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KANAS: Low Resolution

by Lisa Volpe
Curator, Wichita Art Museum

“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule.”

Rule Setter: Lisa Volpe
Rule Breaker: Stuart Allen

I never want to see another pixelated photograph again. At each portfolio review, there is at least one artist who presents images that are pixelated in some way. Either the whole image or portions of the image are obscured by this type of distortion. I’ve been told that these grim squares reference the “anonymity of contemporary life” or the “ontology of digital photography.” Until I encountered Stuart Allen’s work, I had written off pixelization.

Stuart Allen’s aesthetically beautiful and conceptually challenging works of art break my rule. His series, KANSAS: low resolution, was created using images from his childhood in the state. “The source images are reminders of my youth in Wichita and the open landscapes of Kansas: throwing snowballs with my brother in our front yard, sailing on Cheney Lake, driving out west during college road trips,” Allen notes.  Cropped and magnified to reveal only a few pixels from the scan, the images nonetheless maintain a sense of the original subject. The buoyant feeling of white clouds against a clear sky is conveyed in Kansas / Cloud No. 1, 9 Pixels. Similarly, the shocking, yet natural yellow of Kansas / Sunflower No. 2, 4 Pixels speaks perfectly of Kansas’s state flower.

More than just beautiful chromatic compositions, Allen’s photographs pose intriguing questions about the nature of photography and landscape. By reducing the photographs in the series to only a few pixels, Allen has negated the iconicity of photography. Yet, an inexorable connection between the original subject and Stuart’s abstracted images remains as a testament to the indexicality of the medium. “While a nine-pixel photograph may render a decidedly abstract version of its subject, it remains a photograph: a record of light, in one place, in one time,” Allen states. Though Allen’s images deviate from the mimetic standard, they retain the basic elements and nature of their making.

Similarly, while these images are derived from photographs of a particular place, they don’t resemble traditional landscapes. Yet, they capture the experience of the natural world and conform to the definition of the sublime—having magnitude, intensity, and obscurity, thereby testing our ability to perceive or comprehend the view. “Though they no longer refer to the pictorial character of landscape,” the artist comments, “they do speak to the specific color and quality of light present in one moment, in one particular place on Earth.”

The simplicity of these refined compositions belies their intellectual depth. Allen’s photographs in KANSAS: low resolution pose intriguing questions that go beyond his series and engage with broader, art historical and theoretical questions. That’s quite an accomplishment from a few pixels.

Originally published on Don’t Take Pictures