The Rule Gallery has decided to participate in Denver’s Month of Photography by mounting Basic Pictures: Joseph Coniff, which oddly enough is not made up of photos but is, instead, a painting show. And strictly speaking, the paintings aren’t even photo-based, even if one of the steps in the process of making them was digital scanning. That’s because the computer reproduction wasn’t even the final move in production; the finished works were done completely by the artist’s hand and nothing more. There are only six paintings that comprise this show, with all of them being a different if closely related rumination on a single idea.
Joseph Coniff earned a BFA at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design where he studied with “Mr. Drop City” himself, Clark Richert. Though Coniff's lyrical approach to painting is quite different from his mentor’s mathematically-based method, they do both share something—a taste for conceptual abstraction.
Gallery co-director Valerie Santerli explained the elaborate process Coniff undertook to create the pieces in this series using the painting “Four Flowers” as a kind of Rosetta Stone. For this body of work, Coniff began by creating an accurate rendering of a flower. Then working reductively, he drew subsequent renditions, each of which was simpler than the one that had come before it. Eventually he wound up with a freely scribbled image of a flower that’s stylistically a cross between a Warhol and a kid’s drawing. He did these drawings conventionally, using a black Sharpie on a sheet of white paper.
Coniff took the ultimate version of these Sharpie drawings and scanned it into a computer program. Once it was converted to a digital file, he then shifted it from black-on-white to white-on-black. He also manipulated it so that the single image of a blossom was multiplied to make an overlapping arrangement of four copies of the flower-drawing. The resulting quartet of images became the individual components of a pattern. The resulting computer image of the four flowers was used as a study for the painting that was carried out in acrylic and enamel pigments. (Just to be clear, “Four Flowers” is not a painted digital print, but a free-hand painting that used the digital image as a study.) This painting is thus an interpretation of a series of earlier interpretations that started out as a simple flower in nature.
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The other paintings in Basic Pictures continue the on-going process of interpreting earlier interpretations (it’s called hermeneutics.) “Four Flowers (in detail)” is a zoomed-in view of part of “Four Flowers,” as is “Four Flowers (in greater detail),” though the part he’s blown-up is different. Again, a digital sketch was made first, and then it was painted. As the paintings progress, one coming out of the next, Coniff either removes or adds elements to compositions that can still trace their origins to the first “Four Flowers”, at first directly but then indirectly by the end of the exercise.
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For the last three paintings, Coniff introduced the color yellow, as seen in “Including Yellow,” in which a blown-up version of a fragment of a flower runs across the bottom, while the top has a yellow rectangle on the left, and a tighter, and therefore bolder, detail of one of the flowers, on the right. The details have an abstract expressionist quality, with the passage on the top right in particular looking like it’s in homage to Franz Kline. “Including Yellow (in detail)” turns the composition into a geometric abstraction, with two gray blocks of color adjoining a yellow one. Only a tiny curved wedge of black refers back to the flower image. The rectangles of color represent a tip of the hat to minimalism, with this stylistic touchstone being carried to its ultimate expression in “Including Yellow (in full detail)” which is nothing other than an evenly painted yellow field.
It’s certainly common for artists to create a series of related pieces, but it is somewhat more unusual for them to do it by deconstructing a single image, as Coniff has done with “Four Flowers” and the works that came out of it. I’m not sure the exhibit Basic Pictures should be seen as being a full-fledged part of the Month of Photography, though I understand the gallery’s logic in arguing that it is. While these works are paintings, it is the essential element of the digital scanning, which is akin to taking photos, that is a key to their creation, and to their success.
Basic Pictures: Joseph Coniff is on view at Rule Gallery through April 15. Rule is located at 530 Santa Fe Drive. Call 303-800-6776 for more information.