Wednesday, 22 October 2008

David Spriggs: The Architecture of Illusion

Transparency is also a medium of illusion. Since 2000, Montreal artist David Spriggs has been painting and drawing on transparent sheets of Mylar to create what he calls “Spatial Image Sculpture.” This body of work is characterized by large Plexiglas vitrines that resemble specimen cabinets and contain uncanny, seemingly three-dimensional images reminiscent of holograms or specimens preserved and floating in formaldehyde. Spriggs’s images, however, are neither chemical nor digital and if from some angles the vitrines appear to contain objects with volume and depth, from other angles they appear to dissolve entirely. 

Spriggs studied painting in art school but like many young artists felt constricted by the limitations of his chosen medium. While considering the conventions of perspective he began to speculate on the possibility of being able to make marks in real space instead of on a single surface plane. He began to tackle the problem of painting “architecturally” – analyzing phenomena in terms of plans and elevations in order to “construct” images in real space. He conceives of a typical Spatial Image Sculpture as a sequence of transparent vertical elevations, where, after selecting a subject, he proceeds to section it, as many as a hundred times (depending on the depth he wishes to suggest), representing each section with a sheet of clear Mylar on which he records the subject’s topographical information. Each sheet of transparent Mylar diffuses and softens detail, generating a murky haze and making it sometimes difficult, sometimes impossible, to see through to the other side. He suspends his inscribed Mylar sheets from the four corners of their rigid glass vitrines with small coiled springs. The basic mechanics that these springs reveal generate an odd visual energy, recalling, as they do, heating coils or even turnbuckles – creating tension and pulling the centre to the corners of the vitrine both literally and figuratively – the diaphanous layers of Mylar contrasting markedly with the mechanical support structure of the springs and the angular cabinetry. 

In his Spatial Image Sculpture Spriggs has developed two distinctly different ways of recording a subject’s physical information, producing dramatically different results. He uses air-brushed monochromes to describe the substance of volumes, or alternatively, he analyses a volume by tracing its edges with black contour lines – a descriptive system reminiscent of topographical mapping. With the airbrush he is able to create the illusion of substance while giving the subject a soft unfocussed outline – contributing to the characteristic appearance of something floating in a cloudy liquid. By contrast, where he chooses to render his subjects by mapping their contours, the result is abstracted and schematic. These contour renderings record volumetric information and present it in space, simultaneously suggesting and denying three-dimensionality and making it possible to both see and to see through a volume. The resulting images have a diagrammatic character that recall exploded graphic anatomical and mechanical manuals and aids.

Within his chosen medium David Spriggs has explored a variety of imaging genres. The optical characteristics of the Spatial Image Sculptures provide him with the uncanny ability to describe specific phenomena and to conjure dramatic abstract effects. He variously works naturalistically, where the subject matter lends itself ideally to the medium, or expressively and abstractly, adopting the properties of the medium to generate subjects and approaches that recall art historical genres. Spriggs exploits the natural tendency of the transparencies to cloud by employing the airbrush to create soft semipermeable masses that merge seamlessly with each subsequent layer of Mylar. Thus the Spatial Image Sculpture seems ideally suited to representing clouds and cloud-like imagery such as in his Archaeology of Space, 2008; Abstract Object, 2007; Entropy, 2007; White Space, 2004; and Perceptible Consciousness, 2001. 

Similarly, when Spriggs moves away from white airbrushed clouds, he finds other subjects with similar characteristics that respond to the specific properties of his media. By changing from white paint to black he transforms his billowy white clouds into dense clumps of smoke in Dark Matter, 2007, where dark clouds may ominously suggest the smoke from a chemical fire or a corrupted liquid. In Blood Nebulae, 2002, Spriggs adopts the microscopic image of haemoglobin as a subject, where giant red blood platelets appear to float in a thick plasma, and in the piece In-Utero, 2001, a tiny pink baby appears to swim in a cloudy amniotic fluid.

Spriggs also explores a type of figurative expressionism through the use of non local colour in Incorporeal Movement, 2004, where the layered multiple image sequence of a body in motion is rendered in a brilliantly sanguine red. Similarly, white is used expressively where its effect makes the human portrait ghostly in Immaterial, 2001. An early work, Omniscient Spectator, 2000, is characterized by its expressionistic subject matter, when the artist’s precise analytical contour mapping describes a huddling and emaciated figure. By contrast Containment, 2007 and Fragmented Figure, 2000, evidence an Impressionistic approach, where rough, linear, free-hand renderings of the subjects provide just enough information for one to be able fill in the blanks and complete the three-dimensional image.

Spriggs’s impatience with two dimensional media developed from his interest in rendering images that more directly engaged time, space and movement. He found a reflection of these interests in the work of the Cubists and Futurists, who addressed issues of speed, time and space in paintings, collages, sculptures and in various manifestos around the turn of the previous century. Images such as The Aesthetics of Speed, 2005 and Incorporeal Movement, 2004, feature multiple layered profiles and suggest, for example, the influence of a Cubo-Futurist painting such as Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2), 1912.1 Similarly, in The Fall of Modernism, 2005, Spriggs adopts one of Cubism’s favourite still life subjects, the guitar, to describe the movement of an object in space. The falling musical instrument is rendered with a staccato rhythm of contour lines that make reference to the fragmented planes of the Cubists, and may alert us to the discordant sound which we anticipate will accompany the guitar’s inevitable crash to earth. And in the work Abstract Object, 2007, Spriggs shows the influence of the Futurists enthusiasm for velocity and power in art through his rendering of this comet-like form.2  
The influence of Cubism on Spriggs is also evident in The Paradox of Power, 2007, where the artist adopts one of Picasso’s favourite subjects, the bull. This major work features the image of an upside-down bull, rendered motion-like with the layering of overlapping profiles. The image is split down the middle, with the left realized in blue and the right in red. Spriggs has chosen to problematize the symbol of male power and aggression by suspending the beast harmlessly, as if the animal was struggling to free itself from its powerless and undignified position, as well as through his seemingly arbitrary blue/red colouring – a sly reference to his own power to create illusions.3  

Spriggs distances himself from art historical models when his subject matter reflects back knowingly on his media’s eccentricities. In Progress, 2006, he uses his contour mapping approach to reflect on the logic of his own layered system of representation with his description of the complex internal mechanics of an escalator. In Still-Life, 2003, an image that looks as though it may have been created by an X-Ray surveillance device, Spriggs speaks to the issue of a type of invasive transparency which we recognize may not be universally desirable. 

Walls are built to preserve privacy -- to separate what we feel is the legitimate business of others and of what is not. We maintain barriers to preserve mystery, where the banal mechanics of the thing somehow seem to do its larger meaning and significance a disservice. We draw curtains to preserve dignity, when the display of an individual’s vulnerability is considered an unwarranted invasion. David Spriggs work demonstrates that in transparency there is neither absolute clarity, fidelity nor morality. Transparency is as capable of generating illusions as it is in revealing truth. 

Gordon Hatt, October 2008


1. Duchamp was in turn inspired by the early stroboscopic photographic motion studies of √Čtienne Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge. See Katherine Kuh, The Artist's Voice: Talks With Seventeen Modern Artists, New York: 1962. 

2. Giacomo Balla & Fortunato Depero, The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe, 1915. “Balla initially studied the speed of automobiles, thus discovering the laws and essential line-forces of speed. After more than twenty exploratory paintings, he understood that the flat plane of the canvas prevented him from reproducing the dynamic volume of speed in depth. Balla felt the need to construct, with strands of wire, cardboard sheets, fabrics, tissue paper, etc., the first dynamic plastic complex.”

3. The blue/red colouring is a reference by Spriggs to 3-D glasses and the anaglyphic system of rendering stereoscopic images. Spriggs also sees the colours symbolically, with the red representing the physical and the embodied and blue representing the immaterial and abstract.