Above is a photograph by artist Chris Cornish, from the Infinity series (2008) entitled Green Screen 1.
The purpose of green screens and infinity coves is, essentially, to disappear. Chris Cornish’s work depicts these ubiquitous VFX facilities, but deliberately includes details like the scuffs on the white cove and the edges of the green paint on the green screen.
On a very straightforward level, in exposing these details, the photographs highlight the apparatus of constructed CG reality. They focus on the conditions that allow us to suspend disbelief in the sophisticated and ubiquitous forms of popular CGI entertainment. They make something visible when it’s supposed to be invisible.
However, this is contemporary art, so there’s other references at work. Cornish’s work also relates back to Abstract Expressionist paintings of the sixties and seventies. Green Screen 1 looks like a classic colour field painting at first glance. A bit like the sort made by Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko. At the time, lots of pretentious art people would talk about how arrangements of colour contained essences of life, of meaning. Mark Rothko paintings could even reduce people to tears, subsuming them in an almost religious way. Colour field painting, with it’s big blocks of vibrant colour, was considered to be connected to life and truth in a deeper way than photography or representational painting.
On the other hand, many people began to think of this as a bit overblown. They wanted to use flat colour for another purpose entirely: to strip art back to something very basic but essential. What could art do if you removed references to life? Could the viewer see something purely aesthetically, without the work being some sort of mirror to reflect their own emotions? What was a painting if it didn’t picture something?
This is where Ad Reinhardt comes in. His black paintings mark a very significant stage in the story of painting and of modern art. They appeared minimal in the extreme: simple black squares. These were paintings so simple that they could not support any meaning. They couldn’t stand for any idea. They weren’t an allegory for a political situation or a coded confession of a tortured artist. They were just paint on a canvas. Pure art.
Reinhardt applied the paint robotically in squares, avoiding leaving brushstrokes or changes in texture. If you look closely at a black painting you see these details. Traces of colour too. The painting tries to do as little as possible, but still we see how it is constructed. We see the shades of grey that build the illusion of black. Perhaps this is a philosophical point about how the human mind works. We see consistency where there is none. We see purity and totality where there is only a spectrum of greys. We oversimplify when in fact things are complex and contingent. Perhaps.
Chris Cornish involves similar ideas in his green screen works. Something that wants to disappear doesn’t. Something tries to seperate itself from the rest of the story but can’t. Totality, infinity, and consistency are exposed as merely tricks of the mind (or the computer). If we simply look a bit closer we understand both how the painting is constructed and how our impressions of the painting are constructed.
That whole contemplative state of mind that you’re supposed to have when looking at art is often difficult to achieve. We think we’re supposed to be seeing some truth or meaning or having some deep emotional response. Mostly we don’t. But when I look at Chris Cornish’s green screen I think about a lot of stuff. About emptiness and infinity, sure. But more about the future of technology in entertainment, the state of the human imagination, the difference between art and technology and entertainment. And the fact that it can prompt so many associations is the punchline to the work: it’s purpose is to disappear, to have nothing to do with the world. It’s designed to be removed yet as the subject of a photograph it speaks volumes about image making practices.
To an extent, both the black paintings and the Infinity series deal with what you can find in emptiness. In the green screen and infinity cove, however, we find the necessary conditions for creating the opposite - fully saturated, seamless new CG reality.