The Blindness of Ommateum
Before starting the discussion of Gao Ludi’s artistic practise, I have, from the beginning been abducted or tempted by a certain route of thinking: Before starting to compose this text, out of the blue, I decided to tell the story in reverse. That is, to start from the “conclusion”, although I had no idea then what the ending–or even the starting point—would be, let alone the distance between the two, and the leap it would take to bridge the two. This is more or less a form of inverted detective story: To me, the artist stages in his painting a “crime scene”, as if demonstrating the final outcome of a “crime” regarding painting—you will even be able to find, should you focus on certain details, the artist’s long, cruel, obsessive tortures of this form of art, leaving “evidence” of his crime scattered everywhere; the historical institution and grammar of painting is here dismembered, shattered, and unidentifiable, attached onto which is the artist’s heavy gaze, fingerprints, and the complicated traces of new “criminal” apparatuses. I, on the other hand, have to tread lightly, placing myself in the scene, and forced to imagine and deduce the whole of the “murder” gradually, detail by detail. If the historical mission set by Yves-Alain Bois for paintings from the 1980s onwards was a “difficult task of mourning” a total, irrevocable decay, then Gao’s generation of contemporary painters seemingly is at the moment of reversing the mourning, transforming it into a celebration for the further “appropriation” of painting. The new historical mission they are attempting is exactly the constant “putting to death” of painting: “putting it to death”, constantly, anew; putting it to death “simultaneously” in different moments in time–atemporally. In this sense, contemporary painting is made a “dead” art that is always fresh and energetic, and maybe by assuming this identity, it can, from this moment on, escape from the destiny of zombification that happens in the loop of “death” and “resurrection”.
In an exhibition of Gao Ludi’s paintings, you will first realise that the gallery room is filled with unnamable structures, shapes, and colours, and that a simple label cannot fully describe the work; the formal aspect of a surface comes from an irregular “silhouette” that is itself a slice of reality and “forcefully” placed behind a screen or a filter. One may say “silhouette” or in fact “structure”; this reminds me of David Joselit’s discussion of Duchamp’s 1912 Le Passage de la vierge à la mariée, wherein he explained his concept of a “passage”. To Joselit, “passage” is the infrastructure of modern paintings: “…a continuous, organic infrastructure out of which any number of effects might emerge. In other words, the painting consists of pure relationality without beginning or end.” “Passage” relates to apparent in various material elements in the painting, and it connects the trace to the artist’s subjective handling of the canvas. The passage, therefore, becomes the channel through which the internal interchanges with the external, the subjective interchanges with the objective—in classic modernist paintings, for instance, a passage is formed between the powerful, expressive subject of the artist and the pure form of anti-representation; due to the operation of painting, this passage that comes to the foreground between the persons and the things portrays those elements’ reconciliation and motion. Joselit further proposes that, via “a passage of force through matter” comes one of the greatest inventions of modernist painting: subjectobject. In late abstract expressionism, however, force in the passage gradually becomes “speed” or “velocity”, and this complicates the sign system that was initially pure. Additionally, temporality starts to transcend the spatial demarcation that separates the internal from the external of the painting, and becomes itself a passage that is more significant. In Pollock’s works, for instance, two temporal passages are made possible, at once, as a result of the artist’s exploitation of a unique sweeping technique: The dynamic of a painting as such comes from the fact that it is a visual event that is a sudden compression of itself into a moment of a lot of material handling. Or, the other way around: In the continued, intensive interchange of signs, the painting is infinitely forming, apparently endless—these two affective times that are going in totally opposite directions are simultaneously at work in Pollock’s paintings—the temporal instance par excellence of modernist painting.
After abstract expressionism, seemingly it becomes difficult for painting to maintain its Greenbergian integrity and medium specificity. Instead, it dwells upon a post-medium state of self-reflexivity—now with the acknowledgement that modernist painting is occupied with its own historicity; all “passages” have become historical knowledge’s or art history’s “tour guides”; the “zero degree” canvas that is the quest of the “abstract” is now fully covered by systematic constructions. Anxious on its path to perpetual self-renewal, Douglas Crimp says, modernist painting reveals and amplifies its logical tendency of reduction and reaching a final destination.  Post-medium emphasis on deconstruction, on the other hand, merely intensifies painting’s endless debates and struggles with its own convention. Painting, therefore, falls into a pit of discursive medium. How should painting work, after reaching the “end point”? How can it avoid being a zombie on the wall, and operate again as an active medium? Perhaps, contemporary painting can only initiate a new phase in a “network” that is formed by various intersecting “passages”, by placing itself between the networks, yielding itself constant transitions, dislocations, and activations. Only in such a fashion can painting again arrive in the immediate present, and, at once, be beside itself.
A number of paintings shown in Gao Ludi’s exhibition at WHITE SPACE BEIJING in 2015 were based on pictures found on the internet and social networks—anonymous, unreasonable, unidentifiable. One could, however, still feel some “historical” elements: “abstract”, “expressive”, or “pop”, that could not be easily expelled. The geometric forms that are either blown up or shrunken; the intensified yet restrained lines and the rich, saturated colours—all these tell of associations with certain historical . However, unlike the classic use of images in paintings—such as Rauschenberg’s “materialistic” appropriation—Gao attempts to establish a passage to another dimension of the pictures, which goes beyond channeling his own vision through either the artist’s subjectivity or the objecthood of the pictures, and even beyond forcing a rendezvous between these two in the plane of the painting—which, in most cases, produces In short, the artist tries to distill a style that pertains directly to his “message”, or a style that is transitivity itself. The message starts with a specific, worldly scene, is then processed and circulated via social networks; arrives at the interface with which the artist encounters it; and, eventually, is presented on the canvas in the form of a painting. During the process, a number of invisible social and digital networks leave distinctive marks on this piece of message—the eventual painting now merely a record or integration of the marks in a certain moment; on the other hand, painting itself is anticipating a place in the perpetual dislocation that is inevitable in a network: a place in the picture/message/product. Gao’s paintings’ response to Joselit’s description of contemporary painting as a “broadcast medium” (in a recent article, he took the description a step further and called “painting” a “live medium”) is this: Not only is painting spreading its own historical discourse, but it is also operating as an agent, playing a part in a larger network, and at once, simultaneously, feeding this operation back into the system of painting—compelling us to reconsider the existing definition of the internal of the painting. “Abstract” and “expressive”—are these specific to and only specific to painting? Isn’t transmission itself capable of being “abstract” and “expressive” (for instance, the “search by image” function available online, or the image rendering technologies provided by Photoshop)? Upon observing Gao’s multifaceted handling of pictures from social networks, must we then only produce judgments from painting’s perspective? Must we not also acknowledge the various elements with which the transmission takes shape—human/non-human, subject/object, social/technological, for instance—that influence these paintings of distortions? Further, are discussions of “brushstroke”, “the artist’s hand”, or the “bodily aspect”—that is, foundations of medium specificity—still convincing, legitimate?
Furthermore, is it not so that the artist and his subjectivity will have to be altered during the process? In a piece of writing by painter Michael Krebber, the author argues: “In the context of the ‘new spirit of capitalism,’ digital networking, and its socio-cultural effects, the Neo-Expressionist interpellation has grown from an artistic into a social imperative.” It was proposed by a participant of the 2014 MOMA Forever Now roundtable discussion: ”The notion of subjectivity has been changed by the Internet and digital culture in that we are now ‘curators’ of our own influences…Information gathering (research) resulting in strategic positioning has become as big a part of one’s subjectivity as any other social marker or life event.” Under new historical conditions, artists have to face the non-subjective components that are within his or her own subjectivity; be affected by the network; or be placed in a “image obect post-Internet”  condition. At the same time, however, he or she will also be able to, through painting, offer us an image with a social life. We can imagine an artist facing the social images: While he or she will be attempting to put experiences and creative skills into practise, he or she will also be touched by the socialised aspects, affects, and possible narratives embedded deep within the image—and “to paint”, perhaps, is exactly the critical moment when he or she struggles with such indecision.
Gao Ludi has recently finished a new painting called Airport (2016). It may be the largest paintings of Gao’s that I have seen; the artist seemingly is obsessed with the motif of the airport, as we have seen a number of existing paintings by the same prolific artist which feature the same motif—though those paintings are much smaller, and therefore appear to be studies for this larger work, or “details” of it. Reading these pieces all together makes things more interesting. Taking the three smaller works as a whole, we see the picture is effectively the spatial relationship between the runway and what is above it, and the two are clearly separated. The rigorous geometrical separation and careful colouring of the runway is in stark contrast to the cheaply digital, cloudy area of colours. The former gains horizontal, extended tension (the zigzag and the arrow-shaped coloured area in Airport C and Airport B especially reinforce such an effect), and the latter brews an illusion of departing from the former, vertically. The whole picture therefore gives birth to a strange sense of speed and of perspective, as if the “Airport” is stretched by horizontal and vertical forces at the same time, possibly moving in both directions—the artist’s signature circular shape here becoming the point at which the whole is balanced. But in the new, large painting, the entirety of the picture appears “speed-less“: it is not because it is stretched horizontally, or that both the sky and the ground are expanded, or even because that the vertical picture is now placed horizontally. Instead, it is because suddenly we are to recognise the special “realist” principle that it observes strictly here: the motion is broken down by the meticulously arranged lines, and the clear cuts between the lines and the coloured areas make the picture proportionate, stable and balanced. Even though there are still strong contrasts from one area to another, the picture remains peaceful, elegant – the only object that has with it an evident sense of motion is the sphere(s) to the right of the painting; because it stays on an angled line, it is going towards the upper right of the painting. If we were to assume that the four paintings of the same motif describe exactly the same place in the same moment, maybe we can conclude that this airport is placed in a state of moving still.
Since viewing Airplane, I have been to the artist’s studio to see the photo after which these paintings were executed. It is just like any other printed cellphone photo, lying on the working table casually, insignificantly, surrounded haphazardly by brushes, paints, and tools. The paintings share with the photo a visual structure; besides the highly individualistic colouring, everything else about the paintings stays loyal to this photo—and as alleged by Gao, “casually”. Judging by the paintings, the photo indeed is careless, even “lifeless”. There is not much composition there, and it is rather dark, with large pixels. But upon close examination, one sees that the paintings resemble the photo’s layering structure and atmosphere; together, they share a moment of “aura”. It is not a sketch in the common sense of the word, of course. It comes close to an experimental visual vivisection with different technologies of examination, due to highly operative, constantly changing locus of the airport. This operation reminds me of László Moholy-Nagy’s claim in the famous Painting Photography Film: “Rather than dying, painting had already been put under the sign of the photography.” To modernists such as Moholy-Nagy, the sequence from painting to photography, then, eventually, to film means a development of motion and progression, and the in-between state of photography places it in a possibility of “dialectics”: “[Photography] ties painting to film, points forward from one to the other, in which the one is at once continued and preserved, transformed and overcome by and in the other.” In other words, this is expanded photography: On one hand, the cellphone picture tries to escape from the historical context provided by painting, such as the laws of composition, image formation, et cetera. On the other hand, it must embrace its medium specificity as a light-sensitive surface. Moholy-Nagy therefore mentions photogram, something like a frame of film, which effectively affiliates photography with film, that is, stillness with motion, and this comes close to the aforementioned moving still.
There is a profound history of painting with assistance from photography. It took a long and gradual development to transition from silver-salt-based photography to film photography, and it also involved the complex visual collaboration between light and man. This comparability brings to early photography a potential, a radicality in terms of the speed of image formation and the scale of observation—apparent in the works of artists, such as some Surrealists, who attempt to abandon the tardiness and imprecision of painting. But contemporary artists like Gao Ludi attempt to, yet again, depart from photography and arrive at painting. From where comes this will? Or, why “paint” a picture, at a time that is infinitely overwhelmingly pictorial?
In my opinion, the four airport paintings create perfectly a metaphor for contemporary pictures. The author of Soft Image points out: ”The moving still is image that displays a paradoxical distribution of stasis and movement via image motion techniques. No longer displaying a fixed view limited by a fixed photographic frame, the digital screen functions as a ‘viewing window’ of a seemingly endless photographic space of which an ever-changing fragment appears within it. But while moving across the screen, the objects remain frozen into their photographic stasis, which means that what is moving here are not the objects themselves but their image: The moving still is both a still image that moves and a moving image that is still.” Cellphone photography, as the most important means of contemporary image production, makes it possible to carry out visual captures of the world. Given our own physical movements, social networks, and easy access to cloud technology, we will also experience half-heartedly that we are carrying the world with us—stillness and motion now absolutely relative. On the other hand, each step of the process of image formation is delivered to us with automatic, immediate digital equipment, and processed and displayed with software. This brings about an utterly “non-human” image, while painting is still fuelled with traces of man’s intervention and fabrication. Photography and painting, therefore, no longer share a basis of collaboration: They are no longer similar to each other in terms of time, speed, and precision. As a result, when a painter “paints” a cellphone photo, or a picture that is a jpeg, he or she faces in fact a “thing” that is utterly objectified—just as is a loaf of bread or a car—and he or she has to grasp the spatio-temporal relationship between himself or herself and the “thing”, but no longer the relationship with the represented content of the photo. Just as Roland Barthes puts it in the famous Le Monde-Objet: “Behold then a real transformation of the object, which no longer has an essence but takes refuge entirely within its attributes.” The world is overwhelmed by photos, and the photos in turn become the only world-object. Gao Ludi’s airport is such: Be it the smaller paintings in motion (though I cannot be certain at the moment whether they are based on a jpeg photo or not), or the larger painting that stands still, the difference between them is not determined by the artist’s specific spatio-temporal perspective, but the live traces or archives of the world in jpeg; regarding a “painterly” expression, besides the artist’s own “sense” and aesthetic handling, the technological aspects of jpeg (for instance, totally digitalised, compressed colours and pixels) are absorbed by the paintings as well. And it forms gradually an invisible but effective system of reference—it becomes natural for the artist to work against the visual effect that is produced as such in photos, or, one may even proclaim that the painter’s task is to, in the language of the plastic art, give birth to a tangible form of a painting of the pixels. As the digital becomes the hegemonic means of observation, and becomes the fundamental apparatus with which the eye and the heart is connected, contemporary painters cannot be onlookers. Their affect regarding the world inevitably enters into a mode of jpeg.
Is it the end or the new beginning of painting? It is like asking whether sketching or still-life is more important, or whether one should work with a raw file or a compressed jpeg file. We are facing merely a new painting object and set, and they are, with their unique properties and standards, already returning to an artist’s creation, Maybe an artist should be starting his or her work by emphasising exactly this, as a new strategy of self-reference. Thomas Ruff’s JPEGs could be a point of reference here. In his series, Ruff compresses a regular digital photo to an extremely small size, then enlarges it to an extremely big one. Each pixel of the jpeg is now fully exposed. Or, in other words, the image disappears in such a process; all that is left is the format. Everything becomes anonymous: Be it the one who takes the photo or the represented content, nothing can be discovered anymore—Ruff perhaps tries to reveal the true nature of image in our time. But does compression necessarily entail loss? Joselit speaks of gain during the process: Meaning accumulates as image loses, regenerates, and further circulates. As demonstrated by Gao’s paintings, we can find anywhere in the world, with any means, a lively way of retrieving a world, though maybe not the original world.
Skulls are proofs of death, and Gao Ludi seemingly is interested in the subject. In the artist’s studio, on a working table, is a model of a skull, shiny because it is made of metal. When I first saw it, however, the first thing that came to mind was a special theme in Western classical still-life: Vanitas. Vanitas focuses on the skull as a symbol of death, surrounded messily and repeatedly by many other objects, such as rotten fruits, scattered instruments, hourglasses, or pocket watches—basically a theatre of depressive objects. Jean Claire speaks of 17th-century Vanitas: “Accumuler les objets, s’en faire une forteresse, bâtir une muraille d’objets inertes et silencieux pour ne pas voir la nuit du monde et ne rien entendre de sa rumeur, tel est le projet mélancolique de qui, sous la richesse apparente, n’entretient jamais que le goût amer de la solitude…” Interestingly, formed on Gao’s working table is a still-life: Surrounding this skull is a number of objects: brushes, pigments, tapes, delivery packs, beer… Haphazardly and silently, they surround this model, not revealing a bit of depression or bitterness, nor are they enclosed or bored. This is the theatre of an industrious artist. His skull model also reminds me of Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007), the luxury that is soaked with pride and glory. The contrast between the Vanitas and Hirst’s piece comes not only from the similarity between the two, but also from Gao’s casual, relaxed, and even retaliatory attitude. Thirdly, I was reminded of Mark Quinn’s Self series. This one might be far-fetched, but I contend: He who is obsessed with and constantly describes faces and heads eventually will try to arrive at he “himself”, the mystery that is he himself.
Gao once talked about his interest in the state of death. But after viewing his skull paintings, I do not think much of this except of his fascination with the particular experience of departing from death to life. The motif of skull, therefore, expresses in his paintings a cheerful sense of vitality. This is especially apparent in the recent Fifty-Five Skeletons: The skulls crowd into a five-story structure that reminds one of a Parisian vault, but emerging from this picture is a layered bustle—and even, thanks to the artist’s meticulous handling of the shapes of the skulls—an illusion of waves. The artist delineates the abstract yet lively individual expressions of the skulls with dots, circles, and coloured shapes, so much so that it looks funny; even those that are not facing the viewer or those that are deliberately left vague are placed carefully in the beauty of the total structure, a beauty of liveliness and elegance.
In other paintings of a singular skull, the relationship between skulls and faces is rendered ambivalent. For instance, a painting titled Face（2016）shows, in fact, a skull. These works are smaller, about the size of a human face. Gazing at these pieces long enough, one is likely to be overwhelmed by a complex feeling; the theme of the paintings becomes serious, all of a sudden: By a twist in time, they become portraits that deal directly with death. One is reminded of Levinas’ solemn interpretation of the double-nature of face: Skull becomes the face of the face, a face of the other that is invisible. It at once resists my regard and power, and seeks a profound association with me—and this gives one chills.
Painting is a blind man’s profession.
The term “Ommateum” comes to mind recurrently since my first visit to the artist’s studio. A sense of ommateum in painting means that the artist’s command of visual expression is incredibly sensitive and broad. He handles with ease new ways of seeing, and—though he is very young—manages to initiate contemporary painting projects that are multifaceted in nature. As Picasso says, a true painter might need to learn to be blinded first. Blinded better, blinded more precisely. This blinding compels new languages, and this means the opening of a truly radical sight.
 Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, The Mit Press, 1993, p.243.
 David Joselit , “Reassembling Painting”, Achim Hochdörfer (Eds.), Painting 2.0: Expression In the Information Age, Munich: Prestel, 2016, p. 169.
 Ibid., p.170
 Charlotte Mullins eds, Painting People: Figure Painting Today, D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2008, p.12.
 Laura Hoptman, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, New York:The Museum of Modern Art, 2014, p. 22.
 David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself”, October, no.130 (Fall 2009), p. 125
 David Joselit, “Signal Processing”, Artforum, vol.49, no. 6(Summer 2011)
 David Joselit, “Making, Scoring, Storing, and Speculating (On Time)”, Painting beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-medium Condition, Isabelle Graw, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth (Eds.), New York:Sternberg Press, 2016, p.12.
 Tonio Kroner, “Ridiculous Creatures”, Achim Hochdörfer (Eds.), Painting 2.0: Expression In the Information Age, Munich: Prestel, 2016, p. 252.
 Carrie Moyer, http://www.artcritical.com/2015/02/09/a-critics-roundtable-on-the-forever-now/
 Artie Vierkant, The Image Object Post-Internet, http://jstchillin.org/artie/pdf/The_Image_Object_Post-Internet_us.pdf
 László Moholy-Nagy , Painting Photography Film, The Mit Press,1973, p.41.
 Carol Armstrong, “Painting Photography Painting”, Painting beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-medium Condition, Isabelle Graw, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth (Eds.), New York:Sternberg Press, 2016, p.133.
 Ingrid Hoelzl, Rémi Marie, Softimage: Towards a New Theory of the Digital Image, Bristol:Intellect, 2015,p. 21.
 Roland Barthes, Essais Critiques, Paris:Edition du Seuil, 1964,p.23
 Jean Clair, Mélancolie. Génie et folie en Occident, catalogue de l’exposition, Paris:RMN/Gallimard, 2005, pp. 202-