Dr. Hans Zitko
Beyond the ideal Bodies
On a group of Wall-Pieces of Michael Post
Speaking with Michael Post about the series of coloured wall works he created over the past few years, he mentions the so-called Platonic bodies. In his work, Timaios, the Greek philosopher Plato developed the notion that ideal geometric figures had played a role in the creation of the world by God.1 Tetrahedra, octahedra, icosahedra and cubes allocated to the elements fire, air, water and earth had, according to Plato, formed the structural components of a harmonically conformed cosmos ordered in its core. These components, in turn, were themselves to have been composed of corresponding triangular bodies. Plato’s model of creation is based on a logic of elementary forms comprehensible to reason which, at the same time, guaranteed the world’s greatest conceivable beauty. In Post’s reflections, the tetrahedron, a regular body in Euclidean space, whose surface is composed of four respectively equilateral planar triangles, plays a particularly important role and can also be described as a pyramidal form on a triangular base. When looking at the artist’s wall objects, barely any aspect of such a structure is visible at first sight. Although triangular forms of various configurations and proportions are employed, they cannot be regarded as elements of a Platonic cosmogony. Nonetheless, the recourse to the Platonic bodies does represent a principal decision in the aesthetic strategy of the artist.
Which materials and productive acts play a role in the creation of his objects? Post uses thin, zinc coated steel panels cut and edged in different ways which he covers on both sides with a fibreglass tissue. Using a foamed roller, acrylic paint is then applied on both sides of these panels, creating a subtle monochrome texture which recalls classical post-painterly abstraction. With the aid of a magnetic apparatus, the panels so treated are then mounted on the wall at a certain distance which underscores their character as objects. However, the description of the physical object present and the manner of its origination do not tell us much. What do we see when we observe these wall objects? Post‘s work is positioned in the tradition of Concrete Art, including minimalism which developed since the 1960s. In particular the self-conception of leading minimalists includes the intention to remove every external reference, every figurativeness and hence also every kind of illusionism from the work of art. Form defines itself as a tautological phenomenon which is to rest in itself self-sufficiently to lend visible expression to that principle of sheer literalness. That masters of that art like Donald Judd or Sol Lewitt generally prefer basic geometric structures places them into clear proximity to those Platonic conceptions of an ideal order, but also to the spirit of Cartesian thought. Regularity, uniqueness and clarity here serve as the leitmotifs of a rationally purified art. However, it became evident early on to both commentators and artists alike that the intended literalness was quite often negated by minimalist artefacts themselves because as Rosalind Krauss, for example, noted, they often appeared as sensually complex and ambiguous; the rejected illusionism, too, frequently returned to the locus of the aesthetic experience.2 The tautological presence therefore, in fact, remained a theoretical postulate to which the sensual forms actually cannot submit. Michael Post works within the horizon of these insights which brought the innately fictitious character of minimalist purism to light.
We can answer the question what it is that presents itself when we explore his objects step by step in observation and in different ways. Those who expect to see a work with stable properties that persist in all acts of perception will be disappointed. The objects change their character in different lighting situations and observer perspectives. Standing directly opposite the panels mounted on the wall, under corresponding illumination, a planar two-dimensional surface presents itself, composed of two segments of differing colouration (Fig. p. 38): To a larger triangle whose tip points upwards, a second narrow acute triangle is added laterally. Two different reds can be identified clearly from this vantage point: The red of the larger segment finds its counterpoint, as it were, in the different red of the smaller segment.
An asymmetrical, planar and simply structured surface which possesses a certain similarity to the logic of shaped canvas presents itself to the viewer. Due to internal structures in the surfaces, a whole form emerges which differs from classical picture formats and engages in dialogue with the wall surface on which it is placed. In a first approach, the viewer therefore moves in a field of perception in which the painting revolts against its own media boundaries in a reflexive strategy.
If one leaves this observer position in relation to the artefact and moves to the left or right in parallel to the wall, the object perceived begins to change markedly. Even if the viewer’s position changes only slightly, it becomes clear that what one sees is not a planar surface, but an artefact that possesses plastic properties; what was previously concealed now becomes visible. Whereas the large triangle is positioned in surface parallelism on the wall, the small triangle attached to it extends into the viewer’s space at a certain angle. His change of position therefore teaches the viewer that he previously succumbed to a deception: Where he believed to have seen a planar surface, in reality there was a three-dimensional structure. Viewed in the first perspective, Post‘s objects present characteristics which recall the practice of trompe-l’oeil painting which was popular during the Baroque era. The aim was to create a perfect image that could no longer be distinguished from the real object depicted. Deceiving the viewer with painterly means, however, often remained a mere programme because barely any viewer believed, for example when viewing those meticulously painted still lifes, to be seeing the real thing itself. The situation is different as regards the interferences and syntheses between different media to be found in the interiors of baroque architecture. Gazing upwards, the viewer can often barely distinguish what is still sculpture or relief in the transition areas between the building corpus and the ceiling paintings, and what already forms part of the painting applied on the plaster; the differing media quite often merge indistinguishably. The deceit is perfect in Post’s objects too; and it recurs even if the illusion has already been recognised. The viewer only has to resume the central position opposite the artefact to again perceive that planar surface, even in the full knowledge that it possesses a spatial fold.
The factor colour is of eminent importance in this context. Whereas two different reds are perceived in the first position, in the second we see that both surface segments have the same colour and show differing values only due to differing light irradiation or shading. If the viewer moves, one perception passes over into the other and, here again, the impression of seeing two colours is reproduced in the viewer again and again. The artist demonstrates that a perfect trompe-l’oeil effect is possible in the idiom of an art that renounces every kind of illusionism – a visual deception that can outlast every contrary experience and insight. Looking at the behaviour of the colour in this case more closely, however, the question as to the durability of the presumed difference between truth and appearance presents itself. Although a look at the geometric relationships present in the room rightly permits distinguishing between reality and illusion, the colour resists such demarcation.
No colour appearing in the field of vision is uniquely defined by corresponding wavelengths of light; colour only arises through certain autonomous activities of the perceptive apparatus; above all, the processes of interaction of all colour shades in the field of vision play a role in that regard. If the colour hues seen in the above example can therefore not be deemed to be mere causal effects of the data received by the eye, it is impossible to speak meaningfully of a deception about reality. That we perceive the object in two different colours and not as one colour in changing light conditions is, in fact, not an error of the eye, but a product of its constructive activity. Neither of the two shades of red is closer to reality; they are both equivalent as regards the reality of the object perceived. Nonetheless, their difference is suited to render the deception regarding the geometrical conformation of the object complete.
The difference of the lightness or colour values between the partial surfaces of the object can, however, also disappear when seen in certain lighting situations and from a corresponding position, so that merely one overall homogeneous colour zone is perceived, without any registration of the surface edging. In this case the viewer now sees a planar monochrome triangular form with a cut in one of its corners. This perception, however, is possible only from one specific lateral perspective; every slight shift in the position of the subject can bring the previously vanished difference in lightness or colour back again. This perception variant still does not exhaust the range of possible readings of the objects. Another mode of their presence still requires consideration. Under certain conditions, the wall objects transform into schematic presentations of plastic bodies. In the case of the triangle whose tip points upward mentioned above, for example, the perspectival presentation of a pyramid appears. The narrow triangular form protruding into the viewer’s space is now perceived, in an inversion of its sense of direction, as a lateral surface of a pyramidal body aligned into the depth of the object. Here, the differing lightness values of the form segments, seen in this context as light and shadow zones of the spatial body illuminated from the side, are of decisive importance. It becomes clear here that the image of a perspectival pseudo-space can even be supplied by fully plastic structures whose vectors are diametrically opposed to this pseudo-space. Such a deceit is rendered possible by the subject who possesses the capacity to produce and perceive image spaces that extend beyond every physical facticity of the sensually given object. What we encounter here is an imagined depth of the image governed by the rules of projective geometry.
The artist‘s reference to Platonic bodies now becomes comprehensible. The spatial images presenting themselves in his objects can, however, not be understood at all as true presentations of the tetrahedron or other figures. The picture already discussed presents a configuration that diverges from the forms of the Platonic bodies. In the case of a possible triangular base, it would present a distorted Platonic tetrahedron; in the case of a square base, one would see only a halved octahedron. In the other wall objects, too, the viewer is confronted by perspectival images which present the tetrahedron in more or less strongly distorted versions (Fig. pp. 40, 42 and 44). The viewer is reminded of corresponding procedures in topology. As an alternative to classical metric geometry, topology creates options for compressing or dilating spatial or plastic relationships. Post deforms or distorts the tetrahedron, thereby breaching the norms of symmetry which are characteristic of Platonic bodies. He produces constellations which must be regarded deficient from the vantage point of Plato’s cosmogony and can thereby also not be deemed beautiful in the fullest sense of the word. The artist moves along routes that lead away from the normative purity of timeless forms which defined the ideas of the genesis of being in this early ontology. In so doing, he positions himself in a sphere of relationships which Plato defined as the world of finite sensual phenomena, the sphere of phantasms which closed off the view of the highest eternal truths to humans. Post’s wall objects raise the question about the nature of sensual being and its relationship to classical geometry once again. Though inclined towards constructivism and minimalism at first sight, they offer aesthetic events which lack the clarity and determinacy presumed by the ideas of pure intelligible forms. The deformation of the tetrahedron is thereby only one side of an overarching strategy of refusal of precisely decipherable formal relationships.
The decisive factor here is the difference between the physical object on the one hand and its complex, ambiguous and indeterminate aesthetic presence on the other. A mere change in illumination or a changed observer position already let diverging qualities appear in the object. Under these conditions, the differences between the shade or lightness values of the colour on the surfaces of the panels can turn into differences of an entirely other kind or disappear completely. And, finally, those varying shadows or coloured reflexes which emerge on the wall surface and make it part of the aesthetic experience also need to be taken into account. Beyond the ambiguities in the geometric relationships, it is especially the colour of the artefacts which subverts any possible interest in clear presences of definitive determinacy. Due to its inner dynamism, the colour often makes it difficult or impossible to locate the haptic surfaces of the objects with accuracy. The colour possesses its own spaces which are very distinct from the spaces of metric geometry and from the world of tactile experience. Even where there is no dynamic or expressive texture, the colour presents itself as a diffuse and fluctuating field in which the logic of the dimension is subverted or dissolved. The world of chromatic phenomena presents a topological structure of a very specific nature which enters into syntheses with the order of measurable or palpable forms and thereby displaces and transforms this order in certain ways, letting it become indeterminate. These relationships cannot be understood with the means of classical geometry.
The artist counts on an active subject of perception who participates decisively in the formation and construction of the perceived presences. The viewer’s corporeal movement through the presentation room is thereby necessarily included. Depending on our position or the changing light, we see more or less diffuse colour surfaces or colour spaces, plastic constellations which suddenly change meaning, thereby giving way to perspectival pseudo-spaces or fictitious planes. A persisting substrate with well-defined stable properties is nowhere to be found in this aesthetic space. Plato regarded the multifarious, flowing world of the senses as a sphere of mere deceit, from which he distinguished the higher world of pure
true forms. Post refers to the philosopher to spell out the innate logic of this perception. The distortion of the tetrahedron presented is an aesthetic programme; in conjunction with the use of colour, it is to demonstrate that geometry in its pure conformation inevitably undergoes a more or less appreciable deformation and de-clarification in the sensual-aesthetic space. This deformation is no defect. Rather, it stands for the original achievements and qualities of aesthetic spaces which cannot be fathomed with the traditional geometry of dimensions. In contrast to this geometrical rationality, the space of aesthetic phenomena is, as it were, wild, ambiguous, unfathomable, essentially incognisable, continuously changing and self-renewing, a space of the constitutively indeterminate.