Nicholas Croggon, “Absurdity and ambiguity” | About Madness, monograph, Beijing, 2011

Nicholas Croggon, “Absurdity and ambiguity” | About Madness, monograph, Beijing, 2011

The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.
-Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

Ariel Hassan’s art is about ambiguity, and about the task of wresting meaning from its clutches. The most fundamental achievement of Hassan’s works is that they constantly achieve this aim with such elegance and grace, despite the seething complexities that lie just beneath their surface. The other key achievement of his work is to do so with a precise timeliness; an acute awareness of the historical period within which his works’ encounters with ambiguity take place. In considering Hassan’s work, ambiguity must therefore always be taken in its temporal sense, contingency.
Hassan is truly an artist of the 21st century. His biography is a picture of globalised nomadism. Growing up in Argentina, he subsequently moved to Spain, where he held his first exhibition in 2003, and then to Australia, where he now lives half the year, living the other half in Berlin, Germany. Hassan works across multiple media: although principally a painter, he produces sculptures, photographs and installations, as well as works that mix all of these. Most significantly, Hassan marks his timeliness by situating himself as an artist, and most particularly as a painter, at the end of a long century of art, and at the beginning of a new century full of possibility. It is importantly from this unstable yet promising point in time that Hassan presents his attempts at meaning.

1. Painting
It was in the early 2000s that Hassan first began producing the canvases that now most clearly characterise his work. These paintings appear, at first, to be works of painterly abstraction in the grand tradition: brazen colourful swirls of marbled acrylic paint, fluid organic forms and large canvases. But Hassan’s deployment of painting and abstraction in these works is far from naïve. On the contrary, as will become clear, it is precisely the complexities and contradictions arising from this tradition that become, ultimately, the very subject of his paintings, and the plain on which the battle for meaning takes place.
The Electronicfluids series of 2001-3, first shown at the Convento de Santo Domingo de Teguise in Lanzarote, and then later in 2006 at Greenaway Art Gallery in Adelaide, comprises the earliest instances of these paintings. Hassan’s impetus for this series of roughly two by two metre paintings came from the idea of superconductivity: a quantum mechanical property that allows an electrical current to move through a particular material at a constant and even flow. This notion of fluidity is played out visibly in the canvases. ‘Internal Riots’ (2002), a painting characteristic of this series, appears as though paint has been poured across its surface: earthen tones of brown and purple eddy and flow, skirting around blobs and bubbles of pink, white and light blue. While the composition possesses a balance of forms and line, the clear movement of the painting is across its surface, pushing fluidly against and beyond the unframed edges of the canvas. Yet despite the expressive appearance of this painting—also suggested by the painting’s title—a closer look reveals that the painting lacks the texture and material depth one would usually expect from heroic painterly gestures or poured paint. Instead, it becomes clear that Hassan has created the impression of fluidity through meticulously executed detailing, rendering even the most naturalistic curves with tiny crystalline shapes. In short, the fluidity of these forms has been formulated, not found.
In the Electronicfluids series, and in the works that resemble and continue this line of thought, such as the dark fleshy paintings of the TBMKF series of 2004-9 or the more recent Ghostpaintings of 2010, what becomes ultimately visible to the eye of the viewer is the breathtaking amount of labour involved in the making of each painting. What remains invisible, and requires further explanation, is the equally extraordinary process that Hassan follows to execute each new work. To give an outline of this process is difficult, as it changes slightly with each new series of paintings, however its basic structure is as follows: Hassan begins by randomly dripping different colours of paint onto small planes of glass. Once the paint has hardened, he selects one of the glass planes to form the basis of a painting. Hassan makes this choice on subjective aesthetic grounds, looking for patterns that are well-balanced, with interesting forms; he then scans the selected glass pane into a computer, making small manipulations to its colours and composition, until he ends up with a digital composite, which is then printed. Hassan then transposes this small printed image to a large canvas, usually by drawing on the shapes with pencil, and then filling in the colours. The entire process can take several months for one canvas. The marbled appearance of the final product is thus explained as being an enlarged, manipulated and painstakingly deconstructed reproduction of the image found in the original glass plates. Hassan never allows the labour of painting to stand alone—it is always conditioned and preceded by its conceptual other, process. Indeed, Hassan’s matching of labour and process deliberately references the ‘process art’ of 1960s, American-European art—the moment in which this distinction was suddenly made meaningful.
What are we to make of Hassan’s almost excessive, yet invisible, investment in process? The process outlined above amounts to a feverish oscillation between chance and subjective intervention: each point of randomness (the drips of paint on the glass, the use of the image as a model) is matched by an exercise of personal aesthetic judgment (his choice of the glass pane to use, his subsequent manipulations). For this reason, the critic Ian North has described Hassan’s work as ‘intelligent abstract expressionism’: in other words, an art historical hybrid in which Hassan mixes expressive characteristics reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionism of painters like Jackson Pollock, with a complex and highly refined structure more akin to earlier modernist painters like Piet Mondrian. Such a reading is given strength by works such as ‘Mathématiques Modernes’ (2010), a vinyl floor work in which his usual marbled abstractions were overlaid with a repeated grid pattern.
However, Hassan’s relationship to the history of 20th century painting is more sophisticated than this. Hassan’s dogged insistence on such an increasingly complex—a process which has its own art historical resonance—suggests that Hassan’s desired end-point is not simply a blend of two or more different art historical moments into a single work. As has been argued by writers such as Yves Alain-Bois, painting in the latter half of the 20th century is no simple matter: it is a task that is always ghosted by the claims and ambitions of the painting that preceded it and, in particular, the claims that in the abstract paintings of 20th century modernism —Pollock, Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich—painting achieved all it was ever capable of achieving. And yet, despite its alleged triumph and death, painting continues. For this reason, painting today is always wracked by the anxiety of history. Hassan, through his complex and contradictory process, tackles the anxiety of painting in the 21st century head-on, making it the very form and texture of his paintings.
This point is made explicit in Hassan’s recent series, Ghostpaintings, shown at Greenaway Art Gallery in 2010. These paintings have similar swirling colours and forms of the Electronicfluids and TBMKF paintings described above, although executed with even greater finesse and skill: earthy purples and pinks mix with lurid blues, purples and swathes of white. The difference is that Hassan has equipped each work with a pair of moulded, claw-like feet, bringing them off the wall and allowing them to stand free in the gallery space. The simple reading here is that, despite its purported deaths, abstract painting today still has legs, and can stand by itself. Indeed, the viewer is invited to confront this reality, to walk around the canvas and see the exposed untreated wood of its stretchers. But the titling of the series also warns that although such paintings are real, they are also always ghosts of paintings past, and by interacting with them the contemporary viewer must simultaneously confront painting’s life, death and afterlife.
Through his foregrounding of the death of painting, and the exaggerated use of process, Hassan confronts the history of abstract painting as a given, something to be painted into the painting itself. In this way, Hassan’s work draws comparison to certain painters from the 1980s, such as the Americans Peter Halley or Philip Taaffe, who used abstraction in a similarly detached, objectified way. Indeed, Taaffe’s use of a marbled painting overlaid with structured motifs is aesthetically quite similar to Hassan’s. However, Hassan’s painting of abstraction is not motivated by the despair or ironical detachment that drove painters in the 1980s: Hassan invests too much sincere effort into the labour and process of each painting for this. Rather, Hassan is interested in painting with and through abstraction, setting its histories and contradictions off against each other within the texture and form of the painting itself. Hassan’s aim is not an ironic critique of painting’s history, nor a deluded attempt at a new beginning, but rather an exploitation of the anxiety and contradiction inherent in the historical context of the act of painting itself.
Hassan’s calculated use of abstraction can be seen clearly in his most recent series of paintings, About Madness (begun in 2011), which so far comprises three of his ‘signature’ paintings, this time in a highly de-saturated, almost black and white palette, and six paintings in which his usual swirling texture has been fragmented into triangles, and overlaid with large ghostly silhouetted letters emanating out of expressive white brushstrokes. In these works Hassan plays off, and plays with, some of the key conflicts of 20th century painting: abstraction vs. mimesis (the paintings are mimetic reproductions of abstract models), photography vs. painting (Hassan’s use of photographs of previous paintings as the basis for the new ones, and the photographic black-and-white-ness of the three initial paintings of the series), and the structure of the grid (Hassan’s use of the triangle).
As with his painting process, Hassan’s selection of words in the text paintings is both structured and haphazard. He has selected the words randomly from passages of philosophical texts, resulting in a newly poetic turn of phrase. The legacy of text painters like Christopher Wool and Lawrence Weiner in these works is clear. However, true to form, in these works the practice of painting words onto a primed canvas is inverted—Hassan has instead painted around the letters, allowing them to emerge from the background behind. Significantly, while the use of randomly generated but poetically resonant text is new to the surface of Hassan’s canvases, it has been present for some time in his titles. Hassan’s transposition of text from his titles to the content of the paintings is, in fact, emblematic of his practice as a whole: it denotes the practice of transforming the context of painting—its outside, its history—into the subject of the painting itself.

2. Sculpture
Hassan’s painting, then, is a complicated layering out of the complexities and contradictions inherent in the medium itself. But, we may ask, to what broader end? To answer this question it is necessary to look at Hassan’s broader interests, which stretch far beyond painting and its histories, to science, biology and mathematics. These concerns, checked in the titles and stated inspirations for many of his works, point to his insatiable desire to understand the physical and conceptual structures of the world, its underlying forms and dynamics. The need to situate this understanding within a historical moment is also what spurs Hassan’s interest in philosophers such as Hegel and Adorno.
The problem today, as Hassan is acutely aware, is that contemporary science is increasingly providing models of reality that are of an unyielding and often irrational complexity—a complexity that subverts not only our intuitive sense of how things are, but that at times fundamentally surpasses our human capacity to understand. Contemporary scientific theories of loop quantum gravity theory and string theory challenge us to conceive of realities far beyond our powers of perception, at both the micro level, in the object relations that structure the minutiae of our physical bodies, to the macro level, in the explosions and implosions of universes and time-systems far beyond, before and after any instances of human existence. What role could the objects of visual art possibly play in the figuring of such realities?
It is precisely this problem that is articulated through Hassan’s sculptural works. Hassan’s BC (2008-2010) series features sculptures based on a crystal of human haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body (‘BC’ stands for blood crystals). These sculptures, each varying in shape and size, are constructed from small painted wooden units based on the complex geometric shape of the haemoglobin. The resulting sculptures have a cool formal elegance, drawing comparison to works of minimalist sculpture. However, the complex geometrical structure of the sculptures convey a clear message that distinguishes them from these predecessors: the realities of our physical existence require more complex models than the basic shapes that dominated modernist art, namely, the square, the triangle and the circle.
These sculptural works, however, also carry a more unsettling message. In attempting to portray life, the sculptures can ultimately only portray death. Frozen into a stable structure, the haemoglobin become blood crystals, and the life-giving flow of blood stops. A similar message is conveyed in the paintings that form part of the BC series: to the extent that their purplish tones represent blood flows, they depict the arrest of that flow. In this sense, Hassan’s sculptures and paintings are always momento mori, a point made more explicitly by earlier series from 2004-9 entitled TBMKF (an acronym for ‘the blood must keep flowing’), which included a number of works featuring anatomical references including the human skull. At the macro level, Hassan drives home the point of art’s mortality even more bluntly. In his 2010 show at Greenaway Art Gallery, Today all your plans are going to be successful!, the viewer was greeted by a shower of meteors arrested mid-flight, flagging that the physical forces that structure our universe could annihilate us in a moment.
The challenge for the artist, Hassan’s work suggests, is to somehow use art’s static material forms to represent reality in its true dynamism. As with his painting, Hassan achieves this through the exploitation of a 20th century art method: the series. It will by now have become clear that Hassan’s oeuvre is structured not by a linear trajectory of individual works, but rather by a number of temporally overlapping and thematically interlocking series, each comprising an open-ended number of works. As the writer John Coplans has argued, the series is a structural invention of the 20th century, emerging in the late 1800s with artists such as Monet, as well as mathematicians such as the inventor of set theory, Georg Cantor, and rising to become a key function of artists such as Mondrian and Frank Stella. For Coplans, the key possibility opened up by the series is the ability for meaning to be stretched across a number of works, rather than being forced to rest in any single work: the micro structure of each work is able to blend seamlessly into the macro structure of the series itself.
Hassan uses the series in precisely this way. In the BC series, and more recent series which employ the same haemoglobin structure, the geometric shape of the blood is shifted and transposed from work to work, changing form and shape each time, mimicking the constantly flowing and dynamic nature of its subject. In this sense, the blood does keep flowing. Importantly, as Coplans explains, the series does not ever presuppose an end to the series, and in this way meaning in Hassan’s works never rests. As with his use of process in his paintings, Hassan’s sculptures exploit and exaggerate the modernist conception of the series until it is heightened to become the elementary content of the work. In both painting and sculpture, the ultimate aim is to represent the complex fluctuations of physical and art historical reality, not in dry static terms, but in the heat of the flux that defines them.

3. Politics
As a true artist of the contemporary period, Hassan’s work is not restricted to any one medium: although primarily a painter, he uses sculpture, photography, installation and various blends of these to achieve his aesthetic ends. Similarly, as a contemporary artist, Hassan is also acutely engaged with the political ramifications of these ends.
Hassan’s HFV Project of 2005-8 is a series of black and white photographs showing head and shoulders portraits of 15 young models on a black background. Superimposed onto the faces, the artist has layered the churning marbling of his paintings. The eyes of the faces blink out whitely from the abstract swirls, gazing steadily at the camera or ponderously into the distance. The acronym ‘HFV’ stands for hypothetical future value, an economic term used when determining the present value of, for example, a company, on the basis of its future earnings. In this sense, HFV Project is a cynical musing on the value of youth in today’s society—youths seen as a function of the future capacity to earn and produce. But this work also envisages a more positive potential. The blending of youthful faces with the abstraction of his paintings allows Hassan to figure abstraction in overtly political terms as a condition of emergence, a state of radical possibility. The economic rationalisation of the future into the present is, in the young hopeful faces, replaced by the abstract emergence of the present itself. Importantly, such emergence does not occur alone. The HFV Project is, as with all Hassan’s work, a series, and so each singular portrait is in fact part of a group of portraits. In this way, the series also undergoes a political transformation to become the artistic figure for the community.
The politics of the HFV Project are taken a final, and crucial, step further in what is perhaps Hassan’s most elegant and sophisticated work to date, the series of eight mirror-boxes entitled We were faster than life–oh how we laughed–this was all the life on Earth (2010-1). In each of these works the viewer is confronted with a chrome-plated mirror box, reminiscent of a bathroom medicine cabinet. After a period, thanks to a light diffuser planted behind the one-way mirror, an illuminated negative of one of Hassan’s abstract paintings comes slowly into view, lingers for moment, and then slowly fades away again.
Unlike the photographs in the HFV Project, the abstract shape that comes into view is not based on a human face. However, the forms, proportions and composition of the shape as it emerges out of the mirror bear an eerie resemblance to the face it reflects back. The abstract forms in the mirror are not faces but, more correctly, uncanny masks. In these works, the notion of abstraction as emergence is rendered literally, in real-time. This emergence takes place not only in front of, but in fact involving, the viewer’s face. In a radical, because dynamic, update of the notion of art as the reflection of life, Hassan’s mirror works enjoin the viewer to take a stance in relation to their own emergence, to participate in the ungraspable flux between clarity and abstraction that, as demonstrated above, characterises not only the historical inheritance of painting in the 21st century, but also the conditions of our own physical existence in the world.

To return to, and build upon, the quote with which this essay began:
The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won. Absurdity challenges every ethics; but also the finished rationalisation of the real would leave no room for ethics; it is because man’s condition is ambiguous that he seeks, through failure and outrageousness, to save his existence. Thus, to say that action has to be lived in its truth, that is, in the consciousness of the antinomies which it involves, does not mean that one has to renounce it.
-Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity
Contemporary art, arriving at a time after the clear certainties of modernist art, and when the models of reality offered by science are more weird and irrational then art itself, is constantly dancing the line between the ambiguous and the absurd. Yet, as de Beauvoir’s words explain so concisely, it is the distinction between these two extremes that is what allows us to grasp in some way the terms of our existence, and the ethics of how to exist. At base, Hassan shares a similar philosophy. Hassan’s work constantly toys with ambiguity. Indeed, as we have seen, Hassan quite deliberately chooses complexity and contradiction as his very subject matter—from the anxieties and contradictions of the history of painting, to the fluctuating infinities of our bodies and the universe, to the flickering conditions of our emergence into political life. Hassan does this as a way of tackling the fundamental questions: what does it mean to be making paintings, or any art, today? And what can such art offer as a model of the world? In the end, Hassan’s work provides us with a number of elegant, intelligent but, importantly, inconclusive answers.

1 Citadel, New York, 1976, p129.
2 Ian North, ‘Subjective Satellite’, exh. cat. for Internal Relationships, Greenaway Art Gallery, 2006.
3 Yves Alain-Bois, ‘Painting: The Task of Mourning’, in Painting if Model, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990, pp229-244.
4 For example, the work ‘Today all your plans are going to be successful!’ (2010) takes its title from a variation of a John Giorno poem.
5 See Conrad Shawcross and Robin Mackay, ‘Shadows of Copernicanism’, Collapse, V, pp.121-133.
6 See Martin Schonfeld, ‘The Phoenix of Nature’, Collapse, V, pp.363-378.
7 John Coplans. ‘Serial Imagery’, in Frances Colpitt (ed.), Abstract Art in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, pp.25-47.
8 New York, Citadel, 1976, p129.

this essay is featured in “About Madness”, b&w monograph, 80 pp, hard cover, published by GAGPROJECTS|AURA GALLERY, BEIJING 2011. please do not reproduce without the authorisation of the author.