We become the witnesses of a classic process of abstraction: a particular motif is transferred to a general grid, and the reproduction of a visual appearance is transcended to advance to an idea, an essence, substance, structure, or simply to a square (and sometimes a pixel. This is part of the process whose result we see in Matten Vogel’s series Not. In all its variants, this process determined like no other the course of art in the last century; one could almost say it is the basic motif of Modernism: to translate the particular into a generality or to work out in the particular the laws of composition of the general. This is true not only of art, but equally for developments in the politics and administration of society, with the well-known “shadow sides” that are connected with the absoluteness and “purity” of general categories. In a certain way, chemical processes like reduction, essentialization, and isolation are akin to the process of abstraction. In mathematics and politics, one could make comparisons to set theory, which categorizes elements with specific qualities; in linguistics, one could think of the “empty signifier”, social signs like the idea of the nation (the famous example here is the monument of the Unknown Soldier), which display an extremely high degree of abstraction that requires the individual’s imagination to fill it with concrete content, thereby taking on substance and embodiment.
Later, the idea of essence was itself in many ways rejected and demasked as a construction of discourse – with which the search for the abstract in itself was replaced by the gesture (and thereby the possibility, the process) of abstraction as the central process of producing meaning. It is not far from the “empty signifier” to the other element in Matten Vogel’s Not pictures: the void, but also the test image. The pictures we now see have developed out of two previous series: “ zensiert von…” (censored by…) and “nicht gemalt” (not painted). In “zensiert von…”, black censorship bars are laid across central or incidental elements of found photographic motifs: faces, usually, but also a ship in the middle of the picture. This may have less to do with censorship itself than with the gesture of making something disappear – more precisely, with making the center or focus disappear: the face, the eyes, which are the center anyway, or the motif in the middle of the picture. “Zensiert von…“ is thereby an approach to the gesture of power as such: power as the potency to dissolve or extinguish something particular or singular in a generality. The series “nicht gemalt” is like a series of tests for the pictures we now see: in classically painted genre motifs, large surfaces are “cropped away”. This is quite different from the gesture of the censor’s black bar, but it expends itself on the painting, which exerts a powerful pull.
In Not, the motif of the empty middle is released from this embrace of the painted motif, an embrace that still makes us think of cropping, painting over, etc. The boundary between painted and not painted is now fluid and yet absolute: the motif (the pictures build upon the “nicht gemalt” series) is divided into even, monochromatic fields of color that follow a grid laid over the entire picture surface. The fields of color left empty in the center of the picture thus become an actual emptiness, the emptiness of the center. This can be a gesture of negation (the title points to this) or one of creating space, or a meditation that recalls the organizational principles of Japanese gardens and cities, whose center of power also describes a void. But it can also be, in a broad sense, an “optical” effect or defect, an impossibility to focus, to identify, and to recognize the real, the essence; a situation of being pushed to the margin of the field of vision, where identification is possible, but always already particularized – the general is a necessary fiction and cannot be identified. The test image footage taken from television and placed on the lower edge of the picture points to this and simultaneously introduce the element of the modular and mechanical norm to the pictures. Here, the empty middle stands in a constantly redefined, reciprocal, and yet always hierarchical relationship to the identifiable edge, while the basic grid stands for their common constitution. It is the general emptiness that allots the particular its place, but at the same time emptiness is also an absence and even a lack of the particular. Also familiar is the concept of the “empty middle” from political and social theories: the empty center of power permits and forces the particular to make itself identifiable, to take on an identity, to direct itself to become specific in relation to the generality. At the moment when the authority itself becomes identifiable, however, it becomes assailable and is often pushed all to rapidly too the margin. In this sense, the empty middle in the Not pictures is a pulsating and yet hermetic center that exemplifies the virulent problem of the necessity of emptiness as loss and gain. (No or was it Not? Anselm Franke)