“The geometrically precise grid of pixels becomes the digital age’s answer to Seurat’s free-hand Pointilism; the overall composition is only obvious when the viewer steps away from the picture.”
Thomas Ruff at David Zwirner Gallery
Dmitry Komis is a freelance writer and independent curator living in New York. Thomas Ruff is a German artist whose photographs were on view at Zwirner Gallery in New York in December 2007.
With his new body of work entitled Jpeg at David Zwirner, Thomas Ruff continues his engagement with the production of images in the Internet age. Named after the compression files for Internet images that Ruff mines from the web, the ongoing series explores how these online pictures are perceived by the public. He locates the ambiguous place these images hold in our pixilated collective memory, when photographic details are lost and historical content is disregarded in their incessant reproduction.
Ruff’s enlarged jpegs focus on common types of landscapes. They depict scenes of war, picturesque mountain streams, outer space, and cityscapes, many of which are affected by natural or man-made disasters. In Jpeg bi01 (2007,) a mushroom cloud threatens an idyllic seascape, signaling the aftermath of an explosion. Yet the horror of the event is abstracted and sanitized in its enormous reproduction. The action becomes stilted, and its whereabouts unknown, the billowing smoke blending in with the cloudy sky.
Like Ruff’s Nudes series, the jpegs complicate photography’s relationship with painting. Here he flirts with the idea of the sublime in nature, and indeed there is a compelling dynamic between nineteenth century European landscape painting and the noticeable pixels of Ruff’s enormous prints. The geometrically precise grid of pixels becomes the digital age’s answer to Seurat’s free-hand Pointilism; the overall composition is only obvious when the viewer steps away from the picture. But with Ruff, even when you step back to make sense of the image, there is a feeling of alienation. The subtle tonal shifts mesmerize, but the absence of an identifiable content leaves the viewer cold (the titles don’t provide answers either, they are acronyms, and are often difficult to interpret.)
As Roland Barthes once wrote, a photograph is a “message without a code.” Without language or context, these are not landscapes we can possess or wholly comprehend—they are transient in form and content. When isolated and enlarged— whether a natural disaster, a waterfall, or a terrorist attack—all appear as banal as an image of a pastoral landscape. This is the impact of the jpeg format. It behaves as a kind of equalizer for Ruff. The works in this show may present a distorted “reality,” but Ruff has continually shown in his work that a photograph does not simply depict truth or reality, but isolates and aestheticizes it.