I visited the Thomas Ruff exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery yesterday, prior to going to listen to Annie Liebowitz’s talk at the Royal Festival Hall. It was a bit of a rush, but well worth the short space of time I spent there. Ruff likes experimenting with the materiality of the image, which is something that appeals to me as well, and my over-riding feeling was that I’d like to see a lot of more his work than was on display. It was a bit frustrating to be limited to a relatively few of his processes, and I will be looking at others in the future.
The exhibition was a retrospective, showcasing his work from 1979 to the present. It started with his university work, the Portraits, Interiors and buildings. These seemed of their time and place with a style reminiscent of the New Topographic group, which of course he was exposed to, being based in Dusseldorf at this time. However, from about 1991 his work veered away from the Brutal, very deadpan aesthetic and Ruff started the experimentation that has since become his hallmark. The exhibition included lithographs, chromogenic colour prints, granolithographs, collages and a host of other techniques. Later, as digital photography took off, he became interested in how the digital photograph is made up, and began to look at the concept of the pixel, the essential meaninglessness of an image when it is expanded past the point where the subject can be made out, while he also maintains a long term interest in astronomy. His images tend to be large, very large in fact (which is where the post title came from) and it is interesting to see how he contrasts the incredible detail of his Mars images with the highly pixelated opposite of the images of 9/11 and space rockets. He also played with photograms and scans as well as inverting negatives and other variations on analogue photography. More recently, he has been playing with digital images to experiment with what is possible by focusing on particular elements that form part of the make-up of the images.
Some of the parts that I did not like included the series Substrates, where he repeats and alters comic images until the meaning has completely disappeared, producing huge multi-coloured prints of nothingness. (My own experiments with reducing images to their colour palettes follows in a similar, but less extreme path, which retains elements of the structure of the original, albeit significantly altered). The zycles series, although visually arresting, did not make me want to know more about how he had achieved the patterns, and some of the phg images were abstract in a way that did not appeal, although others were fascinating.
I found this exhibition quite inspiring, not because of anything Ruff ‘has to say’ particularly, but because of his interest in deconstructing the idea of photography and then playing with the elements he uncovers. Also, his way of appropriating images from newspapers, advertisements and other media to alter, so that they become something different is something I would like to explore. So many ideas to consider and to play with . I came home and tried out a very simple version of his 3D images of the craters of Mars, using simple techniques that I found on the internet, and surprisingly, the concept actually worked. See below.