Just as how Medusa could only be seen — and thus, slain — with the help of a mirror, Richard Höglund attempts in Beautiful. Sublime. to document the residual traces of the sublime, an aesthetic construct that almost everyone agrees cannot be represented. He has tracked the development of the Sublime from the external — moonlit vistas, frozen seas, the Lake District — to the internal void.
“To begin with, it underscores the impossibility of representing the sublime.”
Richard Höglund, Crans, 2011. Silver gelatin print and graphite drawing on arches satiné, 52 x 40 3/4 in. Courtesy of Gallery Diet.
By Hunter Braithwaite
Just as how Medusa could only be seen — and thus, slain — with the help of a mirror, Richard Höglund attempts in Beautiful. Sublime. to document the residual traces of the sublime, an aesthetic construct that almost everyone agrees cannot be represented. He has tracked the development of the Sublime from the external — moonlit vistas, frozen seas, the Lake District — to the internal void. Accessing this mental void is the new question. Höglund purports that it can be done through the meditative labor of automatic drawing.
The most successful series in the show features photographs taken by Höglund of sublime landscapes: an Icelandic marsh, the Utah desert, craggy Swiss mountaintops. They are nice photographs, and the scenes that they document are stunning in their own right, but… they’re no sublime. John Berger said that pictures of nature are like fashion photographs in that they “record and admit pleasure.” And occurring to Edmund Burke, the first modern thinker to deal with the concept of sublime, something must be beautiful and terrifying to classify. Knowing that these images aren’t enough, Höglund pairs them with graphite revisions of the scenes. These drawings are simultaneously landscapes of the external world and the mind of the artist who is witnessing it.
It is interesting how drawing, or rather, lineality, takes precedent when the artist sets down the path of mental recreation. Perhaps because the line almost always borders or script, which tempts the linguistic faculties of the mind, or perhaps because drawings can be seen as maps, and thus help to negotiate the place of the subject in the world. Whatever the reason, Höglund places a lot of emphasis on graphite.
The line also suggests the edge. With the exception of the photographs, which offer up a nostalgic graininess, the exhibition is based around the precipice between positive and negative space. This line, which could be seen as a continuation of the pencil mark, attempts to corral the known, seeable world. This edge is more pronounced with Anzeihen/Abstossen (2011) where the drawing is relegated to only part of the piece’s surface, a move that reveals the artificial grain of the plywood ground. Insisting upon the presence of the edge does two things. To begin with, it underscores the impossibility of representing the sublime. In his 1978 book “Truth in Painting”, Derrida spoke about the parergon, which is the Greek word for ‘outside the work.’ Derrida uses the concept to explain that some things exist inside the work, some things exist outside the work, and some eschew this binary. If art functions by creating a border around a portion of the outside world, and if the sublime is by definition boundless, then it goes to show that artistic re-presentation is futile. Secondly, the plywood creates a nice gap between the natural world and one that is structured by the laws of the assembly line. As a 4’x8’ building block, plywood is the basic unit of suburban existence. As such, it can be seen as the anti-sublime (in its predetermined, digestible dimensions and in its sheer mundanity).
The plywood also routes the discussion towards construction, and thus labor. That said, Höglund’s labor isn’t working. Automatic drawing quickly gives way to that of the automaton, an apt pun when one remembers that robot first entered the modern lexicon in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, Rossum’s International Robots, which tells the story of a mutiny of artificially intelligent androids. Etymologically, robot comes from robata, which means serf labor in Czech and simply work in Slovak, Russian, and Polish. To learn from the robots, occupations that exist in the crossroads of traditional labor structures and technology aren’t liberating in the least.
That is, Höglund’s ploy is capable in a traditional sense, but not in today’s world. Which technological enterprises have to do with the sublime? The closest one to labor is the global whir of capital. Disconnected from elements of production and normal consumption, and seemingly with a mind of its own, the aurora borealis of dollars, yen, euros, and RMB, could be seen as the sublime. Additionally, we have the sublime as death from above. Both Iraq wars and the collapse of the WTC were primarily spectacular instances, and thus could be categorized in a similar manner. Furthermore, and this I think is closest to the point, there is the sublime of not working. The vast disemboweling of hours associated with social media and cyberspace, the game sphere, the cloud, the wiki: these are the landscapes of the contemporary sublime. And just as the traditional sublime, in a Burkian sense, is a beautiful thing with a core of destruction, these pursuits lull us into thinking that we are progressing, while they really express thanatos, a desire to retreat from the face of the world, the urge to be annihilated.
Hunter Braithwaite is a Miami-based writer. In 2011, he founded the contemporary art website Thereisnothere.org.