Contact Layer

Contact Layer

The Interface, is a term with which most of us are familiar. Whether in the form of our smart phone screens, tablets, laptop software, ticket machines, self-checkout tills etc. We are consistently engaged with transaction technology every day of our lives. What do we mean by transaction? In terms of our capitalist system, we mean that over the last twenty years of the digitization of contemporary life, every possible want, is catered for by a particular and specific GUI (graphical user interface). These easily clicked icons of daily life – the shopping basket, F for Facebook, carrier bag, yes or no? – are the contact layer, between desire, mathematical code and product. The discreet functions performed by the extensive array of digital signs and signifiers, buttons, tabs, icons and menus, can of course be analogous to contemporary painting. The notion of interface, whether as described thus far, or even in terms of the ionization of particular molecules at the boundary between our planets biggest interface – the ocean and the atmosphere – is also present in the painting.

The contact layer, that space in-between objects, in this case painting and its audience, acts as a metaphysical gap, filled with different realities. Those realities belong to wide and varied audience members. We know of course that all of our individual realities are different, because we all grew up in different places, enjoy high or low places on the economic ladder etc. The contact layer then, that space out in front of the painting, that ionised air caressing the molecules of paint on the canvas is the gap this exhibition attempts to explore.

The exhibition would have been divided into 3 rooms or zones had it been presented physically. That format has been retained in this text for the benefit of the reader.

Room 1: Window, object and surveillance

Mark Stebbins / LisaDenyer / Alice Wilson

The first GUI to be developed back in the 1980’s was Windows by Microsoft. The new system offered a range of metaphor, in order to maximize ease of navigation by the user. Files, folders, menu and tree files were the most common metaphor, although I would have preferred they use the term analogous.

Mark Stebbins art

Mark Stebbins painting The Light 2018, is a representation of people, filtered through both a sign of the screen i.e. pixels and the tradition of mixing wet colour to produce illusion. The pixel points an indexical finger towards screen and camera technology, that as an audience we must reconcile in terms of identifying a place of belonging. My own understanding is that CCTV, digital cameras etc, see the world in 16 shades of RGB (red, green and blue). Where do you come from or where do you belong might be the opening question pushed out towards the painting and its aesthetic. The subtext or, further event, provided by the painting also gives you a location, a scene and action. You float in a tree or are positioned on a lamp post on a pathway with what appear to be an adult and child walking/talking. Are you a CCTV camera? For a moment let us jump back to the premise of this text and collection of works for exhibition. The GUI is a way in which we can engage with technology in order to make acquisition, in the most part. Consumption has transcended Microsoft’s initial file storage metaphor to provide myriad ways to spend money, make friends and explore etc. If we are looking for analogous connections between paint on canvas and the function of a GUI, some of that is relatively simple. But what is important for painters is the gap in-between the making of the painting and the way in which its code is transmitted. To put it another way, looking at the painting activates a command event, the event is the painting giving you more information second by second as you look. Our own reality is perhaps the thing that goes out in front of us to embrace the painting. Our own individual take on life, caressing, touching and feeling the surface. But, and this is a question going forward; how do the two things blend?

Alice Wilson Haus

Alice Wilson recently made the piece Haus 2020 out in the landscape. The work perhaps agitates against the orthodoxy of painting, in a very direct way. I engage with it because visually, I see it as a portal or a window. Portal to the internet, window for workspace are two more metaphors used in the digital realm. What I didn’t mention yet, is the term object-oriented user interface or OOUI. The object-oriented user interface allows the user, to interact with metaphor objects directly. An example of this would be any drawing interface that allows objects such as lines, colours and shapes to be altered. It also allows indexical signs to be overlaid onto objects such as crumple, distort, erase etc. Wilsons’ piece would likely have been displayed in the middle of the exhibition space had it taken place. Had you been in the same physical space as Haus, you would have been able to enact the function of an OOUI, in that you could move around the piece, perhaps framing and re-framing different scenes within the exhibition space. You would have been able to rotate the content within the work 360 degrees as you circled. Thoughts of extrinsic and intrinsic are perhaps prompted by this particular interface then? Where a thing stops and its context continues. This apparently empty canvas stretcher or picture framing device, offers a range of possible indexical nudges for use. Use value of course, is part of the ongoing subtext of this text, in terms of thinking about desire. What hasn’t been covered fully yet, is the question of metaphysical difference between GUI or OOUI and painting in terms of desire. In the case of Haus it might be the desire to physically blend.

Lisa Denyer is represented by the painting Snap 2020. Like Bakers work, the index of time passing and layering are also present in these thickly painted works. In terms of desire, these works are small and make use of bright neon colour. They shout out to be consumed. What I mean by that is that you can’t miss their exoticism, their flair. In terms of metaphor or, intrinsic knowledge of how to use the painting, like we intuitively understand how to use 2 fingers to zoom in on a touch screen, this painting keeps much to itself. The math that lights up our screens is also hidden from us. The complex code that enables me to type, push letter S on the keyboard and see it appear in the right place at the right size is vast. Code and mathematics are the invisible structure behind all our digital technology. Those of us with minimal knowledge of CSS (cascading style sheets) know that bright pink for example, if we want it on our webpage, is expressed via code as #FF007F. A meaningless language to most of us. However, what we might say, is that coded language used in CSS, is a form of reverse abstraction. If we think about abstraction in terms of CSS, then we can imagine a connection between an unseen code command and its result on screen, versus intention of the artist and result on canvas. Perhaps a weak analogy, so lets bring in the notion of abstract association.

Lisa Denyer snap

In the middle of the last century, psychologists like Rorschach for example, developed a series of visual tests to determine the mental health and wellbeing of psychiatric patients. The amount seen by a patient in an inkblot, could highlight past trauma as well predisposition. We have been talking about individual realities so far and predisposition is perhaps an out of date way to say the same thing. Association of extrinsic elements with the painted marks on a canvas, is I assume, what most audience members do when confronted by a painting that presents the behaviour of material in its more or less raw state. Abstract association then, behaves a little bit like the application or app. The app on your iPhone controls hidden code to give you Deliveroo, Pornhub and Facebook. Abstract association as an app, gives you a face in a cloud, the face of Jesus in a slice of toast etc. I might say that Denyer’s’ painting is able to be activated at the moment of association with an extrinsic event or events in the realities of its audience. This would suggest that the extrinsic event is recalled to memory by a hidden code in the painting.

Room 2: History as GUI (Graphic User Interface) GUI as painting

Nathan Ritterpusch / Helen Baker / Robin Megannity

The three painters in this room share a common discourse within their paintings that is an engagement with either a desire or a disdain for historicity.

Robin Megannity

Robin Megannity is represented by the painting Gossip 2019 that invites further reflection on desire via what might be described as interfacing with a vision of slippery history. History of course is a commodity, a bank of knowledge we use to negotiate the now. Historicity, the points of history that we assume are fact can easily be altered and over-ruled. If we watch any news channel these days, we encounter the corruption of historicity via governments and leaders actions hour by hour. The notion then that history is often a slippery commodity plays out in the work of Megannity. Historical fact broadly tells us about past events, albeit from a certain point of view. We were not there when the Egyptian, Persian or Roman Empires controlled much of North Africa and the Middle East. Because we were absent, we have to treat the history of such times and places like a big indexical sign. The painting is of course a series of indexical signs also, in that broadly we often don’t see them being painted, but we understand from prior knowledge exactly what action constitutes a painting. Each brush-mark is an indexical sign of the artist applying paint to the surface. We didn’t see her touching the canvas with a brush, but we understand from the type of mark made exactly how it was applied, as well as details like speed, steadiness, size of tool etc. Engaging the painting by Megannity then, we have to explore many types or forms of index. The teleological implication of looking, is that we decode and hopefully take some information away with us. The telos here in the painting Gossip is that perhaps our ability to see any truth in the resonant object from history, is flipped around, by the painted illusion of a reflective surface that itself wraps a resonant object in a slippery and amorphous layer. Undeniably, a gap is created between our understanding of history and what the painting may allude to. In other words, the GUI may titivate your desire for a sense of time, events and place, but as you make contact, that desire is flipped back at you, by the indexical code added by the painter. The telos of looking at history, is the knowledge that most of it is a fiction.

Helen Baker makes painting that sometimes modestly intrude into the physical spaces of her audience. The digital GUI is most commonly on a touch screen, so the only surface physically engaged with is smooth glass. The digital GUI is small and flat, softly lit, with vibrant electric pixels. History and or historicity of course come in many forms, whether marks or ruins on a landscape, spoken word or text and resonant objects.

Helen Baker

What we know from our encounters from the digital realm, is that histories fall into a myriad categories; how the Titanic sank, who are my DNA relatives, why were the 1970’s a time of decay and slump 20 years after WWII? History as GUI then has to remain a proposal that a knowledge desire journey is activated according to individual need. That desire journey, takes place in the gap or contact layer between individual and information. Bakers paintings are morphed from their flat surface both with the addition of corner sections and shelf like appendages, as well as the layers, lumps and bumps of painted marks, built from overpainting. The indexical signs in the work are clear for us to engage with. There is visual evidence of one mark straddling over another in differing directions. We understand the process of painting over something, that has not been sanded down with glass paper, will leave traces of activity below the surface and so on. When Baker decides to paint over a section of her painting, she makes a decision that the tell-tale signs remain as an index to be engaged with. If the paint needs to travel around the sides or back of the structure, she adds a section to enable that to. Overpainting might give us a temporal gap to consider, about time spent and start/stop decision making. A history of the desire for change, is physically embedded and readable as an indexical sign in the painting. The paintings historicity remains intact.

Nathan Ritterpusch

Nathan Ritterpusch is represented by Most of me is All I Have to Give 2020. Immediately we have to engage with three layers of historical contact; description of work via title, painting style, application technique or manner and of course subject matter. Part of the exchange, is that there is an immediate contradiction between the subject matter of Pinocchio and the related rhetoric of the wooden boy, versus the indexical sign of a digital removal of image via what might be a photoshop eraser tool. As I engage and recall my knowledge of the story of Pinocchio, and send that towards the painting, code in the form of association is activated and pushed back out to me that suggests some of what I might expect is missing. Some of the history is missing. A desire to be completely knowing about a subject is blocked by the artists cloaking device. A link is broken and my gaze disrupted. That tension is generated by me simultaneously pushing against the stylistic gaps in the representation of Pinocchio, that I assume, are a representation of a digital tool, on an actual image on a screen in an interface, namely photoshop. Historicity in a sense, is destabilised by layers of contemporary intervention.

Room 3: Process, protocol

playpaint / Tiago Duarte / Peter Lamb

Recent trends in painting, specifically the modes; post-analogue and post-internet, potentially represent a new turn that is focused on the representation of the common human experience, as lived partially, through the aesthetic of the digital interface and digital screen. Over the last five years, more and more painters have co-opted the aesthetics of the software interface, as a means of extending the currency of painting. Many artists are exploring complex mimetic application techniques and process to appraise the digital interface, its soft fades, drop shadows, windows and glow. More significant, is that the mimesis involved in painting and replicating these representations of the screen, is to engage by default with the mathematical source code of apps and windows, to further erode cliché in representational works of art. The signifier of broken code or a fault in transfer, when concerned with images, is often described as a glitch. Glitch or malfunction, will effect images variously but most cases result in the repeat of horizontal sections, one a top the other, pixelation and super black areas where any discernible image is lost.

Peter Lamb

Peter Lamb produces large format digital prints on synthetic canvas. Commanding in scale and vibrant in terms of pigmentation, the works present a different kind of interface. Abstract association as well as the detection of indexical signs take place simultaneously with the origin source, the rhetoric of the software and printer. Prior to that output, Lamb has employed OOUI software to manipulate a series of images, pushing, pulling cropping and overlaying. We might say that what we engage with in Lambs work, is a frozen moment of the movement of image code and image data from a virtual source. In the same way that paint comes to rest on a canvas and begins to cure, Lambs images come to rest twice, firstly as data in a saved document or file and secondly as pigmented fluid on polyester. There is a certain amount of trust involved, in that one hopes the printer will make an accurate representation, as well as trusting that wherever the printer deposits ink, it will stay. Glitch undoubtedly occurs in the transfer of ink to polyester from data instruction, but on such a micro level it goes unnoticed. Lamb makes a collage of what may be read as a room within a room or world within world. Meta-painting, painting about painting is deposited in The Same Animal Form 2020, in a wrap-around aesthetic providing but also confusing our knowledge of the representation of 3Dimensional space.

Tiago Duarte

Similarly, Tiago Duarte uses software to construct his work. The output here are A4 documents on paper, titled On Caves and Moons 2018. In thinking again about desire, and the exchange that occurs between individual and artwork, we have covered many ways and forms of interpretation, even though according to many, we should not. Part of the rational for any exhibition I have produced is first and foremost showing exciting new work, but also through accompanying text and discussion education about ways of looking. As a teacher of painting for may years I have been consistently surprised by attitudes to reading or not reading a work of art. Art is an expression of individual reality for a wider audience of course but it is rarely instructional, in that it really has its perfect coded language for transmission of information. That said we have to continue to engage with how and what we know. The painting as interface or painting as GUI then, offers a way for us to make connections or analogy to other forms of desire enabling communication. Whether or not you feel art is desire enabling is irrelevant. What is key in the work of both Duarte and Lamb, is that there is a desire first of all to make a picture or image with the use of software, but most importantly perhaps as mentioned the moment of transition from virtual to physical is by a machine, spraying tiny droplets of ink. There are potentially two contact layers involved here.


Application technique is key in the work of playpaint. His modestly sized painted output, delivers a plethora of application technique from spraying, cutting and sticking, transfer, masking and stencilling and so on. The vocabulary of making in the work is a large part of the overall transmission of information. The paintings look techno or digital and I discussed in previous exhibitions, that the construction of the work follows a closely mapped out series and sequence of events and instruction. Protocol and command, are an analogous function here. What is interesting in this particular room, is that the notion of the materialisation of a print or a painting has a different concern to the others discussed. In that to materialize the work, one has to employ a series and sequence of both rules and instructional programming. In order to Materialize his work, playpaint performs the step and repeat of an application procedure. Repetition as a command, is perhaps the mechanism that produces what might be described as glitch paintings. We know however that a glitch is an error in a code command and that playpaint intends his repeating process.

What might be concluded then, from the forms of contact layer discussed so far, is that of course, we ‘touch’ the painting with our own reality and individual histories. We make contact with the painting through our knowledge and experience, not just of painting but all lived experiences. Our own realities are held, like ionised particles where the air meets the see, in a metaphysical gap, between ourselves and the painting. The contact layer is alive with thoughts, with desire, generated by painting as GUI.