Victor Raphael: Envisioning Space


by Michael Zakian


"I paint what I cannot photograph and photograph what I cannot paint."
Man Ray



"The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and the photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world—in other words—expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces." Jackson Pollock, 1950


Although his art is remote from the existential turbulence of Abstract Expressionism, Victor Raphael has consistently drawn inspiration from Jackson Pollock. He even visited Pollock’s studio in 1985 and produced a series of works that pay him homage. Considering this affinity of sensibilities, it is not surprising that Pollock’s remarks about the condition of the modern artist provide a frame for understanding Raphael’s art. One need only substitute the word "postmodern" for "modern."

For Pollock, a prime challenge to a painter at mid-twentieth century was the camera, which had usurped art’s primary function of picturing the world. He proposed to battle this impersonal machine by turning inward and expressing "the energy, the motion, and other inner forces" behind visual reality, that is, the forces that the camera could not see or capture. Maturing as an artist in the 1980s, just decades after Pollock’s death, Raphael turned to the camera to accomplish this same goal, using photographs to reveal the dynamics that propel behind his world.

Raphael was six years old when Pollock died in 1956. Although their lives overlapped, their worlds—and the conditions of their creativity—could not have been more different. Pollock worked at a time when America was at its height as an industrial power. It was natural for him to oppose the dehumanization of the machine by using the physical gestures of his body, applying the natural resources of a laborer to chart a new direction for painting. By the time Raphael began making art, America had already moved from an industrial economy to one based on information. Raw physical gesture—and the fear of instruments such as the camera—had become as irrelevant as the factories lying dormant along the nation’s Rust Belt.

The strength of Pollock’s art resided in the connections he established between his inner thoughts and the outer world. Although his seminal drip paintings were highly subjective, drawing freely upon the artist’s troubled unconscious, they transcended his personality and appeared as objective networks of interconnected forms. Pollock created majestic webs that fused the subjective and the objective, collapsing the classic division between exterior and interior, between appearance and essence, between sign and significance. He helped close the doors on the modernist project and open the threshold to the postmodern.

Victor Raphael also creates webs, but they are based on the interconnections between media. As an artist, he grew up in the postwar cultural world Pollock helped create. It was a world of images. Part of the Baby Boomer generation, Raphael matured in an age that saw the growth and eventual domination of the media—first, television, magazines, movies, and later, video, computers, Internet. While Pollock saw the camera as a threat, as an inadequate means to capture life, Raphael saw it as a vital tool that reflects what is most vital and stimulating in contemporary culture. In a world of mass-produced, photo-based images, the camera becomes an essential link. It is the main tool that unites numerous technologies and systems of information.

Raphael chose Polaroid photography as his primary medium. He likes it because it is instantaneous and accessible, a fast medium geared for a fast-paced world. In an era of immediate gratification and spontaneous spectacles, Polaroid allows someone to arrest a scene and have an immediate souvenir. As a simple point and shoot device, it requires no special talents or skills, offering accessibility in place of sophistication. Critic Pierre Bourdieu called photography as a whole a middlebrow art, a medium geared to popular needs and desires. Within this populist medium, Polaroid is especially prosaic. "The Polaroid is something that everybody understands," Raphael once said. "There is a democratic nature to it. I make something special out of something common."

Polaroid photography is both modern and archaic. Although it utilizes up-to-date technology, it is old-fashioned in that it creates only one image for every snapshot taken. The advent of negative film allowed photographs to be duplicated infinitely. Raphael appreciates the paradox that his medium of choice is popular and accessible to everyone, but also rare, producing only solitary images.

He further capitalizes on the unique quality of Polaroids by altering each one by hand. Applying various metallic paints, as well as actual gold- and metal leaf, he obscures and heightens certain features of each photograph, thereby personalizing his anonymous medium. Each image is truly one-of-a-kind. From the common, Raphael makes the One. Embellished with gold, each manipulated Polaroid resembles a small medieval icon and functions as a compact image of modern, secular devotion.

While his medium is ordinary, his subjects are not. Raphael has always retained a Romantic desire to tap the universal. He focuses on subjects of grand import—the cosmos, water, artistic genius, religious doctrine, monuments in the history of art. Each in its own way declares a field of portentous meaning, a subject that transcends the mundane by addressing the timeless and the eternal.

Raphael prefers to obtain his imagery from indirect sources. For example, he produced his Space Field series, consisting of cosmic imagery, by aiming his camera not at the stars but at his television screen. His source material was NASA photographs broadcast on educational TV. His art becomes a commentary on the way our culture processes and disseminates images. In our Information era, pictures are continually taken, edited, broadcast, received and interpreted in a vast web of media communication. In his altered Polaroids, Raphael consciously manipulates his images, in the same way the media mediates and puts a spin on whatever it creates and distributes.

One recurrent motif in Raphael’s imagery is the field. They appear not only in the Space Field series, but also as fields of water, architectural decoration, semiotic codes, and electronic static. To the artist, the field symbolizes any vast arena, ranging from circles of human interaction, to vast territories opened up by new media technology. The field is the condition of the Postmodern world—a vast continuum comprised of individual parts subsumed within a larger all-embracing system. Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno used the term "constellations"—a reference to cosmic imagery that has particular meaning to Raphael—to refer to these shifting networks of information.

His work matured in the 1980s, an era when Postmodernism arose as a critique of essential propositions behind modernism, questioning long-cherished beliefs in a coherent style, a stable identity of self, and clear origins. Jean Baudrillard, who postulated a new world order based on the exchange of information advanced the idea that "Our private sphere has ceased to be the stage where the drama of the subject at odds with his objects and his image is played out: we no longer exist as playwrights or actors but as terminals of multiple networks." Jackson Pollock represents the old modern world where the artist used art to work out his personal psychological dramas. As Postmodern artist, Victor Raphael doesn’t create as much as he re-creates, reprocessing the visual data that permeates our culture. He uses his camera to move between the surface and depth of this media universe. His manipulated Polaroids, which reflect multiple levels of cultural communication, function as conduits of social meaning.

UFO

Raphael’s first mature works were a series of modified Polaroids and photocollages from 1978 through 1981 on the theme of UFOs. The question of intelligent life beyond the confines of our planet has been an undercurrent of American popular culture since 1947 when an alien craft was rumored to have crashed at Roswell, New Mexico. The subject was given new life in 1970 with the publication of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, a highly speculative book that argued that the great unexplained engineering feats of ancient civilizations were technological gifts from alien space travelers.

UFO (1980) began with an evocative, unidentifiable mass Raphael noticed within one of his Polaroid photographs. Intrigued by questions of how people "read" or understand borderline pictures—images that seem to resemble something but look like nothing in particular—he used copper paint to embellish his mysterious image, creating an engaging shape that resembles both a flying saucer and, at the same time, nothing more than a series of random spots.

Another group of UFO images were based on a series of photographs of the ancient temple at Teotihuacan Raphael took while on a honeymoon to Mexico in 1978. By cutting out and then inverting the bottom portion of the temple, Raphael turned the stately pyramid into an unstable lozenge, a powerful saucer-like shape that appears ready to lift off from the earth. These photocollages probe the notion of physical and cultural displacement, musing upon the origins and fate of the people who built these majestic structures, but also—and more to the point—raising questions about travel through time and space in the present.

In spirit these inversions of Mexican temples have parallels to Robert Smithson’s mirror displacements which were published in "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan" in 1969. Smithson’s article focused on how the car—the ultimate personal space vehicle of the twentieth century—functions as a self-enclosed transportation pod that can take one to the most remote realms on earth. Raphael’s Teotihuacan UFOs arose directly from his personal wanderlust, which led him to travel widely and frequently through the late 1960s and 1970s. They pose the same philosophical questions surrounding travel that obsessed Smithson. How can you be in a single, fixed body and have that body transported to strange places? How much of you is preserved with each trip? More importantly, how much is changed?

Raphael’s UFOs also deal with displacements in communication within contemporary culture. In the photocollage Griffith Park Observatory UFO (1980), he created a flying saucer-shape by duplicating and inverting the curved top of the landmark Los Angeles planetarium. The work is a comment on how facts—in this case, scientific "truths" about the cosmos—are shaped and manipulated by the people and methods used to gather and disseminate information. Considering that the Mayan calendar is said to have been more accurate than our modern calendar, can one claim that Griffith Observatory contains better astrological knowledge than the temple at Teotihuacan?

JEWISH SUBJECTS

As a descendant of Shephardic Jews with roots in Spain as well as in Greece and Turkey, Raphael grew up thinking about the gulf that exists between his European ancestors and his life in Los Angeles. The strong bond he feels with his past is a link that exists through blood—genetics—and by belief—religion. He has produced a series of works addressing Jewish themes, particularly the idea of wisdom passed on through generations and centuries.

The Three Triangles (1983) is one of a series of works based on the Kabbalahistic idea of the Tree of Life. The Kabbalah is an ancient aspect of mystical knowledge codified by Jewish and some Christian scholars in the twelfth century. It emphasized revelation focusing on the nature of the universe and the destiny of man. The Tree of Life is a graphic model of these divine attributes that exist in a complex spatial relationship to one another. Each point or sphere—an allusion to celestial spheres—serves as a point of access to a realm of knowledge. The entire tree is a protean structure, capable of being expanded and enlarged as one attains higher levels of understanding. In a Polaroid Aleph Bet (1988), letters from the Hebrew alphabet, which according to the Kabbalah represent a system of numerology, float freely in a golden space. To Raphael, the Tree of Life and the Hebrew alphabet were ancient forms of mass media, ancient broadcast systems for communicating timeless truths.

Although he made art with clear reference to specific Jewish subjects, all of Raphael’s art deals with Diaspora or displacement as a condition of contemporary life. Although the Diaspora referred to the Hebrew’s Biblical exile from Palestine during the Babylonian Captivity, the term describes any state of wandering or homelessness. The condition of the Wandering Jew, the medieval outcast who has no place in the world, has been absorbed into a highly mobile contemporary world where people often choose freedom of movement over stability. Raphael documented his personal experience with social displacement in a series of monosilkscreens depicting the Breed Street Shul and Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the later which he attended with his family. These buildings mark two phases in the migration of the Jewish community in Los Angeles, which was originally located in Boyle Heights, then moved to the mid-Wilshire area and moved again to the West side. Raphael produced his silkscreens at the Self-Help Graphics atelier, a community based art center in East Los Angeles that reflects the rich cultural values and spirit of the local Chicano community.

COLOR CODES

Raphael’s Color Codes from the late 1970s to the early 1980s explore the arbitrary quality of the sign. He was inspired by Structuralist thought, which arose to dominate cultural analysis during the 1970s, and adopted their method of studying the human sciences as a way of making art. The Structuralists believed that language—and any aspect of human behavior—consists of a series of social conventions, made up of various "signs." Each sign is a two-part carrier of meaning consisting of a signifier (a sound, image, act or written word) and what it signifies (its meaning). The relationship of signifier to signified is arbitrary and largely a matter of social convention. Signs possess meaning through our ability to differentiate one from the other within the larger system.

Raphael created the Color Codes as an arbitrary system of signification. He began the series with a color alphabet that he created by drawing a stick of oil pastel from a box at random and assigning it to a letter of the alphabet. "A" was ultramarine blue. "B" light green. "C" dark green, and so no. Because there were only twenty-four different colors in the box, two colors were used twice. Hardly an arcane game, Raphael’s Color Code points to the state of color symbolism at the end of the twentieth century. The first generation abstract artists firmly believed in the psychological, expressive aspects of color. Kandinsky could announce with certainty that "vermilion stimulates like a flame," and that "bright yellow looks sour," but by the end of the twentieth century, an over-stimulated media had dulled people’s senses to the point where colors were received as mute visual fact, shorn of any deep psychological associations. To make color meaningful Raphael had to prescribe meaning, to create a system where color would point to a specific predetermined meaning.

In Ellipse-Eclipse (1985) Raphael employed the colors that spell these two words. The composition, which owes much to Jackson Pollock, consists of broad, arcing ellipses that the artist drew using large sweeps of his arm. Revolution-Evolution (1987) features bars of color that spell the title. These works—represented in the exhibition by Polaroids of the original drawings—while beguiling as pure sensuous form, are admittedly difficult to decipher. To discover their meaning, one would need the color codes and then take the time to find the letter matching each color. In the case of Ellipse-Eclipse, and many similar works, the composition undermines any sense of a clear order, making their meaning hard to determine. They are obscure and opaque, reminding us that most systems of information are convoluted and arcane.

ABSTRACTIONS

Although today it is taken for granted as a part of our cultural scene, abstraction appeared in art only as recently as the early twentieth century. The first generation abstract painters—Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich—struggled to establish nonobjective art as a meaningful alternative to a centuries-old tradition of Renaissance realism. By the end of the century, abstraction had been assimilated into culture at large where it functioned as pictorial option open to anyone.

Raphael was always comfortable with abstraction because his approach to making art is itself abstract. He works in independent stages, first taking a photograph, and then altering it. He thinks of his materials and subjects in a deliberate, studied manner, contemplating the nuances of meaning surrounding every act. His art-making process begins with intense concentration on a problem, which soon gives way to a Zen-like acceptance of accident and chance. He looked at the vast world of art and found a host of images that spoke directly to him and to his work. Wanting to assimilate their achievements, he found ways of adopting their art for his modified Polaroids.

In a loosely defined series that he calls simply his Abstractions, Raphael rejected the camera’s usual purpose of recording visual reality and set out to incorporate the vocabulary of nonobjective art into his work. He embarked on a series of conscious homages to other artists. Gold Field (1984), which consists of a Polaroid entirely covered with gold leaf, is a tribute to Yves Klein who wanted to create a world of monochrome objects. Abstraction #2 (1986) was inspired by Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, a late work where the Abstract Expressionist used two-by-fours dipped in paint to make a series of linear, quasi-figurative forms. Altering Pollock’s method to suit the small size of the Polaroid, Raphael created a mass of similarly painterly lines by using toothpicks dipped in cooper metallic paint.

Video Volcano (1988) is a still from "Video Feedback" an abstract video created by shooting a video camera into an active monitor. The distortion from the resulting feedback loop creates an explosive shutter that resembles an erupting volcano. If the message is the media, as Marshall McLuhan has noted, then the media can distort the message, influencing the outcome simply through its involvement in the process.

POLLOCK

Raphael’s concern with abstraction led him to confront Jackson Pollock, the most powerful and problematic of American nonobjective painters. He went beyond an interest in the art and focused on Pollock as a cultural phenomenon. He wondered about the form and substance of Pollock’s art and legend. Is it found within his canvases or does it belong to the way society celebrates his myth?

Raphael’s interested in Pollock assumed a new dimension when he noticed that he bore a striking physical resemblance to the Abstract Expressionist painter. He focused on questions of what does it mean when a younger artist "identifies" with a famous figure? Is the relationship merely pictorial, a question of borrowing the look of a painter’s work? Or does the identification exist on another level?

Pollock himself spoke of the need to be in the painting, to physically become one with the creative act. His prime pictorial device was the web, a field of twisting skeins of paint that has the artist’s body at its core. This web became the locus of his self, the place where he could get a handle on his unruly emotions and articulate a coherent identity. Despite Pollock’s haunting demons, being at the center of his drip paintings allowed him to momentarily overcome them and produce an image of ideal balance and order.

Raphael explored ways of entering into Pollock’s art and psyche. In 1985 he visited the artist’s home in Springs, Long Island—before the studio officially opened to the public—and took a series of photographs of his own body there. In Self-Portrait in Pollock’s Studio (1986) Raphael captured his shadow spreading over the famous barn-studio where the ground-breaking -drip paintings were made. Raphael turns homage into an act of willful projection, by asserting the presence of his self at the site of Pollock’s creativity.

Another series of Polaroids feature stills from the Hans Namuth film capturing Pollock in the act of making a painting on glass. The artist is immersed in dense outpourings of paint, recalling Robert Smithson’s comment that "Jackson Pollock’s art tends towards a torrential sense of material that makes his paintings look like splashes of marine sediments." They also look cosmic. Pollock painted to be one with the universe. Raphael’s Polaroids reveal the extent to which he achieved this goal.

In a two-minute video, "One Gesture of the Heart: A Tribute to Jackson Pollock," Raphael assumed the stance, posture, and facial expressions of Pollock, trying to dissolve the distance between his physical existence and Pollock’s life. By entering into the older artist’s skin, he sought to gain insight into his consciousness. Raphael became not a follower of Pollock but his postmodern double, a doppelganger, one who strives to inhabit and heart and body of another.

GETTY SERIES

While museums seem to gather the world’s great masterpieces in reverential displays of genteel taste and passive beauty, in truth these institutions function as great engines of cultural displacement. To show examples of historic world art at one locale—and at a particular point in time and space—means that these objects were dislodged from their original time and place. Removed from its context and natural point of reference, museum art is homeless art, art without a clear sense of belonging.

For Raphael this sense of impropriety was particularly keen at the original J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. Housed in a structure on the California coast that recreates a first century AD Roman villa from Pompeii, the museum building itself embodies an extreme violation of the space-time continuum. Walking through its galleries, Raphael was struck by the peculiarity of seeing artifacts from ancient Europe sitting in display cases in modern Los Angeles, not far from the world of Hollywood fiction.

His Polaroids of various masterpieces use metal-leaf to alter their appearance and context. The battered and broken features of the face in Roman Man (1991) make him seem like a tired refugee from an apocalyptic cataclysm. In Kouros (1995) a pristine white marble figure stands within a glimmering field of gold, as if it had just emerged from a time machine. Vestibule Ceiling (1992) shows a complex decorative scheme filled with Roman images of abundance, a celebration of commercial goods for a material world not very different from our own.

GETTY WATER SERIES


Raphael embarked on another series based on the ornamental peristyle pool at the entrance to the first Getty Museum. The artist, who was born under the sign of Virgo (an earth sign) has always found water to be liberating. A native of Los Angeles, he grew up in and around water. The grandson of a couple who were born on the island of Rhodes, Raphael feels that water is part of his Mediterranean heritage.

Water is timeless. Yet, it is also distinctly modern in its transience. It is dynamic and protean, always in flux—an apt metaphor for changeable times. Water also has a paradoxical appearance. It is transparent but forms reflective surfaces that mirror whatever appears above it. Because of these reflective qualities, water can be thought of as the first recording instrument, a natural but impermanent camera.

Raphael used his Polaroid camera to capture ephemeral reflections. He focused on fleeting ripples, fugitive fields of glowing light captured in water. He used metal leaf to emphasize the patterns of these reflections, creating golden icons out of transient phenomena. These Getty Water Polaroids reminded Raphael of the late water lily paintings of Claude Monet, an artist who made grand decorative cycloramas depicting the meeting point between earth and water. Inspired by these great works of late Impressionism, Raphael produced a series of large Getty Water paintings using metal-leaf on canvas that aspire to the environmental scope of Monet’s project.

SPACE FIELDS

The most sustained body in the artist’s oeuvre is his Space Field series. As a young boy, Raphael wanted to be an astronaut, sharing the dream of many who grew up in the space age. As an adult he channeled this preoccupation with the universe into his art. He was hardly alone in his delight with the stars. The theme of outer space has been persistent throughout human history. It inspired some of the earliest works of permanent art and architecture, such as Stonehenge, and continues to occupy modern observers.

The images in the Space Field series fall into two broad categories of fields and objects. The objects can be further broken down into groups distinguished by the type of heavenly body: star, planet, galaxy, asteroid field, and so on. They also may be classified by the object’s primary shape: orbs, rings, spirals, clusters, accretions. This range of forms mirrors the types of objects and structures we encounter within any system on earth: unitary, linear, circular, non-sequential. For Raphael the sky is a vast network, a metaphor for the complex realms of man-made information.

In an essay entitled "Of Other Spaces," Michel Foucault postulated that while the nineteenth century was an era dominated by a concern with history, the postmodern era is obsessed with space: "The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the era of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed." The new unit of measurement is not distance but the "site", which is "defined by relations of proximity between points or elements." The Space Field series functions as "sites" in this vast cosmic dialogue of highly charged and portentous images.

Raphael’s celestial imagery is highly dramatic. Unlike the art of one such as photographer Thomas Ruff, which resembles passionless astronomical charts, Raphael’s space images are deeply emotional, even melodramatic. It is worth remembering that their source was NASA photographs broadcast on educational television. Television producers had selected these images for their visceral impact on the general public. As one might expect, they are breathtakingly beautiful, eliciting feelings of awe for the vastness and complexity of the cosmos. With a background in filmmaking, Raphael understands how to reach a potentially indifferent audience with maximum dramatic effect. He readily accepts the role of dramaturge, one who presents and orchestrates pictorial dramas.

The Space Field series also explores one of Raphael’s favorite themes—the relationship of the infinitely small to the infinitely large, of the microscopic to the macroscopic. His interest in this relationship led him to explore ways of enlarging his Polaroids. He turned to digital technology, using various computer printing devices to produce increase the size of his images. He was drawn to these printing processes because they were popular and accessible to all, much like the Polaroid medium. Some of these large prints are further embellished with metal leaf, exploring how his hand workmanship functions on a another scale. These computer enlargements creates new links in the great chain of interlocking, communicating images.





Michael Zakian, Director, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art

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