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What is wrong with this picture?
In a discussion with Nathan Kernan, Richard Prince remarked that, “His work is not as much
about liking it, but almost liking it. It’s, like, can I like it ?” A question which resounds like: “Can
I really like this thing?”, or even, “How is it possible for me to like this?”, or yet again, “Under
what conditions can I say that I like this?”. This transformation of affirmation into interrogation,
of representation as statement into a strategy that short-circuits taste, is present throughout the
work of Vassilis Salpistis, and triggers what we might call “an aesthetic of error”.
We are used to according great importance to style, to the “how to do” of art. But in doing so,
we should not neglect the “how not to do” issue. Because we tend to forget that all
“not to do’s” are not equivalent, and that the range of so-called negative possibilities is at least
as wide as that of the positive ones. In other words, just like there are many ways to paint, there
are as many ways not to; and one of them is painting. But how?
The error here consists of the “poorly-done-but-not-entirely”, the subtle but omnipresent
inadequacy between the act of painting (or filming) as a process – more closely related to art
therapy than it is to the transcendental expression of personal vision – and the painting itself as
an independent result destined to have an existence of its own without the painter’s help. This
might recall some historical examples, such as the Bad Painting movement and its derivatives.
But the obvious distance that separates this type of image from those of Salpistis only serves
to emphasize what has become a platitude of contemporary art, that is to say the phenomenon
which entails the aesthetically-pleasing repossessing of “lumpen” cultural specimens, precisely
because of their total contempt of any principles of quality or taste. In other words, what is
aesthetically acceptable changes over time, and attempting to discover what appears today as a
“lapse of taste” can be a way to involve oneself in the “trends” of tomorrow. (Shaken or Stirred? )
This is the register in which Salpistis operates, in the grey area of complicity between art and
marketing, where a painting is in principle considered as cultural merchandise, although not
reduced to this aspect alone.
Nor does this “lapse of taste” refer to the kitsch aesthetic, at least not in its artistically
recognized form (of which Jeff Koons’ works are undoubtedly the most representative example).
True kitsch (already an oxymoron) has an excessive, overwhelming – even garish – quality that
strains the gaze so violently that the brain is taken by surprise. The “lapse of taste”, however,
is more like a surgical procedure – “aesthetic” in a way that reminds us more of Nip/Tuck than
Hegel – that has come to an abrupt end (but this isn’t obvious at first glance or “taste”), hence
perhaps the clinical, detached feel of Salpistis’ works. This may be due to the dimensions
chosen for his paintings: a scale slightly over 1:1 that stimulates the physicality of the viewer,
repeatedly asking the same question: “Could you like this?”.
As for the other question, the “how not to do?” or “how not to paint?” question, its diverse
possibilities are explored mainly through video. Faber exploits the DV camcorder’s ease of use
like a sort of second pencil or brush that outlines the one being filmed, who, tired of doodling,
leaves the established frame of representation – and of writing – to invest the urban public
space. It is a sort of literal reading of so-called “spontaneous” drawing or painting. (As whenever
a literal reading applies to a rhetorical figure, the result sounds like a joke.) Representation
as a process that gives shape to objects is based on the temporality of the act of walking and
the specificities of urban space, establishing a sort of parallel between them whose unit of
measurement is the instrument of representation itself. In this way, video sketches a space
where the drawings of both the painter and the urban planner meet and merge in a cartographic
itinerary in which the map can be identified with a territory.
Work for the First Thessaloniki Biennale functions on another geographical level, that of
the utopia. In Interior (one of the two videos exhibited, made in collaboration with the architect
Andreas Fragos), the digital image is treated in such a way that it deliberately recalls both
the chrono-photographical works of Muybridge and the documentary aesthetics of 1960s
experimental filmmaking. But what is offered in the guise of a filmed performance (in the style
of an Acconci or a Nauman) in fact uses effects such as disorientation and trompe-l’oeil that
transform the atelier / gymnasium into an abstract pictorial space where it is impossible to say
whether the two characters are doing push-ups on the ground or against a wall. This ambiguity
even effects the status of the work itself, its mode of visibility, to the extent that the manipulation
of historical references and the hybridization of film genres make it difficult to classify it within the
framework of any traditionally recognized categories.
Be that as it may, it seems clear that in Salpistis’ images, the utopian dialectic
(reality/imagination) and its potential alternatives are attenuated to a certain extent by the
judgment of taste itself, making the choice if not impossible, at least problematic. Rhetorical and
literal questions: it is no longer a struggle between the true and the possible that is being played
out, between what one has and what one desires, but rather a sort of dilettantism that originates
in the possibility – the vacillation – of desire itself, at the precise place where desire seems
dispossessed of its own existence. Since no definitive answers can be given to these questions,
they lead to a variety of attempts which are destined to fail, but for which the kind of failure is
unpredictable and impossible to determine beforehand. And to the extent that this failure is
considered as necessary and treated as such, perhaps it has a chance of succeeding after all,
despite itself, if not as a utopia, at least as a sort of bankruptcy listed on the stock exchange. In
the end, true martini aficionados all know that the celebrated cocktail should be enjoyed “stirred”,
and not “shaken”.