Saturday, August 25, 2018

Counterbalance: The Clarity of Costas Picadas

"Hyperbola 3", from the Hyperbola series by photographic artist Costas Picadas. (Photo: Odon Wagner Gallery)

“The photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”  Diane Arbus

Welcome to the future history of photography: a utopia of pure images, a somewhat surreal realm in which our presumed yet arbitrary borderlines between the real and the imagined are deftly erased by the aesthetic prowess and technical skill of the artist. These splendidly pale gems are chromogenic prints, colloquially known as c-prints, but they are digital c-prints, where the image content is exposed through lasers rather than chemicals. Created in limited editions of five, with variable scales, and face-mounted to plexiglas, they are also invitations to a fresh kind of visual experience consisting of crystal-clear clarity. What Arbus did for faces and figures the Greek-born and New York-based Picadas seems to do for places and buildings: he reveals their inner essence by scratching gently at their surfaces to unearth their architectural facades, either their secret countenance or their psychic landscape. His dream-like vistas, with portions either fading into or out of optical focus, offer the viewer a whole new and vastly expansive dimension of hidden significance. They are retinal balms that soothe the weary eyes of our digital age, and yet they too are digital gifts, pulling us into the otherworldly architectonic realm of the everyday world we inhabit.

The magical lantern we know as the camera first delivered a shockingly real reproduction of reality as early as 1827 by the French artist Joseph Niepce. But the pioneering Frenchman would likely be stunned by how far his invention had evolved in barely two hundred years of aesthetic alchemy. Another Frenchman, the master interpreter of signs Roland Barthes, has written compellingly, in his Camera Lucida, of the shocking swiftness and alluring charm of photography’s rapid evolution. Within a decade, the replication process would enthusiastically encompass glass plates, tin sheets and paper prints as more and more precise tools for reproduced images. This startling conveyor belt of aesthetic growth continued apace to include depictions of actual movement in cinema, the cathode screen and today’s digital computer terminal: the photograph as a seductive phantom.

Picadas, who grew up in Athens before studying in Paris and eventually gravitating to the ultimate conceptual country of America, is the anti-obscura. He has wholeheartedly embraced the work of art in the age of digital reproduction and masterfully uses technology, including photoshop techniques, to push photography towards its next frontier. Picadas's images, though produced with the tools of a creative technology, ironically hearken back to the camera’s origins in painting, since rather than merely document reality interpretively, they tend more to evoke actuality itself. His three principal bodies of work presented here, the Aether, Hyperbola, and Voids series respectively, all beckon us into a totally familiar and yet utterly alien nexus of humanly inhabited neighbourhoods. They explore a domain constructed from the raw materials of our world yet transmuted through the artist’s imagination into new world, one at once inviting and forbidding in its austere elegance. In tone and composition, Picadas feels like a painter who uses a lens rather than a brush, in order to unveil a sequence of mysteriously lux-collaged urban landscapes whose inhabitants seem to have abandoned their dwelling places and vanished into time.

"Aether 3". (Photo: Odon Wagner Gallery)

His oneiric (from the original Greek word for "dream") vistas provide literal expression of the original meaning of the word photo-graphis: writing or drawing with light, in this case with hyper-precise laser light. These three bodies of work are veritable celebrations of clarity itself as content. I might call him an imagineer, an engineer of images, and his aesthetic agenda is a very straightforward one: “I like to create emotions in the viewer, which are then followed by their asking of certain questions. While considering these questions, the viewer can experience a kind of stopping of time: it is when time stops that magic starts, and with it, the open opportunity for enlightenment begins."

Aether, a classical element in Greek mythology, was thought to be a material filling the lofty regions of the universe above the terrestrial sphere, an upper sky which also filled every speck of matter both in space and throughout time. It personifies the universal substance. The great thing about enlightenment is the fact that it can also often be so damn entertaining, as in the calm splendour of “Aether 3” and “Aether 6,” for instance, with their mysterious dolmen-like stone and ghostly shed with no entrance. These are liminal, or threshold, experiences par excellence.

Hyperbola, in classical mathematics, is a type of smooth curve lying in a plane and is one of three kinds of conic sections formed by the intersection of a plane and a cone. The original Greek word means "over-thrown" or "excessive," as in extremis or at the very limit of potential encounter. “Hyperbola 3” and “Hyperbola 11” each register a cool-headed variety of extremity, however, with their box-like structures confounding the concept of interior or exterior and also offering up a perplexing riddle of reflections.

"Voids 11". (Photo: Odon Wagner Gallery)

Voids, especially the cosmic kind, are vast spaces between filaments which contain very few or no galaxies, and as such they have come to be associated with vacuums or emptiness and space without matter. Far from actually being empty, however, they form the supporting basis for which anything at all ever exists. “Voids 11” and “Voids 4”, throb with the paradox of offering more than one void: a tree, rock and wall interacting with their surroundings and baked by a sunlight so intense it scorches our vision. Likewise “Voids 6” and "Voids 1” also create a theatrical stage set feeling where “the wall” is an actor in a dramatic monologue for stone voices.

For Roland Barthes, each photograph was a veritable “certificate of presence” that embodies time in a spatial manner. Equally true of Picadas is the poetic fact of being a document of absence, in which any trace of inhabitants is withheld. I suspect this is because we ourselves, as the viewers, are the only dwellers in this serene and spooky reverie domain. The scene is never empty per se, since we are always there validating its presence, as in the perennial tree falling in a forest  if no one is there to hear it. (By the way, all the potential human dwellers of these agora-like spaces appear to have collected into one spectacularly funneled crowd in the figure-filled “Hyperbola 2.”) The stillness in these exquisite images makes it difficult for me not to be reminded of the poet Goethe’s charming definition of music as liquid architecture and architecture as frozen music. This artist appears to be exploring what is known as the architectural uncanny, structures both very familiar yet alien, witnessed as in a waking dream using the polysensorial gaze: a visual experience that stimulates both the senses and the intellect simultaneously. Thus, his photographs feel to me like frozen music, since they so clearly examine what Bachelard called the poetics of space.

These three principal bodies of work also convey to us the charm of three other ancient Greek concepts: Apeiron (that which is limitless, boundless, indefinite, and without boundary); Aletheia (a personification of the unconcealed, a symbol of disclosure and truth); and Kairos (meaning the right, critical and opportune moment, there being two words for time, chronos [sequential time] and kairos [the right time for action]). Picadas's images are all about the magic of kairos, perhaps especially the boldly quiet interlopers in this curated selection, the sudden bursts of colour contained in two pieces referencing tachyons, hypothetical particles that move faster than light and contravene the known laws of physics, and quarks, a type of elementary particle making up the constituency of all matter everywhere.

"Quark Tunneling 14". (Photo: Odon Wagner Gallery)

As I see it, as an artist his interest is in how to bridge the gap between inner and outer reality by reestablishing the dynamic equilibrium that governs their relationships. As he puts it, “In my photographs I examine and reveal the ways in which one can freeze both space and time by re-contextualizing different parts of reality and recombining them in new ways. The result is that both objects and even situations can be transformed into a kind of sculpture, providing us access to new knowledge about the nature of our reality.” In keeping with that basic photographic tenet but also uniquely distinguished from it, in the case of Costas Picadas, they are still secrets about a secret, but the less they show us the more we know.

Costas Picadas is represented by the Odon Wagner Gallery in Toronto where an exhibition of his ghostly works is being presented in September.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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