Shockwave Xanadu

David Hunt



Here’s a dusty tidbit that’s bound to test your credulity: back in 1918 a heated debate raged among De Stijl artists over the admissibility of the diagonal line. Mondrian had just completed Composition with Color Planes and Grey Lines, whose lattice structure both stabilized and connected the strangely weightless effects of his floating geometric colors. Yellows and reds no longer advanced so forcefully, and blue, darker by nature, no longer appeared as a “hole” in the surface of the canvas. Neo-Plastic Painting, more with a whimper than a bang, was born. Straight lines and primary colors -- so simple, really, when you think about it – ushered in a vaguely New Age rhetoric of “pure relationships” and “absolute harmony of contrasts,” not to mention another round of absinthe. It’s hard not to imagine the famously self-conscious Mondrian in his three-piece tweeds and “Adolph” moustache, absently dragging on another Galoise as he earnestly bickered with Theo van Doesberg and Bart van der Leck about the diagonal’s endangered significance. Their epistolary screeds bore the spontaneous wrath of instant messaging:


Van der Leck: Not only the universal construction, or stability is of importance in the plastic expression of painting, but also universal motion. In painting, it is precisely the free and the diagonal which make this possible. Furthermore, it is my conviction that a mathematical figure such as the diamond or parallelogram, as well as figures or directions derived from them, should not be confused with perspective.


Mondrian: With regard to the diagonal, too, I am in complete agreement with you. As soon as it appears together with straight horizontal and vertical lines, I believe it should be condemned…. Perpendicular and flat lines can be seen everywhere in nature; by using a diagonal line I would be canceling that out. But I’m inclined to say that that cannot be combined with perpendicular and flat lines or with different kinds of slanting lines. [1]


Note the tone of righteous indignation couched in staunch certitude. Note, too, the lingering traces of theosophic thought as filtered through the mathematical protocols of the first World War. Such impassioned exchanges are not to be confused with the more pressing concerns of how to fill up Gagosian’s 30,000 sq. ft. Chelsea space, get a spread in Vogue, or prevent your work from trickling in to the secondary market. It seems fair to say that Sara Morris, whose tacit debt to Mondrian is palpable yet updated for a contemporary cityscape engineered according to the rigors of the Cartesian grid, doesn’t wake up sweating the persistently annoying crisis of the diagonal, nor the failure of the parallelogram to suggest classical Renaissance perspective.


So, pure intuition versus mathematical application? Getting at essences -- lifting the corrupting veil of nature to get at the heart of unmediated sensations -- then as now, still deserves its day in court. It’s just that today, after all the simulacrums, the hyper and virtual reality, the Freudian Oceanic and Jungian archetypal, the pre-cogs and the serotonin non-uptake inhibitors, essences seem, well, a little idealistic. Mondrian’s missionary zeal centered around his desire to get beyond the icon of the cross, a theosophic metaphor too mired in the clerical traditions of the past (despite his own early flirtations with triptychs). In the pages of De Stijl, his proselytizing for painting as the purist of the plastic arts -- the true beacon of all avant gardes -- ironically bore the same evangelical tone he sought to purge in his paintings. In retrospect, his words smacked of the philosophy of the trench: ad hoc, provisional, and born of a certain personal pragmatism. Desperate cant, really. Paris only forced him to dig in to his position. The “retour a l’ordre” of classicistic realism on one hand, and Dada and Surrealism on the other, had him surrounded.


But the line, for Mondrian, was the key to getting away from a tradition of prosaic naturalism with all its balmy landscapes and strolling burghers and into the more intellectually pedigreed genre of what he termed “abstract-realism.” These days, that prosaic naturalism is best expressed indexically in Muntean and Rosenblum’s paintings of baggy clothed teens with insouciant slouches and Beat Strueli’s candid shots of youthful global nomads on the backpack circuit. Cargo pants in lieu of parasols. It seems unthinkable given the pathetic fatalism of the average Muntean and Rosenblum caption, strategically alienated as they may well be, that Mondrian’s mix of pathological naivete and heroic idealism could be yoked to the grail of a mere line. The Dutchman, however, proved to be the Terminator of sui generis hard-core formalism: an unkillable android with just one thing on his mind. In this light, today’s artists look like fashionably dressed versions of Lara Croft, gymnastically ducking the avante garde’s trap doors, reanimated gargoyles, and poisoned arrows, to take their place in a bland but happy pluralism.


However, as with any emerging group of artists who have closely scrutinized the past, there are a few exceptions. Torben Giehler, a young German painter trained at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and living in New York might be one. Over the past four years, Giehler’s delirious reworkings of the modernist grid have followed the same trajectory as Mondrian, but their referents – flight simulators, PS2’s stately vector-netted pleasure domes, and the bunker architecture of color-coded Death Stars – is as far from Mondrian’s leaded glass windows, butterfly wings, and cathedral floor plans as a pixel is from a cross. Call them ShockWave Xanadus: the kind of swiftly tilting planets that Coleridge might have written about if his drug of choice was Ecstacy and not opium. Where Mondrian’s Pier and Ocean of 1914 did away with the distinguishing markers of the sea, the sky, and the wooden planks stretching out into a 2-D vanishing point, in effect, turning them into thin dark-grey lines on a flat, white background, Giehler hyper-spaces straight to Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942) -- the summit of Mondrian’s labors -- as his starting point. What Mondrian accomplished in 25 years – vertiginous, unbounded spaces, the reduction of the assembly line’s products to platonic color forms with intrinsic weights – Giehler has achieved in four. And then some. Of course it helps when today’s assembly lines are not rolling out Model Ts and televisions, but XBoxes and high-res plasma screens. During the 60s, Warhol’s willful misregistration of line and color in the lips of your average Marilyn, may have been pertinent to discussions of mechanical reproduction in the age of screenprinting, but these days increasing filmic realism drives the video game and animation industry, clearly two of Giehler’s influences. The line still lives (as anyone who’s seen Final Fantasy can attest) in a single strand of hair caught undulating in a breeze, while the flesh -- though matte and curiously embalmed -- might still be weak.


Giehler, to his credit, seems to know this. We now look back at Mondrian’s bold graphic line as a kind of institutional razor-wire. The black boundaries between primaries seem exclusionary, prohibitive: more inclined to keep you out or lock you in, than to provide his painting with any kind of unifying glue. As such, Giehler immediately jettisons the line, focussing instead on Mondrian’s Lego-modularity and rhythmic syncopation of color. Early works such as Tronic Park (2000) and Circuit City (2000), look like data-visualization screens viewed from the Enterprise’s bridge, rather than aerial shots of abutting rectangular farmland shot from a plane, as one might expect.


Aerial shots, after all, whether culled from an orbiting space station or a single engine Cessna, tend to fall into two camps: swirling topologies of gaseous mist and dimpled crater on one hand, and beigey planar networks of uninterrupted flatness on the other. Giehler’s synthetic stratas are pitched somewhere between this. In Boogie Woogie (1999), for instance, you couldn’t actually touch down and explore its blinking surface; the orange and red bands are all directional landing lights and no “strip”. Like Mondrian, they’re strung as tight as a drum, airless and sterile, and seemingly forbidding of all human life. Add to that a receding horizon line that coalesces in the corner and you have a pre-Copernican world whose edges seem to point to the abyss. While a videogame might have a “wraparound” space that continues on the other side as in Asteroids, a “bounded” space like Pong where everything is contained on the screen, or “adjacent, non-overlapping” spaces like Berzerk, Giehler makes ample use of a receding z-axis to suggest three dimensions. At times that 3-D space is formless, suggesting an infinite continuation beyond the painting’s edge, and at others it’s rectangular, suggesting a platform or stage.


You don’t imagine mag-lev trains hovering across the surface or X-Wing fighters plunging into Escheresques labyrinths, though, since Giehler’s surfaces are unrelievedly flat. Indeed, if they did contain the networked rivulets and channels common to arcade games we wouldn’t be disposed to look at them as the mindful corruptions of abstraction that they are. They would cease to be paintings and become merely illustrative maps. Still, as a viewer, we’re empowered with a sense of “joystick destiny,” the notion that once the throttle is moved, a certain action amplification, or initiation of a sequence of steps kicks in as in any first person shooter. But again, these are not the fog-enshrouded docks or blind alleys typical of Grand Theft Auto; noirish sets ripped wholecloth from the average tv police procedural. The only narrative Morning Glory (2000) ultimately enacts, is the ancient one of eye skimming over surface, noting detail, reveling in pigment, seeking totality, and finally coming to rest. Because the painting is dotted with warped pentagons in faded lilac and canopies rippling outward like accordions, that rest takes longer to get to, but brings a sense of delayed gratification.


At heart, they’re exercises in color theory, or more specifically, “disegno versus colore,” drawing versus coloring in. For Aristotle, the repository of thought in art was line, everything else was just ornament, but he couldn’t have foreseen the graphic modeling programs that allow artists to plot vectors, enclose space, and pour in color. Shading and gradation, has given way to volumetric color, the chiaroscuro of the screen. In Giehler’s case, color swells, becomes solid. If we were to slice into the purple skein of Static Age (2000), the painting would bleed wine; not only is the surface coated in a bruised membrane, but there’s the suggestion that, as deep as we go, the guts of the painting remain that singular color. Doubtless, Giehler achieves this through projecting images downloaded from the web or tinkered with in PhotoShop. A landscape of the Matterhorn traced from a book, scanned, then projected, then drawn onto the canvas allows what Giehler describes as “sculpting around the contours of a photograph” Far from Eakins’s magic lantern or Ingres’s lenses, Giehler projects, not to render the pocks and glitches, the dermatological abrasions of viewed reality, but to capture the faultlines and rastered shadows of the mountain’s true character. After all, he paints with acrylics, an industrial material known for the flat and shiny, not atmospheric and expressive. This is the paradoxical allure of acrylics for Giehler: the double quality of the dead and the dynamic, the bland and the brilliant. A shiny surface gives depth to his flatness at the same time that it emphasizes that flatness. [2]


Employing industrial materials, however, in a kind of obsequious homage to the industrialist superstructure that generally pays for these things (i.e. the collectors), quite often results in less than a prescient mirroring of cultural forms than a pandering to the locus of capital accumulation: power structures such as banks, hotels, mercantile exchanges, movie studios, and the low slung Silicon Valley strip malls that house hardware and software development firms. Tenants of polished marble lobbies with transparent glass elevators or the bureaucratic hive architecture of any Philip Johnson skyscraper would like nothing more than to be accessorized by motifs and materials that “match” the prevailing mechanized ensemble. Witness the pervasive influence of the grid (and its attendant metaphors: superimposition, lamination, tiling) as a house style, and the organization of discrete, specific incidents into more generalized, repeatable patterns—to wit, high modern abstraction--that serves as its décor. Frank Stella, in this regard, offers a telling anecdote, if only to show the lengths that painters will go to to accommodate their benefactors: “I knew a wise guy who used to make fun of my painting, but he didn’t like the Abstract Expressionists either. He said they would be good painters if they could only keep the paint as good as it was in the can. And that’s what I tried to do. I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can.” In its sardonic hyperbole, this kind of apocryphal statement of slavish truth to materials, resurrected time and again in art schools and openings, is an unwitting conservative barrier to abstraction’s progress. It mocks the importance of formal structure at the same time that it soft-pedals the true nature of paint as a delivery system for color.


That delivery system, the notion that color is most fully realized when deployed next to a wide range of uncomplementary colors, is given full expression in Giehler’s Lhotse (2002) and K2-North Spur (2002), two mountain ranges whose stratified bedrock is indicated in wild tonal shifts from brown to mustard and blue to grey. Lhotse is as far removed from the decorator patterns of a Peter Halley cell-and-conduit painting, as it is from the opposing primaries in a painting by any Orphic Cubist. Influenced by Michel-Eugene Chevreaul’s “On the Law of the Simultaneous Contrast of Colors” (1839), a principal text of the Impressionists, the Orphic Cubists were interested in intensifying the adjoining hues in a painting through oppositional contrasts. A dark blue, for instance will make an adjoining yellow appear more green, while a light blue will create a more orange effect on the same yellow. Since everyone from the Synchronists to the Divisionists, Rayonists, Vorticists, Suprematists, and Purists were influenced by this theory as well as the bong-hit metaphysics of Kandinsky’s “On the Spiritual in Art”, the results were innocuously pretty paintings which seemed to jettison their earthbound canvas supports only to be beamed up in an ethereal rapture. Giehler, however, belongs to a different tradition of Romantic painting; less a Wordsworthian mirror waxing nostalgic for passing industrial design trends, stentorian manifestos, and metaphysical aspirations, than a Blake-ian lamp casting light on a more secular, but not necessarily congested, urban future.


Lhotse, after all, is a denuded landscape in a post-ecological world. After the acid rain and greenhouse gases visit the freewheeling earth, this might be the defoliated result; a surface so barren that even the tiniest speck of chlorophyll refuses to grow. You can’t help feeling that Giehler seems optimistic, though. Lhotse’s surface, with its sharp wedges and slot car-like cornering has a cascading effervescence more akin to a waterfall or a rerouted tributary. Nature, in Giehler’s world, appears as a minor disturbance that must be vaulted or sidestepped. In this sense, Lhotse is as an example of “punctuated equilibria”, a long period of modernist stasis typified by Halley’s hard rationalism, which explodes into the swerving tides and eddies of Giehler’s glacial drift. Halley’s paintings, for instance, which look like candy colored city skylines as much as the viscera of a circuitboard, are the products of a centralized, top-down series of commands: he literally takes his cues from technologized products like peripheral cards, but he never anticipates what the totally invisible, fiber-optic service sector might look like. True, they describe complex, emergent systems, but without the adaptive intelligence -- the historical extrapolation -- that carries the tradition of abstraction forward. Steven Johnson, in his book Emergence (2001), notes: “Emergent complexity without adaptation is like the intricate crystals formed by a snowflake: it’s a beautiful pattern, but it has no function.” Giehler’s paintings, on the other hand, have a self-organizing swarm logic that uses the “feedback” from adjacent color blocks to bootstrap the nascent structure into a more complex, and visually pleasing, whole. Call it “phase transition” or “paradigm shift” or simply the laws of non-equilibrium thermodynamics where the rules of entropy are temporarily overcome, and higher level order may spontaneously evolve out of underlying chaos. [3]


Halley may be trying to replicate the visual landscape as it becomes increasingly strip-mined, plotted, and developed, but in their simplicity of design and economy of parts they resemble more a Levittown of cookie-cutter homes, more a simulated wood paneled family room with a Commodore 64 or Atari 1200--more, to put it simply, suburban reality Circa 1980, than urban reality as it takes place today in most of the developed world. While Halley offers an abstract version of the resulting product, Giehler offers the original algorithm--the digitized code--that commands the program that operates the instrument that builds the product. His small, self-sufficient modules reflect the structural computer programming that has been standard since the 1970s. The names of these modules, in various languages -- subroutines, functions, procedures, and scripts -- indicate the advanced automation of industry, the move toward stock templates like trees, landscapes, flocks of birds and fire found in any AL software package, and in decentralized, bottom-up games like Evolva where users “breed” characters achieving as many as 14 billion distinct character mutations. Because the paintings are designed to reflect the light-speed of information flow, storage, and retrieval—essentially the basement architecture of the computer workstation—they resemble the dense, massive overflow of constituent parts in Rem Koolhaas’s “City of Exacerbated Difference,” which takes as its model the Pearl River Delta Region of the People’s Republic of China. In contrast to the harmony and homogeneity of the traditional city, the “more is more” aesthetic of the City of Exacerbated Difference is, according to Koolhass:


“…based on the greatest possible difference between its parts—complementary or competitive. In a climate of permanent strategic panic, what counts in the city of exacerbated difference is not the methodical creation of the real, but the opportunistic exploitation of flukes, accidents, and imperfections. Although the model appears brutal—to depend on the robustness and primitiveness of its parts—the paradox is that it is, in fact, delicate and sensitive. The slighest modification of any detail requires the readjustment of the whole to reassert the equilibrium of the complementary extremes.” [4]


Delicate and sensitive, despite the seemingly harsh color contrasts and extensive fragmentation, is an apt description of a Giehler painting. More component parts don’t seem to suggest a random agglomeration of superfluous data, but the opposite: the willingness to juggle what appear to be disparate elements in order to give the whole house of cards that much more fragility. On the quantum wave between the multiplex and the mosque, Halley consistently chooses the extreme end of the former, winnowing down the fractional parts to increase the symbolic thrust. Giehler, by contrast, would like to inhabit the entire field—to be both particle and wave—by speeding up the eye’s optical intake as it flits across the various loci of his paintings. The eye never rests on one fixed vanishing point, but rides along the ridge’s peaks, only to glide down the various faces and chasms and eventually double back in a never-ending loop. In this respect, Giehler has more in common with the painter Al Held, who in the 1970s, abandoned the modernist prescription toward flatness and explored a growing vocabulary of hollowed out rings, cones, diamonds, and spheres. In his most recent paintings such as Aperture IV (2000) and See Through II (2000), Held focuses on infinitely receding architectonic spaces bathed in a single plane of light whose tightly knit mosaic patterns, always braided together out of perfect squares, recall space as it is viewed from a car, a plane, or a digital hand-held camera. Motion, for both Giehler and Held, is a critical reflection of our current accelerated culture that takes as its signature emblems the Nascar circuit with its dashboard mounted steadi-cams, the Concorde jet that collapses distances as it breaks the sound barrier, and any high-end, luxury performance sedan that ticks off the passing frames of the autobahn in its shock-absorbing, climate-controlled interior.


Which brings us back to Mondrian, color, and the way that Giehler sheds the Dutchman’s sustaining anxiety of influence. The former was stalled in Newton’s 1666 treatise, Optics; simple theories based on the refraction of light through a prism. The rainbow-like progression of colors emanating from the prism fit neatly into Newton’s interest in musical harmonies, thus he straightjacketed them into the seven notes of the diatonic scale and the seven known planets. The truth, for those who’ve decorated their house using Pantone’s 2,000 opaque color chips, is more illuminating to say the least. As Le Corbusier said in Journey to the East, color is “suited to simple races, peasants and savages;” it was, historically, the province of the market stall, the bestiary, and the opium den. But in Giehler’s radical spectrums – hot tangerines next to diaphanous jades -- it’s time to revisit the fabric weavers and clothes dyers, long the Oriental other to the academy’s hygienic white walls. Follow the yellow brick road en route to the Emerald City, but don’t forget to grab your ruby slippers.



1. Blotkamp, Carel, Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, Reaktion Books, London, 1994, p. 120.

2. Batchelor, David, Chromophobia, Reaktion Books, London, 2000, p. 106.

3. Johnson, Steven, Emergence, Scribner, New York, 2001, p. 185.

4. Koolhaas, Rem, Great Leap Forward/Harvard Design School Project on the City, TASCHEN America, New York, 2002, p. 126.


published in ArtText Nr.78/Fall 2002