simmering fields of Jules Olitski, carry this significance.
There’s a crisis of meaning going on here, there is a resistance to human life being merely a matter of technology or merely a matter of surface configurations of images, just as Joseph read Rauschenberg. At the same time, however, the resistance is not the point, and it is not merely to show us the structure of an in-escapable system. There is something excessive and joyful going here. That’s the point, that’s what Short gets out of an unlikely machine like a photocopier. He’s managed to find moments of resonance in the glut and wash. Those moments are deep and not surface, built on old things and not new criteria of image play and politics.