Stephen Haley | Cities, Factories, Walls and Malls

31 May – 23 June 2018







These are paintings of cities, factories, wall, malls and other urban features common throughout the world. If they appear abstract, it is because the urban world is already highly abstracted. In a sense, these are landscape paintings but ones that picture a period characterized by two unprecedented shifts in human experience – rapid global urbanization and the birth of the digital era. These two conditions are fundamental to defining the Anthropocene and its ensuing issues.


An inspiration for the works was neuroscientist Peter Ulrich Tse’s grey-scale Sawtooth Illusion, first presented in the journal Perception in 2000. The image demonstrated a gestalt reversal between figure ground relations. Building on that seed, and since the human vision system sees via two separate but interrelated pathways – one greyscale and the other in colour – it occurred to me similar effects could be produced in colour. These, in turn, could be used to picture the interconnected, digital, urban world where the remote is intrinsically embedded in the local. A time when we are surrounded by things from distant lands that appear before us as effortlessly and mysteriously as magic and where events and activities in one sphere shape and determine those of another.


The tonal values embedded in the hues of these paintings were carefully matched so the greyscale pathway of the vision system saw them as a single form. Along with other formal trickery, the figure ground relations thus flip back and forth – the backgrounds and foregrounds reverse, negative space becomes positive space. Cities viewed from a side elevation shift to become factories viewed from above. Walls engender malls, towers produce tiles, suburbs become serrated knife edges. The simplicity of the forms may also imply other associations. Some flip sharply, for others, there is a slow osmosis. This alternation between one state and another is a structural feature of digital systems – the 1s and 0s of binary notation – and is also an aspect of the human vision system itself, but these paintings hope to evoke other things as well.


The everyday experience of the digital differs from the preceding Modern period and finding a pictorial language to describe it is a struggle for contemporary artists. Modernism saw the birth of cubist collage – its formal conjunction of disjunct elements into a single picture plane marvellously echoed the then novel experience of living in a city. (In 1900 only 10% of the world’s population lived in cities, now it is an unprecedented 50%.) In cities, all manner of strange, disconnected elements abruptly conjoined, sparking novel relationships previously impossible to imagine. In contrast, the digital experience fundamentally differs. While disjunct elements still combine, the digital is distributed. Unlike actual space, in the virtual, we leap from one state, one space, to another. Objects do not coalesce in the stable space of the actual but appear sequentially as we scroll or hyperlink between windows and screens. This is not a simple juxtaposition but an erratic sequential link of things spaced through time – not this and that – but this, then that. Digital experience leaps between distant spaces. We are both here and there simultaneously and, increasingly, the virtual blurs into the actual. Consciousness and perception flicker, oscillating between simultaneous states and spaces, coexistent presences and absences. Yet the digital also standardizes, even equates, such juxtapositions. These paintings seek to evoke this central experiential feeling of our time – this unreconcilable simultaneity of standardized difference.


The works are drawn in Illustrator and painted to mimic the vibrancy and sharpness of a screen. The colour palettes are also selected digitally. Using my own photographs of world cities, a software program automatically selects colours from the image and creates a palette. These are then saved, selected from and tweaked. The colours thus directly embody hues of city life.



The photographic prints also evoke the ‘digiurban’ experience. The large city print InterCity is part of an ongoing series of virtual or ‘simulated photographs’. While materially a photographic print, the works are a complex hoax – a false photograph. While travelling, I take photographs of cities. These are then cropped and edited in Photoshop. Using 3D modelling software, a city is sculptured and the photographic images individually mapped onto the surfaces as textures. The whole is lit, posed, rendered and printed. The image is an impossible but plausible amalgam, drawn from worldwide sources intended to create a fabulistic, ubiquitous city.


The Future Photo prints are also simulated photographs using digital technology. In this case, a new type of software – photogrammetry programs – was used. Here I took hundreds of photographs of significant buildings in Canberra. The software then constructs a 3D wireframe model from these images while automatically mapping its surface with the photographs. If one is not very careful (and I am not) the result resembles – not a pristine model of the building – but a misshapen ruin. The model is posed, rendered and the subsequent image is reworked in photoshop to locate it within new surrounds. The result is a photograph from the future – from the inevitable time when these buildings will have succumbed to ruin. In the case of the Aboriginal Embassy however, it remains steadfast, undaunted, while behind it, the Old Parliament House has rotted.


These works are a kind of mirror, but in an era where the simple of idea of art as a planar mirror has shattered and is now replaced by the scintillating play of a mirror ball.


Stephen Haley


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