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EXHIBITION PROJECT


SIGNS AS RELEASE


12th INTERNATIONAL PHOTOSZENE COLOGNE

FACO – SPECIALIST PHOTOGRAPHIC LABORATORY, COLOGNE




At the 12th International Cologne Exhibition of Photographic Images (part of the Cologne Photokina), the intention of my project is to make use of the technical side of photographic production.

An international system of various abstract signs is used in the operation of picture-recording equipment. It enables people of different tongues to make use of this equipment without the need to use their own languages or that of others. I chose about 30 signs from this system for my project. They will be adapted and transferred onto paper of standard 11 3/4 in. format. The work will then be set up in a professional photographic laboratory accessible to the public. With this choice of venue, I create a three-dimensional effect between my work, the photographic equipment and its uses. The exhibition will be documented in a publication. It will be printed throughout in black and white in this way linking it with photography. This publication will depict the various categories of art. A text written by an art historian from the field of photography accompanies the illustrations.

This project addresses users of photographic techniques not only as customers but also as viewers and in this way, they are confronted by the changing signs. The newly acquired point of view breaks open our everyday way of seeing things and forces us to question. By this means the old way of thinking is transformed into a new and unknown opposite.

Johannes Senf                                                                                                                                                                                         Cologne 1997

                                                                                                                                                                 translation from German by Michael Tighe
ZEICHEN FOTOTECHNIK
POTH TECHNIQUE
1998; Kremepigments, acrylic, Cansonpaper; 29 parts, each 11 3/4 in.
SIGNS AS FORMS OF PRECEPTION AND SENSUAL  EXPERIENCE


THE PAINTINGS OF JOHANNES SENF



Linear script was invented in the second millennium BC. The Athenians introduced the ionic alphabet with 24 characters in the second half of the 5th century BC. These dry facts do little to convey the explosive nature of this brilliant invention. Signs were assigned to individual sounds (phonemes) of a language. From these signs, it was possible to build sentences and texts and, for those who had learned the system, it was even possible to fix language in a certain way. This system of signs made it possible to hand down literature, laws and religious thought to future generations. Then, in the 15th century, Gutenberg provided the printed version and the world was opened to the reproducibility of written language.

We take this system of signs for granted today, so much so that we hardly ever contemplate the degree of abstraction involved in it. The succession of signs for a given word has no causal connection with the object it describes. We came to an agreement within our speech community to assign a certain succession of signs, e.g. with the meaning tree . Beyond this, we deal with a vast number of arbitrary signs, which we are able to decipher because we have learned their meaning. In the science of signs – semiotics – the entire system of relations between the sign and the object it refers to has been examined. This has been especially fruitful for language. However, this linguistic method is less applicable in the case of ionic signs and therefore, we shall not belabour the point within this context.

Johannes Senf came to sign systems as a painter via colour field painting and his interest in architecture. This was triggered by a visit to Hong Kong where he discovered architectural elements within the characters he saw there. This served as a stimulus to him to search for and collect other sign systems. His interest lies in the abstract communication systems employed in the natural sciences, history, religion or ethnology, where the ambiguities, which may develop within various cultural areas especially, fascinate him.

Mr. Senf transforms these signs into paintings. The starting point is the square within which the signs unfold. Upon first glance, his pictures appear graphic and very formalist. But then, the painterly character of his images becomes obvious. He has transferred his interest in chromatic energy and space created by colour – with their exchange between figure and background, onto these images of signs. The ground has been painted in layers consisting of numerous veils and so his black, blue or other colours are never a solid homogenous surface, but rather, one that plays with the reflections of the individual layers through which light can penetrate and expand.

In front of this background, there is the opaque homogenous matrix of the sign, which is chromatically related to the subject. Each one is a unique painting, which fills the space and area within its parameters, and yet, in its basic structure, it resembles the others in the series with which it is usually presented.

The "figures" seem to float in front of the ground, ever so slightly touching the edges, seeming to bounce off of them. The confident brushwork is detectable and lends the paintings their own materiality, which increases in the play of relation with the nebulous ground of washes.

His framework for the realisation of the works remains consistent. The format is square, usually 11 3/4 in. or  3/4 in., the material is paper and the thickness of the lines is always uniform. The square format – in and of itself ideal, determines the shape and the execution of the sign. These signs are stretched or compressed until they fit within their pictorial constraints. Because of these manipulations and abstractions, the content is often indecipherable at first glance. They gain their own pictorial autonomy. Their diagonals or triangles attempt to evoke their own spatial areas, which are then constrained by their contact with the flat surfaces.

As a painter, Mr. Senf attempts to become involved with the exhibition space itself. That means he attempts to understand the space, to recognise its function and to assign an appropriate historical communication system to it. He also works with the carrier medium, which is always paper and, via its hanging mechanism, hangs at a distance from the wall. This spacer is smaller than the surface of the picture plane and allows the paper to bend in and bulge out according to the room temperature or the humidity level. Sometimes the paper flattens itself out near its unattached edges emphasising, as a logical consequence, the hovering effect of the images. The painterly concept is united here with the object character of the presentation.

Johannes Senf placed his exhibition "Fototechnik" in a photographic laboratory in the Cologne photo scene. For this laboratory – where negatives and positives are processed, photographic and chemical processes take place drawing the latent image into visibility – he chose signs that are found in camera and enlarger instruction manuals. One assumes that these signs are universally understandable, that they transverse language barriers. They are signs or codes, which have removed themselves from the abstraction of linguistic signs and have approached the symbolic. The circle with rays refers to the shape and functions of the sun; signifier and signified have a signalling effect on the viewer and refers to the similarity with the referent.

The recipient, that is the visitors to the lab, are probably familiar with the signs they see on their equipment and which might be found in their instruction manuals. These signs might, at first, appear somewhat strange to professional photographers, as their cameras are not equipped with "in focus" indicators or "automatic focus" . Upon closer inspection, they are confronted with the painterly quality, which reveals evidence of the gesture of the hand in the brushstrokes of the white, wide lines.

The signs make no claim to completeness and are placed in squares as described above. The colours, black for the background, and white for the sign, refer to black and white photography. This black is layered in many veils as well, and allows light to penetrate the layers.

The enlarging, the abstraction and the painterly execution of the sign result in a defamiliarisation. Some allude to a reality beyond the work, as, for example, to the sun or clouds. Others demand associations to be made to complete them as a meaningful sign. Still others work because of their optical and graphic attraction.

They all have a geometric structure and appearance in common. Kant described geometry as a science, which synthetically and a priori determines the characteristics of space. Together with space and time, geometry is regarded as one of the forms of pure perception underlying empirical experience, and thus, forms the basis for sensual phenomena.

In the paintings by Johannes Senf, there is an interplay between idea and perception, between sign and signified, between reality and abstraction.

Mr. Senf leaves the choice between recognition and cognition up to the recipient. The viewer may understand the meanings and perhaps remember them, he/she can free him/herself from what is presented and find pleasure in the sensual experience, and he/she may, however, combine both, and, through symbiosis, discover the multiplicity of meanings, thus come closest to the substance of the paintings.

Marlene Schnelle-Schneyder                                                                                                                                                               Bochum 1998

                                                                                                                                                                 translation from German by Michael Tighe

NACH OBEN