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        Is The Medium The Message?

themodernartsite.com  by Jeff Lee
Colville Place Gallery - Penelope Wakeham - Painting with Numbers

'The Medium Is The Message' is a slogan from a media commentator called Marshall MacLuhan. He proposed that the innate qualities of a medium determine the content of the message put through it. If we have TV, our message is made up of movement and sound, and if we have drawing, our message is made up of marks on a surface. The limitations, goes the argument, aren't so much the midwife as the parent. This was exciting stuff in the sixties, and is now a standard discussion in art institutions. "Oh but the message is pure" wail MacLuhan's critics, "artists
determine their message, not mere paint." Or do they?

On the way to the preview of Painting with Numbers, I thought how the picture on the card appeared to offer an abstract painter's foray into transferring their practice to a computer. Why bother, you may well ask? I wondered myself. Why not just paint? In fact, one of Wakeham's stablemates at Colville Place, Guillem Ramos-Poqui, spoke of the need for media to be their own, erm, self? In the article 'Computers... The Last Frontier' (Art Review, June 1998), Brian Ashbee expresses Ramos-Poqui's views on digital media by saying "It is however, a new medium, and attempts to emulate lithography by printing onto art-quality papers are, he feels, ridiculous: as a new medium it needs to explore and define its own characteristics and not ape those of other media."

This then is how Wakeham wrong-footed my own expectations of flat printouts instead of canvas. The first thing you notice is the physical presence. Rather than making straight prints, Wakeham mounts layers of printed,
translucent plastic onto panels. Within these layers are areas of painting, often indistinguishable from the underlying or overlaying inkjet images. Two immediately noticeable emblems come through. The first is the aboriginal,
mythical, totemic quality to the shapes, a hieroglyphic code, like sets of fingers applying ritual body-paint. The
second is scientific, from the surface taking on the characteristic of a circuit board, the layers substituting for silicon wafers, the schematics bordering on microscopy of bacteria or textile fibres. This blend of looking inwards to the microscopic and outwards to the beyond is neither here nor now while paradoxically grasping both.

Beside this talk of Maori invisible to the naked eye, the pictures are still flat surfaces. But the age-old tradition of painting glazes to get visual depth is exaggerated here. In the process of melding abstract painting, with its spiritual connotations, and digital media, but through a physical process, Wakeham's work, more than bridging painting and the digital image as the program states, has taken the highly controlled age of computing and locked it in the same room as today's resurgent interest in everything 'alternative', which is to say, spiritual and therapeutic.

In all this I can't help wondering if there's deliberate restriction at play. In the catalogue she states a disdain for
layering images within the computer, preferring the chancy, reflective effects of printed layers because "It is
necessary for the light to travel through to the white backing and return, preferably through the colour." I suspect it is her tactile experience as a painter that produces some reluctance to venture beyond restricting her gestures to different sized brush marks with the Photoshop software. Painting With Numbers represents a patient approach to experimenting with the complexities of combining what could be described as oil and water. But there is surely much more she can do with her digital sources.  Paintings can be scanned and reprinted, digital layers can blend colours in ways alien to the real world, and the filtering normally the reserve of design and photography can
reconfigure light in ways hard to predict, let alone copy by hand.

It will be interesting to see where pictures like this will go next. Probably with one difficult step at a time. I wonder if posterity will look back on this work with words like 'pioneering'?

The reproductions here [catalogue] are extremely limited, you really need to go along and see the originals. The real barnstorming ripsnorter of the exhibition is a 7-panel piece called B.Curve. Installed around a curved wall in the gallery, it looks like it was always there. and has you wondering where it'd look best at home.

So is the medium (or media in this case) literally the message? Possibly maybe. It's clear that interest in
incorporating the virtual world into the real world is, if slowly, underway in the art world. Perhaps this reflects
today's increasing interest in UFOs and Feng Shui? Like art imitating life for a change.

Review copyright Jeff Lee 2000. All artworks are copyright of the artist.