La perspective dans laquelle je m’évanouis à mes yeux, me restaure, image complète, pour l’œil irréel auquel j’interdis toute image. Image complète par rapport à un monde sans image qui me figure dans l’absence de toute figure imaginable. Être d’un non-être dont je suis l’infime négation qu’il suscite comme sa profonde harmonie. Dans la nuit deviendrais-je l’univers?”
Maurice Blanchot, Thomas l’Obscure
João Louro’s work is tributary of two presuppositions that seem relevant for the understanding of the complexity of his production a little: a deep distrust in relation to the virtualities of the photographic image as a process of construction of any type of truth about the world, and a belief in the possibilities of language to describe that same world; he simultaneously holds a concomitant and paradoxical distrust in relation to the possibilities of the same language to describe images. The process resulting from this contradictory antimony is the use of language as a possible image.
Over the last twelve years, since the exhibition Blind Runner, which he held at the Lisbon Centro Cultural de Belém, this has been the dominant axis in his work, with extensions ranging from the continuation of the paintings he calls Blind Images, to another typology of works generically titled Dead Ends, besides other developments involving drawing, installation and the use of photography or of film.
Both of these types deal with the issues set out above, albeit in a different manner: the Blind Images are generically mono- or bi-chromatic paintings that incorporate a text placed as a caption for the — non-existent — image as a footnote. The Dead Ends are direction panels which follow the visual grammar of road signs — and which materially belong to the same type — but which replace the indications of directions with references to some major names in western culture, ranging from Nietzsche to Herman Melville, from Wittgenstein to Maurice Blanchot. Although João Louro’s work spreads over other procedures, these are the two permanent axes of development of his production, and in a certain sense create maps of his fundamental references.
At a first approach, the relationship that João Louro has been establishing with the image seems to be left over from conceptual art, particularly of the work of Lawrence Weiner and of Robert Morris in the early nineteen sixties. That is his first matrix of influence in the sense that his training, that is, his base artistic language, is the conceptual tradition, just as it was, contradictorily, defined through the writings of Henry Flynt from 1961 on, later appropriated in the nineteen nineties. The most striking aspect of this less-than-canonical form of understanding the conceptual, duly mixed with a holistic and ironic idea about the possibility of overriding theories about-art-and-the-world, is its permeability in relation to countless underlinings of counterculture influenced by the thinking of Guy Débord, who produced, like many European artists of the period — but with particular acuity in Portugal, as we shall see — a more or less nostalgic version about the possibility of Marxism as a global theory, a distrust in relation to the capitalism coming from left-wing thinking and a feeling of the imminent collapse of an artistic system that suggested great expansion over those years that also saw the return of Toni Negri.
The conceptualism that made up the formative language of João Louro’s work is thus a version of art centred on the use of the language that replaced the distrust in relation to the artistic object that had informed the first formulations of Sol LeWitt with a distrust that at the time was much more opportune and was in relation to the pulverising of supports for the image that came to configure a new paradigm at the end of the last century. Curiously, the banalisation of the photographic image that arose from the generalisation of the digital, in a certain manner completing the circuit of setting up a photographic regime that had been developing since the generalised introduction of 35 mm photography in the nineteen thirties, in the end resulted in two concomitant processes in contemporary artistic practices, like two faces of Janus: a massive recourse to informal photography (going from the use of Polaroid to the mobile phone) as a bridge to an immersion in the real and into its vernacular nature; and a pictorialisation of the photographic image that increases after the coming of the wall as a support for photographic images rather than their printing in a book.
None of these processes is of interest to João Louro as revealing of any specific relationship with the real because his focus is on the one hand clearly centred upon the descriptive language of images, knowing that there is no possibility of mutual semantic exhaustion. On the other hand, his distrust in relation to descriptive processes directs him towards the need to use theory as a comprehensive form, albeit converted into a poetic one. This equation becomes more complex if we think that this poetics is only accessible through a text that is not comprehensible as such because it is given to us as an image, or as a textual image and projective image. Thus, distrust in relation to the image is produced through… images; which, when worked upon in the formal strictness that their efficiency as a tableau requires, carry out a permanent to-and-fro between distance and empathy. As if Henry Flynt’s curious ambivalence between the conceptual as a structure and a progressive passion for entertainment here found a formulation smoothed within the intervals between the images of mass culture, their processes of recognition, their suspicion, their erasing and the formality of artistic traditions (the monochrome or the use of language as image).
Let us start then, with the so-called Blind Images. The first issue that these monochrome panels embodying a text (which is hypothetically the caption for a photographic image, often an excerpt from a dialogue from a film or from a book) present is about their nature as an artistic typology. On first consideration they clearly belong to the tradition of painting: they are chromatic entities on the wall that live off their own self-sufficiency as tableaux, in the sense that they comply with the protocols of modern pictorial production. Yet their affiliation is perfectly defined within the tradition of a century of monochrome painting. Yet more: the issues of monochrome production are clearly set out after Rodschenko, but also after the work of Yves Klein, particularly after the paradox of the signifying difference between apparently similar monochromes that he brought about. In order to explain this possible difference, Dennys Riout uses a comparison with the story by Jorge Luis Borges “Pierre Ménard, autor del Quijote,” from 1939, in which Borges invents a literary criticism about a translation of Don Quixote that had become a perfect replica of Cervantes’s novel, yet which was very different from the original, albeit with all the words coinciding. Where would this difference lie? Or, as Yves Klein wrote about an opposite situation, “this true, invisible value makes one of the objects a ‘tableau’ and another not” (referring to a completely alike copy). In any of these cases, this issue refers back to a field in which what is seen is contaminated by what we know and which makes us see the same visual layout in a different manner, even if we place it on a common level due to its physical properties.
The “Blind Images” are uniform chromatic fields, covered over by a glass coating (which is in fact Plexiglas) that transforms them into reflecting surfaces that mirror the room and the spectators who are observing. The chromatic differences between them do not introduce alterations as to their nature, and at most contaminate their relationship with space with a compulsion towards the decorative, although this should be understood on a lower level, referring to Yves Klein’s first solo exhibition in 1955, after which the issue of the decorative element (and its rejection) would come to indicate the path of the exclusive use of blue that would be set down in administrative terms. The question that Louro takes from Klein, far from the Modernist distrust in relation to the decorative aspect, is centred on the locating of the difference between that which is similar; that is, between that which perception as such does not seem capable of discerning, but which is justified by the recurring of the images. Louro resorts to two devices in order to open up the field for this fineness of the difference in the similar: the first one arises from the fiction about a hypothetical phantasmatic image that might be underlying the chromatic plane of the Blind Images, a question that is never made clear because this is irrelevant, but which is turned into something signifying through the juxtaposition of what we insist on understanding as a caption; the second device derives from the first and consists of the inclusion of an Other of the pictorial image precisely in the phantom of the photographic image, or in the archaeology of the photograph as a process of capturing halos, or auras, which caused such a furore in the nineteenth century. That is, the photograph is the Other of the pictorial image of the Blind Images, not only because its memory draws up a whole discourse on the limit of sight and of similitude, a question that is internal to the practice of painting (and which was so well detected by Yves Klein), but also because the covering of the chromatic plane with a reflecting skin makes these paintings closer to photographic surfaces which, however, produce two images: one that is phantasmatic and spectral in nature, and a second one that is physical yet virtual because it is the reflection of the space and of the possible spectators in the room. This is an imitation of the non-fixed optical-photographic process (non-fixed because it is fleeting and contingent, or, as one now says, contextual), in what we might take as a remission to Michelangelo Pistolletto and his use of the reflection. To put it another way, the Blind Images, in their objectural physicality (due to their thickness, like boxes that stand out from the wall in the tradition of objectural painting born out of Minimalism), call up the question of invisibility (because we do not see what is being described to us), but presentify the spectral nature convoked by the text, absorbing the physical space inside them and turning the spectator into a reflection, as a context of the image into what we might understand as irony taken from the discovery of the reflections in the enamel of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings by John Cage in 1951, calling them “airports for light and for particles”, with the astuteness that makes their fleeting nature obvious (“for light”) as well as their inevitably material character (“for particles”). Perhaps exactly due to his intention to locate this limit zone between the visual element and its impossibility, between the projective and the spectral, in this catalogue for the exhibition Blind Images, João Louro included photographs of himself in front of the Blind Images at a distance that is absolutely unsuitable for their overall perception, in a reference to a photograph by the American painter Barnett Newman in which he shows his gallerist Betty Parsons at an extremely close distance that he intended to be ideal for looking at his paintings – to such a point that he wished to place a mark on the floor of the exhibition room for the spectators to use as a guide. This situation, which could not be repeated today because museums place devices on the floor to prevent the spectators coming closer than a distance considered to be safe for the paintings, implied the determination of a gestaltic impossibility in the understanding of the work, and thus an impossibility of exercising overall viewing. In other words, it prevented contemplation, which was passed over in favour of the demonstration of invisibility, or of the rhetorically affirmed exercise of self-contemplation.
This episode, which belongs to the didactic and prescriptive dimension of modern art, although it may be in some way symbolic of the impossibility of totality that is inherent to erasing, always seems to have been recovered with a certain dose of irony, albeit possessing a melancholic dimension that cannot be easily ignored in the way that João Louro appropriates it. In his work the generic question of invisibility (of the work, of the image and of meaning) possesses a melancholic component that can be detected in the gallery of authors who are brought into his Blind Images, but which are also quoted in the enormous distances that separate them from us in the above-mentioned works entitled Dead Ends.
One of the recurring references for João Louro is the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, particularly in the project he is now presenting in Venice. In the first place due to Blanchot’s intensely contradictory character, since being a young, right-wing journalist and opponent of Leon Blum, to being a writer of the Manifesto of the 121 calling for desertion during the Algerian War, or the committed activist during the May of 68, at the opposite end of the political spectrum from his choices during his youth; but also due to the secrecy of his image, the rarity of his physical presence, his voluntary disappearance. Above all, finally, due to the idea of community as an ethical possibility of encountering difference, due to the aesthetic radical nature of his notion of community being irreducible to similarity, thus forced to face the Other. This fascination for Blanchot, originated by an interest in the process of disappearing – added to by the interest in Rimbaud, another evanescent and fatuous image, only recently brought back to us in a vision of maturity for the voyeurism of the Internet – establishes an iconic possibility (and this appreciation is in itself sufficiently ambiguous) that could only be read through a production of continuums of blind allusions, identified on the canvases by the caption of the disappeared image, to a point that dispenses with the reflecting surface that would swallow up the spectator and the space. Only the matt opaqueness of a pictorial surface would suit the allusion to Blanchot, building a sort of becoming-image, that is, a note that rejects the photographic metaphor itself present in the other Blind Images, particularly because in alluding to Blanchot it would be indifferent to return the image when what is at stake is the abyss of difference.
However, on the level of the relations established by João Louro, the question of disappearance, if this possesses the connotation of blindness or of invisibility, it also possesses another dimension in the field of the obnubilation of comprehensive sight, or of the very possibility of comprehension, whether on the individual level as loss of awareness due to immersion into an altered state of perception, or through the presentation of moments in history in which reason or the possibility of comprehension waver, more in relation to the accidental than to terror. His interest in the psychedelic (not necessarily in the psychedelic movement) is that of an observer interested in the processes that both on the level of the individual and also on the level of human groups set up stages of aggregation from hypothetical sharing of perceptions that do not come from the world – from the real – but from other realities that in certain collectively-experienced situations are formed as objects of sharing, as fleetingly utopian stages of establishing small collective orders that are neither rational nor organic. In the mutually commutative possibility of their order of thinking, the emerging of the Antonioni of Blow Up, of Timothy Leary or of the music of La Monte Young belong to the same stage of slipping away of the historical level of establishing comprehensive views of historical accidents or civilisational disasters. The only possibility for understanding this is the development of maps, of hypothetical topographic charts. These charts, however, are never presented, because their presentation would need a definition of their rationality, a topographic lexicon, a representational grammar and, above all, a geography.
João Louro’s option, which is necessarily fragmentary because it excludes the possibility of the global in favour of the locating of never-systematic connections, was that of replacing the map by direction signs, and doing so by using the road system. In the first place it is curious to note that, unlike the tone set in the archive and the atlas that has invaded artistic and discursive practices about art, the sign indicating direction is produced for a wandering agent who is on foot, in a space in which he moves. These signs (bluntly entitled Dead Ends and thus removing any hope of redemption from the exemplary names they contain) stand as indications that provide alternatives and always propose decision-making, as such being machines for the exercising of autonomy — no matter how much this autonomy might be overshadowed by the bitterness of the inevitability of failure.
Also present in this typology is a determined memory of a journey through the models of the epic in cinema and literature, particularly based on the mythology of travelling – the journey – as in itself being the instant of producing transformation; that is, the journey is not a trajectory but a transit, and this transit brings about change. In this way of being able to think of the processes of individual and collective transformation as journeys there is a recurrent appropriation of the imaginary of travelling just as was established in Walter Benjamin’s fragmentary and peripatetic process in Tierganten, but also – and above all – in the epic of space reset to the dimension of the modern hero in Jack Kerouac, in the music of Bob Dylan in Highway 61 Revisited, in photography and film in Robert Frank, in the literature of Ken Kesey or in the Godard of One Plus One. In any of these cases, movement in space is a form of transmutation in a direction that is not reducible to a discourse because it does not come from a point of view but from a succession of decisions about changing route. “Furthur” was the word written on the mythical bus of the Merry Pranksters, symbolic of the ‘going beyond’ that underlies the ideology of “expansion” (as in “expanded cinema”, in “expanded dance”, or generically in “expanded field”) that runs through the whole field of the psychedelic and later on influences the art of the second avant-gardes. It is to this process that refer the road signs that place us always far from any reference, far from any centre, because its signs, seen as being a permanent possibility of turning back, hint at distances that are almost always too great — or those that are necessary for the journeys to become epics. These signs, although using a clear and commonly recognisable visual grammar, aim at other recognisable grammars (now inside the world of art), namely the use of Photostats and neon in Kosuth (in a grammar coming from typography and street advertising), or text in Lawrence Weiner (in a visual grammar that recalls the spatial vitality of the Russian avant-gardes).
Once again his device is a palimpsest of relationships that are at one moment affirmed as self-standing (an almost always ironic statement in the case of the Dead Ends), and on other occasions refer to a mise-en-abîme of memories of other uses of related linguistic devices.
What is interesting in the works that make up this Venice project is that the whole visual-grammatical and semantic question is permeated by another instance: that of painting as such.
In that sense the linguistic question becomes dealt with as image, but of a specific, pictorial type, yet outside the monochrome as a historical typology, but delving into the expressive tradition of painting. Or at least as if it delved into that tradition to introduce a new layer of semantic, aesthetic, ontological and poetic possibility. The introduction of painting in the communicational structure of the Dead Ends also adds a new thickness of meaning, in the sense that the painting is returned to a distanced dimension, as an image. It is thus the construction of a complex axis of paths that go from language to its use as a replacement for the image, then to its re-appropriation as an image, the reintroduction of painting as image and the distrust in relation to it (to the image, of course) in a circuit taken viciously as a dead end.
Once again his process is to make the artistic process swing on a thin axis between pleasantness and distance, between metaphor and erosion, melancholy and irony.
The key term after all is melancholy: how can we deal with a world in which the erosion of meaning of the images only allows erasure as a response? And if the erasure is only possible through mutual neutralisation? And if language serves to replace images? And if even so it does not serve to describe the world?
Perhaps in some words there is a secret, perhaps not; perhaps in some image a word is hidden, perhaps glamour might produce some trepidation, perhaps the world can be like a film.
Was he then now to press on regardless now in one direction and now in another or on the other hand stir no more as the case might be that is as that missing word might be which if to warn such as sad or bad for example then of course in spite of all the one and if the reverse then of course the other that is stir no more. Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end