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Tamás Jovanovics: Cumulative Layout Shift

Ghost images


"A good painting is like a ghost, it enters, haunts the space, the real space, but it remains immaterial, floating, transcendental almost. At the same time it is also playful, ghosts are mostly funny, they enjoy frightening you." - said Tamás Jovanovics in a conversation with Esther Stocker. The sentence reveals almost the entire universe of Jovanovics' art. The intention to search for the spirit and spirituality, for the Existence beyond matter (even in the sense understood by modernist artists such as Vasily Kandinsky or Kazimir Malevich), and the attempt to explore and activate the relationship between the eye and the spirit through the image as both a physical and a spiritual entity (as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote). The notion of painting as intellect, as we read in the title of the artist's conversation with Katalin Aknai, may evoke Hegelian allusions, but it would be dangerous to embed the idea in the context of intellectual history. In the sentence quoted earlier, Jovanovics refers to the spirit as an intangible yet perceptible ghost that bursts into physical space, which can provoke both laughter and horror in the recipient. The painting seems both moving and still, alive and lifeless. Haunting, one might say, but I feel we would be wrong. I would rather refer to another term at this point, ghost image. A ghost image is when, due to an eye problem or a defect in the display (or transmission line) we are looking at, the contours of the shapes seem to repeat, forming a blurred image, the view becomes almost fluid and the viewer loses orientation. The illusion is based on the repetition of ever softer edges, the blurring of the contours of reality.


Jovanovics creates such effects by monotonously repeating and layering constellations of crystal structures, creating more and more layers, subtly and playfully derailing and shifting the systems of forms. "I would like to see, to perceive [...] something that dissolves the physicality, suspends our consciousness and our perception, which is used to gravity." – he states, and later refers specifically to how the phenomenon is perceived: "in real space, you will first see my painting from a distance, and from there, for example, my 1 cm grids will dissolve. So for the primary perception, my works are malleable, and only further approach and penetration allows the structure to be discovered and then analysed." A few sentences later, he describes the duality that attracts him in even more graphic terms: his aim is nothing less than "to construct something that can be both 'prison' and 'ocean' ". A prison and an ocean - at once an expanding universe and a closed system, both material and immaterial, characterised by the vibrancy of optically blending hair-thin bands of colour and the stability of crystal structure. The alternation of images and ghost images. The play of the close-up overriding the overall distant image as an inherently painterly problem from the Baroque to Neo-Impressionism and beyond.


Ghost images, of course, can be more than just the vague contours of nonexistent objects, or sequences of monotonously repeating lines. According to Jovanovics, the painting slips into the room like a ghost and haunts the room. If it is a ghost, it is dead. The question is: what happens to painting and the tradition of painting after the death of painting. I suspect that we are not talking about a final demise, but rather the expiry of the utopias of modernism: a free play after the end of the history of modernism, playfully haunted by the ghosts and ghostly images of modern painting.


The basic elements of modernist imagery return: the line and the square grid it forms as the basic structure of amimetic imagery. In her often quoted text, Rosalind Krauss explored the significance of the square grid in twentieth-century art from modernism to minimal art, explaining how the square grid became a schizophrenic figure of the intersection between spirit and matter. A fortress of meaningless painting that can easily become a ghetto. It is an all-over formation that covers the whole field of the picture, that maps it, that extends beyond the boundaries of the picture, a universal coordinate system that no longer describes the view represented by the picture, but the picture itself as an object, but which is also, as Krauss puts it, often interpreted as a "stairway to the universe", as in the art of Agnes Martin or Ad Reinhardt. The thesis of Krauss is that twentieth-century square grids combine, in a particular schizophrenic way, the approach of nineteenth-century optical representations of physiological research (and the artistic trends based on them, such as neo-impressionism) with the grids of window representations by symbolist artists - with romantic roots - who opened up to metaphysical dimensions rather than to scientific descriptions of the world. The grid refers to a belief in the scientific description of the world, but also delineates the window opening between the immanent and transcendent planes. It is materialistic and metaphysical at the same time. It extends towards the world beyond the frame of the image, towards the infinite. It simultaneously expands towards the world beyond the frame of the image, into infinity (centrifugal) and closes the image off from the outside world and material meanings, turning it inwards towards itself (centripetal). The history of the infinite possibilities of variation in the closed playground of the square grid can be traced in a vast arc from Piet Mondrian to Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt, from the dawn of modernism to minimal art.


A significant question is what we do with this tradition and heritage of painting today. To what extent and in what way can square-grid imagery be continued in an age that treats not only modernism and minimalism, but also post-minimalism, as a phenomenon of the past? Different strategies are possible. Dóra Maurer, for example, presents the fragments of a grid structure made of systematically superimposed colour planes in her Quasi-images and deforms them further depending on the spatial and light conditions, setting the image plane in motion within a framework of controlled conceptual and intermedial play. Sean Scully, on the other hand, opened up the system of Super Grids he created in the late sixties and early seventies to painterly gestures, metaphors, objective meanings and associations, creating a kind of emotional geometry, preserving the memory of interlocking stripes seen as cultural metaphors, but also eliminating the solidity of the structure.


Boris Groys, in his writing Comrades of Time, aptly quoted Ernst Jünger's famous phrase that modernity has "taught us to travel light", that is, to return to the basic elements of art and to get rid of everything that seems to be abandonable: meaning, history and certain aesthetic conventions. The metaphor of "travelling light" implies, however, a constant sense of being on the road, which leads to a dislocation of the creative subject and image, a situation in which everything is constantly in motion and changing.


I feel that the basic question of Jovanovics's art relates to this dilemma: to what extent and how can the basic form of the square grid from Mondrian to Martin be set in motion, how can the place and position of painting be reinterpreted after modernism, minimalism and post-minimalism. It is no coincidence that it is precisely those artists who seek to answer this question who are the most appealing to him, such as the above mentioned Sean Scully's art, or Stanley Whitney's work, who also dissolved the grid into a gesture, but used brighter colours and looser brushstrokes.


However, Jovanovics rather accumulates the formal elements of minimalism, instead of dissolving them into a gesture: he creates repetitive structures with dense lines that fill the surface, often using the term exuberant minimalism. He turns reductionism against itself through repetition, creating a discreetly hedonistic variant of minimal art, infused with a sophisticated sense of humour, in which repetitiveness also refers to the peculiar pulsation of life.


The picture plane is set in motion, sometimes detaching from itself like a sticker from the carrier, suggesting metaphysical relations (Leaning Paintings, 2006), and at other times the body of the picture is rotated whileits horizon line remains horizontal (Nonostante. Horizontal Lines series, 2009 - among the works in this exhibition, Playing with Uranium, 2020, follows a similar logic), while at other times the thin lines drawn in oil-based coloured pencil, seen from a distance, form a kind of Ghost Space, an illusory plane floating in front of the picture plane (Ghost Space. 1 cm series. Only when Nature doesn't take its Natural Toll, am I worried for the Human Soul, 2015; The Revolt of Sun Wu Kung, 2023). He aptly refers in the title of another of his series to a system of interlocking planes, spaces and forms as a Hybrid Hierarchy (2018-19), suggesting that the relations may even function as models of interpersonal and social structures, and even raising the possibility of interpreting the subject as a structure in a conversation with Esther Stocker.


Jovanovics's exhibition presenting his latest works is titled Cumulative Layout Shift, a web term that refers to the phenomenon of contents bouncing as webpages load. Although the term refers to an annoying error in an IT context, Jovanovics sees it as a rich metaphor for painting. He associates it with the imaginary movements of the painted image that take place in the mind of the viewer: as a subtle play of differences between distant and close-up views, slips and illusions, as a perception of the duality between the crystal structure of the line grid and the intuitive composition of colour, as a sense of uncertainty arising from the complex relationships between the exhibition space and the image plane it contains, and the viewer standing in space, as a process of sliding as the gaze moves. During the process of reception, ghost spaces and ghost images are created, and what happens is nothing other than the sliding, shifting, dislocation of the art-historically coded structure of the square grid. And by invoking the computer term, Jovanovics also raises a new aspect of the problem, which is the question of the interaction between analogue and digital images, the phenomenon of the digital flow of images, which also places the fundamental modernist question of the end of painting in a new context.


Some of the painted grids (Stoner, 2023; One Tablespoon of Patience, 2023, and, following a more loose structure, Taksim Square, 2023 and Checkmate, 2023) subtly evoke Mondrian's late works (New York City I, 1942; Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1942), inspired by the visuality of New York and the world of the big city. Jovanovics, however, creates a peculiarly post-digital universe in which historical allusions appear as fragments of an infinite, expanding fabric. As tangible-intangible, material, yet metaphysical ghost images, grids that become fluid and then crystallize again, which, as an all-over in the spirit of horror vacui, fill the dynamically changing positions of the repeatedly tilted field of image, interacting with the built space as a fixed, yet freely transformable playing field. The access to this playground is left to the respective viewer. It will be our task to set in motion and to evoke painting as a kind of spirit.

Dávid Fehér

Translated by: Viktória Popper

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