Amnesiac Cartographies
The taste lingers on

Essay by Chuck Kleinhans, from exhibition catalog (© 2007 Chuck Kleinhans)

Paul Hertz spent a key period of his artistic development in Spain from 1971-1983. That culture's complex interweaving of Mediterranean societies gathered the visual heritage of Moorish art and architecture, including Islamic tile patterns. Appealing to his eyes and nudging his sense of mathematical order, these geometric grids and networks became the core of his two dimensional work. Decades later with the technological addition of digital tools and the creative inclusion of expressive experience, his prints stand at a threshold of further development.

While art has always existed at the shimmering interface of given local materials and new infrastructures and techniques brought by trade and travel, recently technological change potentiates traditional craft. The accelerated pace of new media brings a new tension to the field. For many, the computer seems like the final destination in the realm of mechanical reproduction, a reproduction that allows art to be organized into capitalist industry, to become the daily face of modernity. Thus government printing offices strive mightily to ensure perfect uniformity in currency as it leaves the treasury, but with the first passage into the everyday world, bills begin to collect idiosyncratic folds, stains, marks, and thus become part of history.

As Hertz knows, and ironically, shrewdly, toys with the utopian hope at the heart of the analytical mode encompassing mathematic generation systems, serial vision, and grid patterning. It's worth noting that in practice, tessellation (the theory/science of tile design) and wallpaper groups (the theoretical underpinnings of plane symmetry) are virtually universal, found in extremely diverse cultures at different times in history, from ancient Egypt to Polynesia, from Chinese ceramics to native American weaving patterns, from Turkish pottery to modern Scandinavian fabric printing. The exactitude of the science provides a security blanket for our anxieties about the tangible world.

Hertz performs in some gallery and installation events as "Ignotus the Mage," a short-circuited fortune teller who can't remember the past or project into the future. He accepts being stuck in an endless present, yet clearly he wants to achieve the crystalline purity of mathematical precision (with its implied or inherent predictability). And herein lies a dilemma. In a perfect world, Ignotus could be the master of Intelligent Design, the supreme artificer, the master of uniform mimicry. But he could also appear as the anal retentive waffle maker, endless hoping with each new ladling of the batter into the grid pattern of the iron that this one will be perfectly uniform, which it never is. The desire for airbrushed perfection, for the ideal of illustration, for a reassuring predictability, for the image as we want to remember it or anticipate it must always face the material reality of how it is in front of us. The "serving suggestion" on the package never matches the item we remove from the microwave. The waffle on the plate always bears traces of an irregular history. Take a bite and you've interfered with the geometry.

In Hertz's 2D work over several decades the movement from manually generated regular patterns seen, for example, in the ink drawing Aiguaberreig (1979) to the Epson ink jet printer Avanzada (1999) we see the clarification and precision possible as machine takes over for eye and hand. But echoes of the same grid precision underlie both techniques/technologies. In the lived world, the practice of square tiles rests in both the abstraction of mathematical precision and the vagaries of the material substrate given that even the most mechanically produced tiles carry evidence of variation. In the digital world, abstract precision echoes in the screen array: an army of pixels arranged in orderly formations. Of course in actual output, the paper itself adds the irregularity of texture, and this can be potentiated with self-consciously hyped textures, as in Piel Soñada (1999).

The dominant mythology of art since Romanticism views it as a right brain activity based in the spiritual and irrational, and is thus always hostile or suspicious of any glimmer of scientific reason guiding creation (unlike the Renaissance welcome of science into art creation). But if art is linked to seer vision, ecstasy, disorientation, and madness that still implies a desire for the absolute, a pipeline to final purity. And mathematical rationality is another path to the absolute. That desire finds geometry a path to purity, abstraction a step beyond the immediate messiness and uniqueness of the executable. But Nature always already knows that, accounts for that: the genetic norm produces three leaf clovers. Four leaf clovers appear only under certain ideal soil conditions (precisely why they are lucky for the farmer, promising strong healthy crops); they are sports, unpredictable but real.

We all exist in the uneasy confluence of two facts. We know, in the rational abstract, that no two snowflakes are identical, yet we are never able to do a side by side comparison of all the snowflakes to check on this. We know that crystals are perfect, but that real diamonds have individual imperfections at some level and that geodes, say, are fascinating precisely in their irregularities. We balance an ideal of perfection with the industry of artifice, which only comes forward at odd moments such as being served a steak or chicken or salmon filet in a chain restaurant and seeing that the grill marks are actually spray-painted on.

The series Deadpan or The Holy Toast, reminds us of this inevitable but awkward situation in which we want, aspire, hope for Nature being mathematically perfect, but also know that Nature lived is always a fallen world. The Intelligent Designer may be thought of as industriously working at the drafting table or computer monitor, but He always has a big wastepaper basket, a recycling bin, and a dumpster out back.

A little over a decade ago, computer generated fractals were a seasonal software game. A little program could generate them on the screen, and tinkering with the input data produced trippy recursive patterns. Visualized fractals, in particular Mandelbrot sets, push towards obsessive complexity. At its most Pop Scientific, fractals were the banner of Chaos Theory, which seemed to explain everything: in sum, a secular optimism. Hertz reverses the motive and in a subtractive sleight of hand provides visual delight (sometimes bordering on smart ass commentary, as in his presentation of Holy Toast as a deadpan answer to that almond flavored mandelbrot) that hovers on uncertainty.

Hertz loves, aspires to, desires, the precision, yet he distrusts it and then introduces transformations, so many and so multiple, as to seem like an obsessive compulsive Intelligent Designer who secretly wants to be absent-minded. Case in point, Agree to Disagree (2005) which applies several hundred transformations to its starting data, and ends with an ink jet print that the maker observes, "uses two populations. In one of them most or all of the triangles have been merged into diamonds or other shapes. In the other the triangles rarely or never merge to form diamonds." What we observe in the finished print is a kind of manic late version/vision in which we know or sense, that there is a precise pattern underlying what we see, but that it also embodies a hidden history and the tangible print defies, perhaps even mocks, the secret past regularity.

Teson del Agua Straight, No Chaser
Tesón del Agua (1999) and Straight, No Chaser (from Tapices series, 2002–2004)

Where can this go? My sense of this body of several decades is that it is on a cusp of change. Two clues. One is that some of the prints push to a third dimension, to a tactile surface, to embossment, as with Tesón del Agua (1999) . The second clue Tapices (2002) which Hertz describes as designs for inkjet printer or tapestry. The future trajectory may well extend into moiré, as in its basic form of silk fabric stressed with pressure and heat to produce a new sensuous rippled surface which literally embodies motion when handled in time. What would he do with digital looms that can produce astonishingly complex fabrics? Consider the new works Jungle Jangle and NoGoYoYaNaDa (2006) as fabulous fabrics for shirts, dresses, swimsuits, curtains, ...for cloth in motion. And to return to Spain and Mediterranean visual culture: a world full of grills, screens, nets, veils, curtains, membranes, partitions, lattice, mesh, scarves, mantillas. Now the soft side, the flexible partner of tile's rigid surface. A layering, a play with translucency, transparency, implying a new expressive dimension: motion. Hertz has used his static 2D graphic patterns to produce a time art in music. And with motion, the notion of animation, of time on screen, and the door opens to another set of masters of computer permutations: Oscar Fischinger, James and John Whitney, and Jordan Belson.

Ignotus, the erstwhile Mage, may re-emerge as Ignotus the carpet merchant or as master animator of Jumbotron delights.

Chuck Kleinhans
Eugene, Oregon
Summer 2007

Chuck Kleinhans is an Associate Professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University and an editor of the online scholarly journal JUMP CUT: A Review of Contemporary Media.