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John Neylon, “Ariel Hassan Walks a Dark Wire” | Adelaide Review, issue 441, November 2016, p42

John Neylon, “Ariel Hassan Walks a Dark Wire” | Adelaide Review, issue 441, November 2016, p42

One of the most powerful tropes of art of the last 100 plus years is that everything is fluid, everything is negotiable. What’s this got to do with Ariel Hassan’s current work?
Everything or nothing – it all depends on what happens when you engage with the works. The exhibition is composed of 30 plus small, framed black and white images and in the adjoining space a video which appears to represent a sped up helicopter view of a flight over canyons and gorges. Individual letters appear at the junction of a split screen image which articulates the same ‘flight’ in mirror action reverse.

Apart from the low sonorous sound track both spaces are hung with a pressing silence. The black and white images are computer jet prints in edition numbers of around 10. Each has a distinctive identity and carry evidence of tight editing. Their aesthetics allows for subtle exchanges of darks, lights, mid tones, textures and patterns which can be readily associated with modernist intaglio printmaking. Where to from here?

A starting point is familiarity with the artist’s practice to date, particularly his method of reworking from existing images to create hybrid forms in which ‘new’ resolutions are embedded with traces of previous states. The engine room for Hassan’s practice, including the works in this current exhibition is a set of personal ideas and instincts derived from a diversity of sources – the artist’s own experiences of being a global creature (growing up in Argentina, living and working in Spain, then Australia and currently dividing his time between Australia and Berlin, Germany) – and world views shaped by critical theory, research and general reading.

Central to Hassan’s deliberations is the question of personal and collective freedom and the choices that need to be made in relation to these idealised states. In this context, Hassan operates as a chameleon-like figure, setting up situations in which the ‘art work’ is fugitive or ambiguous by virtue of purporting to be, or be about, painting when the very process of, for example, copying and extrapolating the original source imagery, then syndicating and morphing this imagery in 2D and 3D, pigment and digital forms, continually challenges the viewer to say ‘here, at this point, this is where the art stops its running and makes its stand’.

But Hassan’s appreciation of what life might be sees fluidity and paradox where others desire resolution. The key features of his practice which involve creating small images of flux, painting these as ‘still lifes’, photographing and scanning details, digital editing the projecting or syndicating components of the original images onto screens and surfaces that sometimes climb of the wall and onto the ceiling or floor all speak of a creative imagination that works in a rhizomatic manner, constantly sending out fresh shoots as possibilities present themselves.

This might suggest unregulated freedom. But time spent in the company of these works reveals otherwise. Hassan has said that “I have rules that are set in place to allow the work to be free”. The OIKONOMIA series, for example, operates on a set of finely calibrated aesthetics. Integral to progressing each image through a series of states is the question of existentialist judgement. Making decisions about what to do next, what to put in or leave out maintains the artist in a state of precariousness, like a high wire performer, conscious of shifts in balance at every step. He talks about fear of comfort zones being “liquefied” or “exploded” which leads to overreliance of sets of rules, popularism and totalitarianism.

The OIKONOMIA series was inspired in part by two etchings from Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings. Hassan’s images share a darkness with Goya’s, visually and conceptually.

There is a political subtext to these works, something that Hassan has sought to handle with care. Allowing any work “to be itself”, as he says, leaves no room for political banner waving. But in this series this balancing act between image and meaning has been taken to precarious limits. Elements of figuration – an arm, foot or a figure – reference human souls cast in some Dantean void.

They have their origins in images sourced from porn sites, which represent for the artist an expression of sexual hunger or desire, which, in the nature of pornographic addiction, deliver only boredom or escapism. As such these images and components of the video, REVERSAL OF CONTINGENCY INTO NECESSITY with its binary dynamic of opposites running from each other, can be read as open-ended metaphors for the fluid relationships that exist between freedom and control in contemporary life. Then again, they might well be ‘of themselves’, “moments of beauty”, as Hassan says, not in their creation but points of discovery.

This exhibition offers a bare boned contemplative experience. Spend time. Don’t demand meanings. You will be rewarded.

Ariel Hassan: Making All Things Equal
Greenaway Art Gallery
Until Sunday, November 27
greenaway.com.au

/ this article was also published online at: http://adelaidereview.com.au/arts/visual-arts/ariel-hassan-walks-dark-wire/

Christopher Williams-Wynn, “Images and their obverse: Ariel Hassan” | Broadsheet Vol44 N1, 2015 – pp46-49

Christopher Williams-Wynn, “Images and their obverse: Ariel Hassan” | Broadsheet Vol44 N1, 2015 – pp46-49

Images and their obverse: The work of Ariel Hassan

Christopher Williams-Wynn

(Broadsheet – Contemporary visual art + culture –  Vol44 N1 – pp46-49)

Contemporary art is a restless chimaera. Having departed from the strictures of modernism and stepped outside the ironies of postmodernism, contemporary art finds itself adrift on a sea of possible forms and subjects.(1) On account of its global remit, and its emergence over the past few decades, it could be regarded as an intimately linked with globalisation. As the Manuel Castells has emphasised, globalisation comprises complex networks that link people, technologies, capital and culture.(2) In the realm of art, this web of forces indicates concerns not just with spectatorship and discourse, but indicates an abiding interest in the circulation of objects and images. There is, in that respect, a resurgence of explicit interest in systems and signs.(3) Not in isolation, but linked with each other, signs constitute and circulate throughout systems, whether discursive or physical, real or virtual, or some combination thereof. David Joselit addresses these concerns in his recent conception of the format as a replacement for the medium.(4) Formatting, he argues, affords the ‘capacity to configure data in multiple possible ways’.(5) It registers the shifts and remediations that occur when art circulates through the circuits of exchange characteristic of a globalised (art) world.(6) The format compacts, or condenses, the sign and the system, the unit of signification and the relations into which it enters.

Viewed in these terms alone, contemporary art appears as an epiphenomenon of global trade. Ariel Hassan, however, follows deeper lines of enquiry. Whether working with painting or photography, sculpture or installation, he finds an affinity with recent thought regarding the capacity for mathematics to describe the fundamental properties of objects. In this respect, his process runs counter to what Quentin Meillassoux terms correlationism, ‘the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being’.(7) There is, therefore, an attempt to uncover ‘a world capable of subsisting without being given’,(8) one that exists but is not dependent upon the human. According to this view, there is traffic between the subjective and the objective, between what forms the content of human experience and what exceeds it. This condition of mobility and change resonates throughout his life and work. Born in Argentina, he lives between Australia and Germany, spending half a year in each country working on projects and exhibitions. His production processes often incorporate elements of both analogue and digital production. These works, in effect, exist as systems comprising signs. While the final signifier might take the form of a painting or photograph, these objects are the result of complex methods of production that enmesh the processes of becoming with the stasis of being, alert to the conditions of their making and the circuits into which they pass.

In Electronicfluids (2001-2003), one of his earliest series, he employs a production method that combines digital processes and analogue presentation, a model further developed in his subsequent Ghost paintings (2010) and series Traces and Determinants (2013). Juxtaposed colours float across the surfaces of these paintings; intense mauves bleed into cobalt blues, fields of fuchsia merge with olive greens. At first glance, these patterns of colour appear meditations on the legacy of the supposedly authentic and subjective outpourings of Abstract Expressionism, or the marbled paintings of Louise Janin or Philip Taaffe.(9) The visual appearance is, however, only part of the significance of the work. Hassan’s production process obstructs any purely optical reading of these works. While marbling traditionally involved laying a material support on colours floating in a liquid bath, Hassan’s process employs the fluid malleability of digital manipulation. His method involved scanning random skeins of paint, before digitally re-configuring their composition, tonal ranges and colour values. Hassan then transfers these manipulated images to canvas through careful brushwork, which inevitably introduces further discrepancies into the chain of images. This production process enmeshes the works in a set of relations between analogue and digital production processes. The signs of gesture are merged with the systems of algorithmically-powered image editing software.

Hassan further develops these concerns with systems in the series of paintings Intrigues of Long Duration (2014). Engaging a similar principle, Hassan digitises traces of paint poured into small, rectangular planes of glass. Following his processes of digital manipulation, the resultant forms are transferred to canvas, where they appear as tendrils spreading across the image plane. In a further step of abstraction, however, Hassan voids the images of colour, turning shares of grey as a means of focusing attention on the structure and line. Instead of forming around any central focal point, these lines of paint trail off the canvas, pointing towards a far larger whole of which they are each only a part. The images signify some larger, unknown system from which they derive. With few visual clues as to the nature of such a system, it falls upon the viewer to interrogate these works, to attempt to discern the networked world of which they are a part.

One means of interpreting these works is to see them, and the complexities of their production, as indices of the processes that drive contemporary society. In their influential book Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that over the past four decades society has been transformed through processes of informatization.(10) Once dominant, industrial production has been displaced, but not entirely erased, by shifts towards an economy of networked computation, what has been broadly described as post-industrial society. In these conditions, work is ‘characterized in general by the central role played by knowledge, information, affect, and communication.’(11) Caught within the network, there is the risk of overstating the dominance of digital production. Tempering evaporation into immateriality, David Harvey posits that ‘capitalist activity is always grounded somewhere’.(12) Hassan’s work finds itself at this juncture. The random dynamics of painterly flows confront the ratiocination integral to computation. Suspended between the supposed immateriality of electronic production and the resolute materiality of concrete objects, his paintings subtend analogue and digital modes of being.

If these works indicate the precarious status of painting as a cohesive and distinct practice, so too are claims of photographic veracity subject to scrutiny in his HFVProject (2007 and 2012). Presented predominantly as black and white prints, these photographs present portraits of young adults. Cropped at the shoulders, and set against a pitch-black background, these individuals gaze into the camera lens with indifferent equanimity. In this respect, the sitters recall the listless stares of those portrayed in Thomas Ruff’s photographic portraits. Their thoughts, backgrounds and their beliefs are unknown, indeed withheld. Hassan’s works, however, forego the grand scale and vivid colour characteristic of Ruff’s works. Hassan also rejects an anthropometric mode of photography. To produce these works, the sitters were photographed in front of a backdrop, which severed the sitters from their external context, while randomised patterns were also placed over their resultant images. While Hassan nods to the modernist desire for the supposed purity of black and white photography, he again introduces elements of abstraction that thwart attempts to penetrate the image.

The HFVProject has also been expanded into installation pieces and moving images. Dark Trough (2008), a rectangular prism constructed from wood used to view images from the series. At one end, a data projector casts images from the series onto a screen positioned halfway along the prism, while the other end is open, allowing the visitor to view the images upon the screen. Set on a loop, at defined intervals a flash of white light bleaches out the image, leaving only its ‘shadow’ on the retina. More recently Hassan has begun to produce short animations based on these images. Undulating patterns glide across the faces, which move gently, their heads turning or eyes blinking. These moving images mimic the gestures of the sitters, silent in their recognitions of being viewed, before retreating behind a white flash that intersperses each animated portrait. This denial of vision, combined with the abstract patterns of organic fluids, points towards recognition of the limits of visibility, a reminder that signs on the surface can only hint at the complex systems that lurk below.

Hassan presses this interplay between the random flows of fluid and geometric structures even further in his series Organic Occurrences Forming Within The Grey Zones Of Pre-existing Regimes (2014). In this body of work, images of fluid paint have been compacted into the proportions of a Fibonacci rectangle, and later dissected by it and by an arrangement of Émile Lemoine’s geometric construction of the golden ratio. The fractured plane of the image struggles to contain a re-ordering of those aleatory fields of paint alluded to in the title. The signs of fluidity and their system of order appear in conflict. Although these twisted forms recall the distorted and contorted bodies and forms in surrealist photographs by Man Ray and André Kertész, Hassan aims at more than formal experimentation and brooks no claims to unbridled liberation.

This interplay of figuration and abstraction complicates the demands typically placed upon photography. Generally, a photograph is taken to accord with that which it represents. It is said to be a document or, even evidence, of its subject. In the oft-cited words of the Roland Barthes, the ‘name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: “That-has-been”’.(13) The photograph, on such an account, is taken to be a trace of that which it depicts, and which is now lost. In the case of portraiture, it is said to refer back to a particular individual, to register their unique countenance. According to a paradigm that understands a privileged, indexical relation between photography and the world, digital manipulation appears to sever this link. Such thinking is open to critique. Braxton Soderman argues that in a world of ubiquitous information technology, digital processing techniques do not rend the connection between image and reality, but testify to it.(14) Digitally altered photographs may therefore offer a means of reflexively engaging with the world, one that entwines physical and virtual environments.

On account of his combinatory production process, Hassan exploits the relation between analogue and digital production once again, inserting specific signs into overarching systems. Across all these faces rest similar, randomised patterns. These images consequently point both towards and away from the individual, to their status as individuals, but also to their imbrication in a mesh of relations. There is, then, a balance between the pull towards a subject, but a recognition that homogeneity looms. In a world of surveillance, ‘Big Data’ and algorithmic prediction, the image always risks becoming another arm of machinery geared towards quantification. The patterns of form indicate the potential for dissolution into uniformity and capitulation to the dictates of structure. Resting on the wall, the works stand as mute witnesses to an array of complex interactions both internal and external to themselves, all the while they resist attempts to subsume them within systems of discourse. Presented at a human scale, the works in Organic Occurrences appear as though portals, as images on the threshold of a realm both of human activity and exceeding it.

Although its effects are crucial to his practice, technology is less a central focus for Hassan and more a means of exploring the philosophical problems that drive his practice. On the question of the analogue and the digital, however, these elements of his work intersect. Alexander R. Galloway has recently posited a re-thinking of analogue and digital modes of thought with recourse to François Laruelle’s anti-philosophy. For Laruelle, at its core philosophy splits the world, it positions the real against its image, thought against action, instance against essence.(15) Galloway develops this thought in relation to the terms of analogue and digital. The analogue, he posits, forges identity between heterogeneous elements: ‘only a baseline heterogeneity, as in the pure multiplicities and generic persons of Deleuze’s and Badiou’s cosmology, can possibly produce the conditions for a relation of the common.’(16) The digital, by contrast, is founded upon equivalence. It is a fundamental sameness borne of ‘a purely homogeneous substrate of standardized atoms’.(17) Because of this fundamental uniformity, Galloway states that ‘the digital relation arises from out of a pure, profane nihilism’.(18) In considering the analogue and digital, questions of relations are paramount. Enacting the procedure of the digital, Galloway divides it from the analogue. Such a move is problematised by Hassan, whose processes blur the boundary between them. It is unclear exactly where standardisation ends and difference begins.

Across and throughout his practice, concerns with various relations play out. Paintings merge with photographs, analogue processes confront digital procedures, and images wrestle with the forces that generate them. He grapples with how difference can emerge from equivalence, and how rationalisation might promise to expand thought even as it threatens to enclose it. As attempts to reconcile these conflicting elements, his works seem almost attempts to exceed themselves, to gesture beyond their own finitude. Although his objects are often singular and distinct entities, they arise from complex methods of production that obscure any defined origins. Processes of indeterminacy unfold within and across his works, countervailed by procedures of rationalisation. A state of tension prevails. Hassan’s works engage in a process of disclosure, revealing the structures of experience. At every turn, his works press against the singularity of the sign and the enclosure of the system, cycling between them, refusing to rest.

CWW, 2015

_

1- On the multifarious forms of contemporary art, see Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, London: Laurence King, 2011.

2-Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, second ed., Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

3-Edward A. Shanken has been a particularly prominent researcher in this field, demonstrating the importance of networks, systems, technologies and related theories to a range of artists, at least as far back as the 1960s. See Edward A. Shanken, ‘In Forming Software: Software, Structuralism, Dematerialization’, in Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn (eds), Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of the Digital Arts, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012: 51-62; Edward A. Shanken, ‘Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art’, Leonardo, volume 35, issue 4, 2002: 433-438. See also Etan J. Ilfeld, ‘Contemporary Art and Cybernetics: Waves of Cybernetic Discourse within Conceptual, Video and New Media Art’, Leonardo, volume 45, issue 1, 2012: 57-63 and Eve Meltzer, Systems We Have Loved: Conceptual Art, Affect, and the Antihumanist Turn, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

4- David Joselit, After Art, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013 and David Joselit, ‘What to Do with Pictures’, October, issue 138, Fall 2011: 81-94.

5- Joselit, 2011: 82.

6- While his explicit reference to the vast range of forces within which contemporary art finds itself is welcome, the thrust of the format as an enlarged understanding of artistic practice, or medium, is not without precedent. There is, of course, Rosalind Krauss’s concept of the post-medium condition and W. J. T. Mitchell’s invitation to extend the concept of medium to encompass material, institutional and discursive aspects. See Rosalind Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames & Hudson, 1999, Rosalind Krauss, Under Blue Cup, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011 and W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005: passim, esp. 198. Douglas Crimp’s concept of the ‘picture’ as a generic placeholder for images, one without the demand for any truth to medium or materials, serves as another early precursor. See Douglas Crimp, ‘Pictures’, October, volume 8 (Spring), 1979: 75-88.

7- Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, London and New York: Continuum, 2009: 5.

8- ibid: 28.

9- On Hassan’s relation to the history of painting and its legacy at the end of the twentieth century, see Nicholas Croggon, ‘Absurdity and Ambiguity’, in About Madness, exh. cat., Adelaide: GAGPROJECTS, 2011, 63-66.

10- Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000, 280-289.

11- ibid: 285.

12- David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: A Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, London and New York: Verso, 2006: 78.

13- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981: 77.

14- Braxton Soderman, ‘The Index and the Algorithm’, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, volume 18, issue 1, 2007: 153-186.

15- Alexander R. Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014: 14.

16- ibid: 62.

17- ibid.

18- ibid: 63.


Kon Gouriotis, “Capitulation of Discourse, GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide, Australia, October–November 2014” | Asian Art News, vol. 25 N 1, January/February 2015

Kon Gouriotis, “Capitulation of Discourse, GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide, Australia, October–November 2014″ | Asian Art News, vol. 25 N 1, January/February 2015

The exhibition was arranged as two components. One comprised of 10 photographic works titled Organic Occurrences Forming within the Grey Zones of Pre-existing Regimes, 2014, the other, Traces and Determinants, 2012-2014, a three channel video installation with sound by collaborator and Polish musician Rafał Krzysztoszek. Installed side by side, separated by a black curtain to control the light, they combine to evoke Hassan’s continuing grand gesture for pure freedom.

Hassan re-conceptualises the concept of State freedom and anti-freedom into a new format through other sensitive realities, such as applying a slowed down methodology in the use of digital technology. This idea creates a circular paradoxically duality, as a viable means for discourse, consisting of silence, as in the 10 photographs, or the loud and fast rapidly pulsating-interconnecting-irregular-organic-tubular forms, with high energy rhythmic electronic sounds as experienced in Traces and Determinants. No matter how Hassan uses digital technology, he seems to create meditative spaces that somehow expel and attract realities.

Both components in Capitulation of Discourse are made during a time of increased world complexity and instability. Hassan exposes the madness of this world through small accidental gestures and actions. The simple provocation of dripping different thickness of paint onto glass plates, sediment into complex environments, and can take on the appearance of internal organs, landscapes or even storms in the universe. Connecting oils, enamels and acrylics as protagonists to this accidental and controlled engagement, generates all these manifestations. Hassan then scans the coloured paints on the glass and digitally re-composes them into black and white tones with centuries of selected aesthetics: from Fibonacci’s thirteen-century sequences to Émile Lemoine ninetieth-century geometric constructions. The final result is a single and unique digital photographic object.

The use of a wide tonal range creates an intimate and emotional discourse within the subject of each photo and within the general installation. The histories of aesthetics and the multilayered tones interplay at a crux between geometric shapes and the original organic images, morphing back and forth within them to reveal contained dimensions, yet they are actually moving on one plain.

The large 2 meter high images are contained within themselves by a 2 centimetre unprinted paper area, and uniformly framed in a simple natural wood moulding. The even white tone around each of the photographs is occasionally slightly broken. Other small gestures are the appearance of scanned lines and materials like dust, which have attached themselves during the scanning process. These small interruptions appear as cuts or invasions onto the darker tones of the topology of the image.

All is constructed in a system that paradoxically Hassan works against. By allowing the photograph to consume the subject of its origin, the photographic objects takes on its spirit becoming itself the subject that draws us closer to the experience of seeing and imagining.


Capitulation of Discourse | catalogue essay, GAGPROJECTS, 15 Oct-16 Nov 2014

Capitulation of Discourse | catalogue essay, GAGPROJECTS, 15 Oct-16 Nov 2014

The chaotic and dynamic systems in Hassan’s work do not conform to notions of abstraction in the traditional sense, instead they are reproductions of events that we don’t often see, extracting abstract models through processes of imitation more akin to neoclassicism. Representing nothing but themselves they suggest that to represent means to value, consequently excluding the other. His works open doors towards the mathematically elegant foundation of all.

A new series of ten large photographs and a three channel video installation form Hassan’s 5th show at GAGPROJECTS: Organic Occurrences Forming Within The Grey Zones Of Pre-existing Regimes advances Hassan’s research in translating events within silent structures. Here a collection of aleatory images of fluid paint have been circumscribed within the proportions of a Fibonacci rectangle, and later dissected by it and by various arrangements of Lemoine’s geometric construction of the golden ratio.

The geometric and organic sections come together to recompose the topology of an unknown territory, escaping definition; the sectioning affects the plasticity of the fixed image to form and deform further images within the complex maps and into our imagination. What we first see in these large photographs is only the surface of a much deeper ground, a virtual space where the point of view of the structure and that of the event, including the event of our viewing, converge. Thus the frame becomes a portal into the structure; into the environmental magic of the work, an access into a space of singularity far from discourse.

These images behave as open components of an ever-changing event. They are open to being, but nothing in particular, as they are proportioned within structures that can articulate and survive every answer. What we see therefore are not pictures of the artist’s imaginary, but contact images, irrational events captured within transitory moments represented in our time with a degree of fidelity.

Included in this exhibition is Traces and Determinants, a three-channel video installation running for twenty-one minutes. The work loops from light to dark, showing a swarm of lines that emerge and later dissolve; during their time they twist and connect, vibrating as a living organism that dances menacingly to the rhythm of techno sounds.


Stephanie Radok, “A little madness to be free” | Adelaide Review, April 2012

Stephanie Radok, “A little madness to be free” | Adelaide Review, April 2012

A Little Madness to be Free is the title of an album released in 1984 by the Australian punk rock band The Saints. I don’t really know the music but the phrase has remained in my head for years. It is a reference to the quote: ‘A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free’ by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote the novel Zorba the Greek.

Ariel Hassan’s new exhibition About Madness also leans on the edge of freedom implied by madness. Hassan’s artwork is extremely cerebral. His paintings and sculptures confound our expectation or need for either sensuality or expression with their logical coolness. In his essay in the catalogue of Hassan’s work, Melbourne writer Nicholas Croggon says that it is about ‘ambiguity, and about the task of wresting meaning from its clutches’.

For the last 10 years the works for which Hassan is best known are very finely painted, apparently abstract paintings, which resemble satellite weather imaging, or the works of Tasmanian artist Catherine Woo, who uses the patterns made by different materials to create abstract compositions which relate to natural or organic phenomena. But there is nothing organic about Hassan’s work.

To get the sources for his paintings Hassan squeezes blots of paint between two pieces of glass then selects a tiny sample of the texture and shapes thus formed, scans it into a computer, plays with it, prints it out, draws it onto a canvas and then, laboriously over many days and with very fine brushes, paints it. The resulting image is abstract but not an abstraction as it is a literal reproduction of a randomly generated texture. Rorschach inkblots come to mind when looking at the paintings and indeed it is surprising how often you can see strange distorted faces in these blobs, these nothings. What they show is a contradiction – logical careful time-heavy paintings referring to nothing. They have no gift of memory or connection to what we know or feel – rather they demonstrate the cleverness of the artist in somehow avoiding these common human pleasures and preoccupations.

That this refusal is a comment on art even as it goes under the name of art is part of Hassan’s agenda. What is art for, he asks, what is art about at this stage of the history of the world? He says in an interview with Brisbane writer Tim Morrell, “an artwork has to provide the desire for questioning what we know in order for us to feel inclined to want to know more – even if it reveals the meaninglessness of it all”. Hassan’s sculptures are also randomly generated. They are not models of brain synapses or machines for thinking but enigmatic forms that hold resolution at bay. His mirror lightboxes use the same formless forms as his paintings but spread across the viewer’s face like chemical spills.

The newest paintings, which remind me of the work of Jasper Johns, take words from some of the books Hassan has been reading and layer them onto canvases in cryptic poems in a complex system involving triangles.

A promising new direction for Hassan is his sound work called variations. In this work he brings together recordings of male voices quoting parts of Plato’s The Republic, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, and the revolutionary manifesto The Coming Insurrection by Tarnac 9. It made me think of George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984 in its combination of the authoritarian and the random. Maybe all authority is random. Hassan tells me he is “translating an accident and making a new continuum from chaos”. Sinister? Nihilistic? As Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science, ‘A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions – as attempts to find out something’.

….


Imants Tillers , “Images of flow” | catalogue essay, GAGPROJECTS, 2012

Imants Tillers , “Images of flow” | catalogue essay, GAGPROJECTS, 2012

Immersed in a process that is both conceptual and material, Ariel Hassan has at the core of his work a simple procedure – a small quantity of different coloured paints are poured and allowed to run together on small panes of glass. In a vivid demonstration of the beauty of fluid mechanics, the different colours remain intact to a certain degree, and swirl around each other creating unpredictable patterns on both the macroscopic and microscopic level. Hassan later scans selected areas of these abstract images and manipulates the colour and composition in a computer. A print is produced which he painstakingly copies onto a large canvas with paint and brush. This hand-made painting is a crucial stage since it not only results in unexpected details and divergences from the print but also adds a human texture and an aura of authenticity, even mystery.

These paintings of Hassan are compelling images of flow­, yet of a flow that did not literally take place on the surface of the canvas. Despite appearances, these works are representations of the images of flow. As well as their sheer beauty, it was this paradox that prompted me to write about them.

The suggestion that painting abstractions needs nothing more to say beyond the painting itself, not decided by title or explanation, is not a sentiment Hassan shares. Firstly he has titles; often obscure and elaborate. Moreover, his paintings are not content to rest on the wall; they can warp and twist into 3-dimensional space. In some instances, they literally sprout feet and step off the wall altogether to inhabit the viewer’s space ­– this is both macabre and humorous. They can morph into tessellated patterns on the floor that one walks on, or form wallpaper on some adjacent wall. The patterned floor can become a surface on which to place sculptures (modular, complex and intriguing in their own right); meteor-like objects can rain down from above in some installations and in others mirrored light boxes can appear on the walls. Thus, in Hassan’s exhibitions, the paintings themselves can become almost incidental to the total installation, yet painting itself remains at its core. I am reminded of the poet Novalis who once declared: “Every individual is the centre of a system of emanation”

Critical theory, research, and reading are important to Hassan. In a recent discussion he mentioned the writings of Deleuze and Guattari’s celebrated book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, which pursues the philosophy of difference; the ‘nomad line of thought’, the ‘anti-hierarchical’.  ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ was one of the foundation stones for the emergence of post-modernism. While no longer an ‘issue’ or a ‘hot topic’ in the visual arts, I believe that its influence was profound, was widely absorbed and internalised, such that it underpins much of contemporary art practice today. Brian Massumi, the translator of ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ writes in his introduction that Deleuze and Guattari were keen to contrast their “nomadic thought” to the representational thinking characteristic of western metaphysics since Plato, which they refer to in a derogatory tone as “state philosophy”. He writes: “Nomad thought does not immerse itself in the edifice of an ordered interiority: it moves freely in an element of exteriority. It does not repose on identity: it rides difference. It does not respect the artificial division between the three domains of representation: subject, concept and being; it replaces restrictive analogy with a conductivity that knows no bounds”.

Despite occasional intrusions of figuration, it nevertheless seems apt to characterize Hassan’s work as ‘abstract’. Thus he is perhaps part of that strand of contemporary painting which Tony Godfrey, the author of the 2009 publication ‘Painting Today’, calls ”ambiguous abstraction”. Interestingly, Godfrey points out that no other area in painting has developed such a complex and theoretical literature as abstraction. He points out that many looked to the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, “for whom the key metaphor was the rhizome, a plant that grows not from a seed but from elements of itself, constantly spreading across the ground and re-rooting themselves”. Furthermore, he explains that “in a world where the hierarchy descending from God has disappeared, such a network, with its almost infinite numbers of routes, is another way of explaining how the world and the human neural system works”.

When we talk about the ‘human neural system’ we are simultaneously talking about the structure, which produces consciousness. As Douglas Hofstadter asks in his book ‘I am a strange Loop’: “ can a self, a soul, a consciousness, an ‘I’ arise out of mere matter? If it cannot, then how can you or I be here? If it can, then how can we understand this baffling emergence?”. These are still existential questions today, questions that I feel Hassan, on the evidence of his work, might also find compelling. Art can be a means of exploring self  and the mind. The making of art is an evolving process: I am ‘I’ who is becoming ‘I’ who is not I.  


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.

Conclusion
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.