The Matter of Fact
Published in the artist’s exhibition Printed Matter at Galeria Nara Roesler, New York, in 2017.
This exhibition brings together a selection of works that are concerned with the printed page, which is treated by Daniel Senise as both a raw material, and an inherently meaningful surface. While his processes of cutting, shredding, and pulping render the page illegible, his acts of re-composition translate it into a dispersed field, more expressive of the question of meaning itself. This group of works evoke the fragile bonds by which material and meaning are held together. Working both with and against the page, they establish a connection to destruction and creation as two reciprocal impulses propelling the momentum of art over time.
Three new works, Remb., Goya, and Gr., share a common source. Each is composed of pages cut from a vintage monographic art book produced by the Skira publishing house. The pages that Senise has used were those that previously served as a support for illustrations. The images have been removed and their holding-pages cut and joined to form a precise papier collé grid whose variations in colour lend a puzzling illusion of depth. Taken out of linear order and rearranged in space, the only clue to these pages’ original purpose is their minimal content; an abbreviated guide, indicating which image belonged where, now points towards what is missing.
The Swiss publisher Albert Skira (1904-1973) is renowned for elevating the illustrated art book to an art form in itself. Skira’s abiding preoccupation was colour reproduction, a process that he sought to both perfect and to bring to a wider public. The more laborious ‘tipped-in’ method of printing each image plate separately, and pasting it into place within the book, allowed Skira to achieve the truest colours possible. Senise’s 2013 work Entre (papel picado do Braque) encapsulates Skira’s effort in the form of shredded plates, taken from a monograph on George Braque. Enshrined in acrylic, the tangled shards distil Braque’s oeuvre into a palette that is as anonymous as it is distinct from others in this series.
The world treasures and great master paintings that were the subject of Skira’s increasingly popular books of the 1950s and 1960s became known less as material facts and more as immaterial images. In this, it is notable that Albert Skira was the publisher of the first 1947 edition of what was to become one of the most influential arguments for the power of the reproduction, Volume I of Andre Malraux’s Psychologie De L’art, subtitled Le Musée Imaginaire. Malraux’s concept of the imaginary museum referred to the ever-expanding assemblage of works held together by a collective imaginary and exceeding that contained by any one physical museum. Estranged from their material context, the works of the Musée Imaginaire exist in an immaterial realm where they can be fluidly grouped, related, compared, and transformed.
For Malraux, the art of colour reproduction played a supporting role, it was an ‘instrument’ of the imaginary museum. The fact that Skira published the original version of Le Musée Imaginaire may suggest a perfect partnership between idea and instrument, but Malraux’s philosophy also worked against the possibility of any one perfect book. Malraux’s ‘museum without walls’ is not a completed visual encyclopaedia but rather one that is unfixed; it is both susceptible to the exigencies of history and available to the transformations wrought by artists to come. Senise’s transformation of Skira’s once-perfect books asserts the power of singular material fact against nebulous universe of reproduction. Rendered obsolete as the most effective means of circulation, the value of a vintage illustrated book is now measured according to the quaint terminology of the antiquarian bookseller, who weighs up the age tones and foxing of its pages against the pleasing freshness of its surviving colour plates. Senise’s use of the art book as found material, most explicitly in the case of Mofo (Mould), transforms quantified material remains into qualitative markers of time, creating a palette from which a new pictorial space is drawn.
Senise’s 2015 work Encyclopaedia Britannica is a set of 24 regularly sized monochrome wall reliefs. As both the title and these irregularly flecked surfaces suggest, each densely packed block is formed from the recycled pages of a volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica. First published in the full arrogant flush of the British Empire, the Encyclopaedia Britannica proffered “accurate definitions and explanations” of all available terms in the field of both art and science. Its printed existence survived 15 editions and multiple revisions until 2012, when it succumbed to the digital afterlife.
To make this work, Senise cut pages from the Encyclopaedia, which he soaked and pulped before reforming them into blocks – which are solid but surprisingly light – with the addition of gesso and glue. Nearly fifty years before this, British artist John Latham had used an edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as material for his work, stacking its volumes into a tower which was set on fire in an event titled Skoob Tower Ceremony: National Encyclopaedias. Burning this book was a both a deliberately iconoclastic act and one that transformed book-burning into a cathartic act of liberation.
For Latham, in 1966, this set of books was a symbol of contained and constricting knowledge posing as the universal truth. ‘Knowledge is an illusion that people have’ he asserted, arguing instead that it was necessary to ‘behave without knowing’. In the comparatively short time that separates two works by Latham and Senise, the printed encyclopaedia has become obsolete as a tangible instrument of authority. Senise inherits the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a remembered book and one that, within his lifetime, has outlived both its power and its purpose. Its pages are inert; drained of any symbolic charge, they no longer offer fuel to an iconoclastic fire. The surfaces of these works are illegible, the meaning once expressed by alphabetically arranged definitions, treatises, diagrams, and drawings forms a mute surface that nevertheless appears laden with meaning. As such they are expressive of the more enduring power of visual perception, as a means of knowing anchored by the material fact of the work itself, apart from what can be reduced to systematic organisation, and exceeding that which can be reproduced.
In the passage of time between Latham and Senise, it is tempting to conclude that the power of the single and authoritative book has dissolved, that the channels by which knowledge and power are linked have become as barely locatable as the flecks of printed matter churned and scattered across the surface of Senise’s Encyclopaedia Britannica. We can no longer look to one universal edition, or one universal museum, and know for sure that it is there that the reins of power lie. Amidst the becoming-obsolete universe of the book however there are still those that are treated as sacred, namely the holy books that form a foundation to the world’s three largest systems of religious belief.
For the believer, every reproduction of the Bible, Quran and Talmud, is not a book, it is the book. Like any one national flag, it is a material object handled with an uncommon degree of ceremony, fused with a symbolic charge that has less to do with its specific material form, and more to do with what it has been made to mean. At the same time, any reliance on a reference text seems to act against the very nature of faith, of religious belief as a way of knowing that does not rely on contained systems of scientific explanation. Senise’s BCT recycles pages of these texts into three equivalent planes, producing a surface that contains meaning but forestalls explanation. This act is not one of brute iconoclasm but rather one of tender transformation. The existence of a shared way of knowing is held in place across these diffuse surfaces, each one different, but together the same. If it is a statement, it is one of radical equivalence.Back