0, 0, 0
Richard Blackwell has long been fascinated with space in the astronomical sense, with his previous exhibition at Flinders Lane Gallery (A New Hope, 2015) being a prime example. What distinguished that show was Blackwell’s recognition that apart from the debris left by humanity’s actual space endeavours, there is now an even larger accumulation of props and relics from the science fiction film industry, ‘space-world discards (representative of) an exhausted Utopia.’ Even the optimistic but gently ironic title was drawn from the Star Wars movie series. Now, in the exhibition 0, 0, 0 (zero, zero, zero) Blackwell contemplates the digital (as opposed to filmic) illusion of space, revolving around ‘the grid acting a symbol of the infinite space of virtual reality (VR).’
The science of VR has a relatively recent history – more so for its application by artists – but the recognition of the grid’s importance to art is longer. Whilst its perspectival cousin has been exploited since the Renaissance, the art theorist Rosalind Krauss wrote a seminal essay in 1979 arguing that the grid maintained an integral position within much of twentieth century abstract-modernist art. Starting with Mondrian, Malevich and the Russian Constructivists, Krauss traced a line through to the minimalist and conceptual artists of the 1970s, much of which still underpins contemporary practitioners of non-objective abstraction. A key attitude that she noted was that for the initial artists using the grid, it was a deliberate stance taken against ‘nature’, or the then-standard practice of artists observing and reacting only to the real world. By comparison, the grid was a structure unto itself – it depicted itself, it referred only to itself, it declared ‘the space of art to be at once autonomous and autotelic.’ For Mondrian, in particular, the function of his grid-based paintings was to reveal ‘the world’s underlying structure, understood as a reservoir of binary oppositions; but further, and more important, it was also (demonstrated) how these oppositions could neutralize one another into a timeless equilibrium.’
Now, in the 21st century, the advances in virtual reality present a further complexity to this conceptual pursuit. As digital technology seeks to present the viewer with an ‘authentic’ alternate experience of reality (or ‘nature’), it still employs a pixel-based structure that is firmly based on the uniform and potentially limitless components of the grid, albeit one in three-dimensions. The American-Canadian novelist William Gibson understood the possibility of such a human-interlinked ‘alt-reality’ when describing his protagonist Henry Case’s immersion into cyberspace in the landmark novel Neuromancer; and even The Simpsons explored the idea in their ‘3D’ episode ‘Homer3’ from 1995. Fortuitously, considering Blackwell’s previous focus on the actual cosmos, it is also a neat coincidence that virtual reality has been utilised for many decades by NASA to simulate space exploration for their otherwise earth-based trainees. Thus, in the exhibition 0, 0, 0 (zero, zero, zero), the artist now makes his own determinations on these VR conundrums through a range of 2- and 3-dimensional object/imagery.
For example, MRS3 is a sequence of multi-faceted wall works in marble, plywood and ceramic which presents manifold possibilities as to the arrangement of identical elements within clearly defined and gridded boundaries. It is as if Blackwell is attempting to represent the basic 0-1 binary code in formal, though structural, relief. For the vast majority, however, who are not versed in computer language, binary code remains a vague concept though one whose importance is well recognised (after all, the mass panic of the Millennium [Y2K] Bug could not have arisen otherwise). It is of interest to note here that Mondrian also utilised his own binary symbols, namely ‘+’ and ‘-‘, in a series of early paintings, notably Composition 1916 and Composition in Line 1917, where ‘each element (was) determined by its contrary.’ Whilst Mondrian’s binary paintings sought to project an inner calm, Blackwell’s marble and ceramic pieces pulsate with visual energy as the eye follows the undulating peaks and valleys, illusionary topographies being created along the way.
In an associated series, Manifold, Surface and Field, he further attempts to reconcile the original division caused by the grid’s denial of nature by projecting a squared lattice over a sequence of actual topographies, capturing each result in powder-coated steel. One is an un-named metropolis, the second a randomly chosen Japanese landscape and the third is a simply a sheet of crumpled paper. Startlingly, the results read like sonar maps created from deep-sea research vessels, and since many scientists consider ocean exploration as being equivalent to that in outer space, this visual analogy is apt. Blackwell’s associated engraved laminate panels again use the grid as a starting point but embrace their virtual origin too by displaying undulating surfaces and labyrinthine structures where there is no inside or outside, an ‘open shell … like space and a voluminous lump;’ and one of these, comprising three oval units individually titled X, Y & Z, may easily be read as the physical manifestation of the exhibition’s own title Zero Zero Zero.
The catalysts for the show, however, are the three suites of prints done in collaboration with Kate Conlon in 2016 at the Kala Institute in Berkeley, California. OSB is a series of eight relief prints which foreground the associated marble and ceramic constructions and, indeed, this series may also be seen as being the subsequent concept to Blackwell’s Modular Reflective Surface prints shown at Flinders Lane Gallery in 2015, having as their source an arrangement of 12 small relief plates which had 1,150,976 possible variations. Blackwell notes that the texture of the OSB prints comes from Oriented Strand Board, ‘a composite wood material which is both organic and inorganic, a kind of compression of natural materials,’ and another metaphor for the nature/anti-nature divide. Of the other two suites, close examination reveals that the twisted towers of Space Frame I & II comprise individual modular tiles which ‘tessellate along a single axis (and) visualises 2- and 3-D space. The stacking of them in a line thus becomes a visualisation of the fourth-dimension, i.e. time itself.’ Finally, the Possible Solar Systems series return to the cosmos and in so doing, the artist subconsciously reminds us again of Mondrian and his pursuit of a spiritually harmonious sense of order underpinned by the grid. Each printed image is the result of Blackwell and Conlon randomly scattering spheres into ‘a simulation of a distant solar system, which (in all possible probability) exists somewhere in the universe.’ Whether occurring in a virtual space or not, this particular harmonic universe now contains every possibility of ‘reality’ down to the smallest of its gridded atoms.
Essay by Andrew Gaynor, 2018
1. Andrew Gaynor, Richard Blackwell: a new hope, Flinders Lane Gallery, Melbourne, 2015
2. Richard Blackwell, 2018. Non-cited quotes also drawn from this source.
3. Rosalind Krauss, ‘Grids’, October, MIT, Massachusetts, vol. 9 (Summer, 1979), pp. 50-64
4. Rosalind Krauss, op cit., p.52. ‘Autotelic’ refers to an activity or a creative work which has ‘an end or purpose in itself.’
5. Yve-Alain Bois (ed.) and others, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Thames and Hudson, London, 2004, p.148
6. Yve-Alain Bois (ed.) and others, op cit., p.149