André S Clements’ work can be described as a realist adaptation and exploration of human aesthetics through technology, which renders him a fine artist as well as craftsman. Known for his recursive medium of layered photographs, he recently launched his first solo exhibition ‘Æsthesia’ at The Res Gallery. The sophisticated debut – most notably including the ‘Composer Series’ and the ‘Head of State’ – showcases art works that comprise multiple photographic portraits and personalities of Western classical composers as well as South Africa’s last seven presidents to form single collective ones. We had a chance to catch up with him while it was still running and spoke about how he created a progression from the supposed realism of photography to the arguable realism of an abstract portrait.

A State Of Head

A State Of Head

Your art works primary focus is on expression through the face. Why do you use the face as a portal of communication with your audience?

In the ‘Æsthesia’ body of work I wanted, amongst other things, to portray something of how we conceive identities. Perhaps partly out of being conscious of it being my debut solo exhibition, I chose to present a face made up of faces as a point-of-entry.
In my more extreme abstract work it is often apparent that if you confront almost anyone with a complex enough image, sooner or later they will see a face or faces. I’m very interested in neuropsychology, especially in how we use and abuse pattern recognition.
As humans, from the time we come into this world we relate through and with faces — arguably more than with anything else; we read them, make them, paint them. Not just the face, but the head seems to me such a fascinating and essential locus of sense and sensation. If one thinks of the many idioms and metaphors revolving around faces and heads – ‘saving face’, ‘in your face’ and to play a little on my process of combining images – ‘putting heads together’ (smiles).
There is also the wealth of the tradition of portraiture, both in fine art and photography. For a contemporary artist I think it is a daunting and exciting challenge to attempt to tap into that history, to explore trying to resolve the dynamics between those traditions and the perhaps more abstract modern dimensions of, for example, conceptual, evolutionary aesthetics and theory.

(all of which is perhaps a round-about way of saying the question seems to already be its own answer)

Composers 1 Renaissance

Composers 1 Renaissance

Composers 2  Baroque

Composers 2 Baroque

The faces in the ‘Composer Series’ seem to be more blurred than those in ‘A State of Head’. Why did you decide to do this?

Yes and no. With each of the pictures of the ‘Composer Series’, each image equally represents and condenses the main features of representations of relatively large groups of individual composers. These range from 15 individuals with the Renaissance and Baroque composers, to 256 individuals in the 20th century classical work. With ‘State of Head’ I used three images for each of the six presidents of South Africa since PW Botha. But while I took care to retain the definition of all the facial features and to some extent the outlines of the composers, in ‘State of Head’ I sacrificed other details in order to retain most detail in the eyes and more of the character of the typical newspaper photographs, leaving the ‘State of Head’ somehow more muted, something of ‘Big Brother is watching you’, but not speaking to you.
With the composers there is also typically a much larger timeframe between us and the collective composer in each image. If one starts to look at these portraits not only as portraits of individuals but also portraits of the times that produced them and their representations, I think the blurring you refer to begins to make sense. The passage of time erodes focus, doesn’t it? If I’m not mistaken the term and concept ‘ephemeral’ is quite fashionable – guilty as charged I wanted to create something that evokes the experience of the ephemerality of time and existence (smiles). The term may be fashionable, but the core of it revolves around mortality — our own fragility.
If the ‘Composer Series’ portrays subtleties of aesthetic and cultural evolution through the mist of time and are thus softer in definition, ‘State of Head’ is — pardon the idiom — more in your face. It is a portrait of the drama of the last 30 years of the South African state. It has been gritty, often brutal and abrupt. The portrait transposes something of that into texture and contrasts. There is more of a sense of the individuality — individuals represented in contrast with the act of merging their images. The format and scale of the piece is more confrontational, more imposing, but in many ways arguably more accessible — even if only because of the familiarity of the faces to us.

Is there any correlation between this distortion of image and the disillusion society experiences at times?

To be honest I’m not so sure, at least not that disillusion is more pertinent than for instance alienation, integrity and other issues. If we focus on the South African transformation, it is complex. There are so many angles from which one can try to consider the transformation in progress and the history is very new and still in a lot of flux. ‘State of Head’, for me, portrays something of the continuous process of change. I think partly of the picture as facing the open-endedness, the undetermined-ness of our future. For me, more interesting than the distortion, is the dissolution of boundaries. When the boundaries between the presidents dissolve in the office which I think assimilates them more than they ‘mount’ it, then perhaps by extension the boundaries between them and us also begin to dissolve.
The work is not polemical, certainly not in the fashion of ‘Spear of the Nation’ or ‘Umshini Wam (Weapon of Mass Destruction)’. I’m not particularly interested in promoting specific agendas or picking sides in PR spats. I would like my work to, hopefully in some small way, challenge the ‘us versus them’ paradigm. It’s easy to criticize those in office, perhaps not so easy to see and take part responsibility for the fact that they are products of the society of which we are all part and co-creators of.

Perhaps the distortion is reflection of distortions of society itself rather than its illusions and sentiments.

Back Office Portraits IV

Back Office Portraits IV

Does the use of classical composition in music represent a form of intellect and/or mindset for you?

Kind of. It embodies the dance between formal systems, technicalities and Euclidean ideals on the one hand, and sensual imperatives, intuitions and the Dionesian on the other.

It represents the trajectory of socio-technical and cultural development towards greater orders of complexity and invokes awareness of parts within parts building on each other.

As a series it is intentionally ‘Western’ and Eurocentric and hung across from the ‘State of Head’ with its more African facial appearance. It could be read as a kind of dialogue. They personify the pursuit of beauty, the allure (and arguably also a futility) of artistic practice, the allure of the power and charm of those who can invoke what neuropsychology calls the ‘towards response’ —

our deepest yearnings and desires to choose ‘good’ when confronted with the choice between ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

So do these men of music and time represent something tangible?

Only for relatively tenuous definitions of ‘tangible’ (smiles). I think for me they represent intangibles more than tangibles. They represent idolization, its bad sides (e.g. the ego or persona cult) as well as its good sides (saving heritage, building knowledge and skill over generations etc.). They represent the complexities of aesthetics, the fickleness of taste, style and fashion but also something of that which — from a human perspective, perhaps species-ist perspective — appears (at least to most of us I think) to differentiate us from other organisms: our cultural production.

You speak of the ‘average’ composer, can you expound on what you think that encompasses?

I’m not sure of the context I used that phrase in. Usually when I talk about the use of averages in my process it relates specifically to the technical dimension. Superimposing various images in a way that each has a more-or-less equal influence on what the resulting image is across most, if not all, of the picture plane. But it is short-hand of course, and there isn’t really such a thing as a true average of an image and even less so for people. But with that said, what interests me in the ‘averaging’ process is the way that aligning similarities and differences can create emergent properties that reflect something of the bigger-picture entities that the individuals are part of. We are whole individuals, but we are also parts of multi-dimensional meta-temporal entities far more complex, intertwined and expansive than we can begin to fathom, maybe. (That’s the Euclidean perspective.)
With all of that said, in creating the ‘Composer Series’ I was very excited by the way each piece seemed to really bring out something characteristic of that era — obvious perhaps when considering the rationale of the process, but for me still very exciting. With the Renaissance work, the fifteen source images were all relatively naïve representations in fine art terms. Very simple colour palettes and compositions in the paintings and the almost clunky granularity of woodcut prints and so on. The figure that emerged looked more realistic than any of the source portraits. It looked almost anaemic and perhaps shell-shocked as it/he emerges from the less-than forgiving middle ages almost as if just arrived from pre-history. The baroque period presents a more accomplished fleshier persona, embodying the luxuries of style and presentation and is somehow more accessible than any of the other appearances I think. The classical movement begins to have the airs of sophistication, be less personable but bolder and stronger. Having more images available, 30 to be specific, the subtleties reach greater resolution. The 75 images that went into the Romantic era work contained many early black and white photographs, daguerreotypes and such. Somehow a sense of individuality and passion emerges the strongest here. There is also a kind of morbidity, maybe early disillusionment with the ideals of industrialization etc.

I can’t help but think you can almost smell the absinth each time I look at the piece.

Then in the 20th century piece, which is synthesized from 256 individuals, you really get the idea of the loss of a sense of identity amid the overload of information. The colour is closest to realistic, but there is also a kind of banality in the generic-ness of the face.

Composers 5  Twentieth Century Classical

Composers 5 Twentieth Century Classical

Do you aim to educate a generation in art and politics with this haunting image of South African history (‘A State of Head’)?

That’s a big question.

Should art educate? What is education anyway, beyond institutionalised conditioning and manipulation?

I do think learning is good, ditto developing sensitivity and awareness. I’m convinced that understand-ability is one of the necessary conditions of sustaining wellbeing for each of us individually and also larger contexts of society. If ‘State of Head’ resonates with supporting more empathy, as lofty as artistic practice might be, it is also ‘just’ art. But I do believe that authority, politics and its dynamics has merit and a great deal of potential as subject matter in artistic and cultural practice.
Can this holographic technique be a direct translation of how one’s personal identity has many layers as well?
Yes, identity, also personality and perhaps even spirit. Ditto society. There is the stratification in theoretical models of development, but perhaps more important than the individual layers are the composites they form.
What can you say about your own personal character layering?
(laughs) If I really wanted to talk about my own character I’d probably have pursued politics rather than art. I think relationships are important to me, as are the ideals of non-duality. I can’t claim to have mastered any of them but they do interest, excite and stimulate me.

Composers 3  Classical

Composers 3 Classical

What sort of personality does the multi-layered person in ‘A State of Head’ have? Do you think he would be your friend or enemy?

Its personality is ambiguous, and I think that is largely the point. David Krut on viewing the piece commented that ‘you can’t see if they are good guys or not’ – that response really pleased me. Friendship and animosity is so fickle, so context dependent. Sure we probably all mostly like to believe we are or at least pretend to be incorruptible in our convictions and values. Perhaps how true those beliefs are is less important than how they fit into the greater schemes of things. I think I distrust authority and power while on some levels, I also envy and respect it and I doubt I’m alone in this.

We are social creatures and we like to be able to trust, it makes life easier, at least until trust outweighs responsibility in the balance. That’s when we get into trouble.

Do you believe that your pairing with the Res Gallery for the exhibition influenced the expression of your work in terms of physical presence?

Yes. One aspect is the sense in which the gallery space feels like a passage, a kind of portal which influenced the hanging of the pieces and their relationships to each other, allowing a kind of progression or narrative flow as one walks through the exhibition. Beyond the physical space the gallery is also a kind of portal into a very stimulating creative community which contributed to the process of development and creation of the work as well as its eventual presentation and marketing.

In ‘A State of Head’ is there any particular president you want highlighted?

No, not particularly.

What head of state held the most importance for you? Who was your favourite head of state and why?

Probably Mr Mothlante by a very slight margin. Maybe because it is so easy to not consider him a full president, but in reality he held the office. There is something of an underdog and aspect to his position in the sequence of events and his apparent authentic idealism appeals to my sensibilities.

Do you believe these men still maintain mass relevance in everyday life and if so how?
Mass relevance? No. They are icons. In every-day life and in real terms; to the ordinary citizen they are little more than the cardboard posters through which they are known. The character and validity of systemic constructs are relevant in that these are more significant determinants of everyday reality and socio-cultural trajectories. Are these recognized for what they are? Are they subjected to sufficient critical attention and consideration, sufficiently held accountable? I don’t think so. Perhaps if they could somehow be made more visible they would.

Andre s clements

Andre s clements

With photography supposed to be a realistic form of imagery, what does the use of multilayer showcase?

At the risk of sounding a little wacky, photography has never really been realistic, it is flat, rectangular and static. We don’t see or experience like that naturally. Yes, we’ve become accustomed to photographic images being presented as evidence, which has some obvious merit, but many of those conventions are sheer laziness — as much on the part of the audience as the photographer.
In typical stock photography, which perhaps best embodies the ideals of technically-oriented photography the ideals are to have everything in the image crisp and in focus – again we don’t look in that way. Our sight is necessarily selective. Yes photography sometimes employs depth-of-field (usually associated with ‘creative photography’) but the kind of mono-ocular blurring that a single-lens camera’s optics produce is still different from our physical experience of bi-ocular vision. So much photography seems to be content with the ideal of capturing an image as a record of a moment of time. As David Hockney eloquently argues, this robs the viewing of the resulting picture of much of its time dimension. It sacrifices the narrative of mark-making out of the picture and relegates it to something like implicit conceptually interpretive context. I like the idea of painterly qualities, that are emergent properties of the play between records of supposed reality and that is what pulls me most to the extensive layering process. There is a sense in which it entails the so-called ‘hand of the artist’ being removed as far as it can go from the picture plane that in some ways re-emerges more closely integrated in the picture than is possible through any other way I can think of. Technically these composite images are not holographic, but in other ways perhaps they are or can be. Instead of trying to set up or manipulate moments to capture them, which is almost completely doomed by its reductive nature, composite photography allows moments to become notes in melodies. It offers a broader palette of possibilities and opens up different ways of working with relationships, narratives and completely different epistemological and ontological perspectives. You don’t have to settle for what is available in the physical reality or what can be constructed in a studio (not that there is anything wrong or less valid with either of those disciplines) but you can also sculpt pictures in their own domain and other dimensions.

Have you ever seen any of these men as a direct influence on your life or your development as an artist?

Not directly no. Though in terms of the composers, I love music, many genres and I’m deeply grateful and happy that the composers and the musicians they represent have been and are around, and the boundaries they have pushed.

Interview by Jared Ethan Blake
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