Die Beeld

nathaniel stern: review in die beeld
nathaniel stern: review in die beeldIndrukke van Werklikheid
original article

Impressions of Reality
by Johan Myburg

The biggest mistake that a writer can make is to pretend that language is a transparent medium with which the reader can deduce a ‘truth’ or ‘reality’.

If you use this remark from Roland Barthes to explain the role of the artist, and read ‘language’ as visual communication, Nathaniel Stern would be no guilty party. It is particularly the ephemerality of ‘truth’ and the many and changing facets of reality that fascinates, and which Stern effortlessly propagates.

The choice of title of his latest exhibition in Art on Paper in Johannesburg, prepares you already – before you have seen the works – on what Stern called ‘performative utterances’.

Call and Response: Performative Prints and Iterations is thus not a new viewpoint, but rather a continuation, an amended repetition, even more invitations to viewers to add to the conversation. Invitations that he also extended previously in exhibitions like Step Inside in Johannesburg.

The way with which one looks repeatedly at things is something of great importance to Stern.

‘Would it be flippant to say that the birth of our first child changed my ways of “looking” significantly?’ asks Stern in a questioning manner proudly. ‘I have always tried to see everything around me in a provocative manner, but the fresh look through a child’s eyes have alerted me even more of the need for playfulness in seeing’.

Stern has been called the ‘father of Compressionism’, a new art movement in New Media art. He uses ‘simple, digital technology to explore different ways of looking.’. Equipped with his portable scanner coupled with a laptop, Stern explores objects like a trimmed Ficus (Four Trees), a bookcase (Epics and Anthologies), agapanthi in his garden (Agapan-thus), the body of a nude that descends a staircase a la Duchamp (Nude Descension).

The digital image gets extended again later to original format, and he adds colour because that suffers sometimes in the scanning process.

The artwork that the viewer sees eventually, is thus not a plain representation, but rather a map of the way that the artist’s eyes followed, the footsteps of the scanner, the impression that the object left (or rather, what the object impressed at the moment of recording).

The playfulness that Stern deals with a tree (Four Trees) in the process of creating, also impresses as tree-form (in the artwork as edition) – the bottom work the trunk, and the top three, the branches of the tree.

In the term Compressionism, one mostly recognises Impressionism. And you see Stern with his scanner in between the water lilies in the Emmarentia lake, his Emmarentia Lilies triptych, and  just as with Claude Monet’s way of seeing, it becomes part of your own realisation.

‘Monet and his Impressionism friends started everything’ remarks Stern with authority. ‘Monet and Duchamp are my two biggest leading figures. Monet, who set the importance of impression before that of representation, and Duchamp, the archetypical conceptual artist.’

The enthusiasm with which Stern talks, convinces one when he says: I see myself as a conceptual being. I was brought up in a house with two parents who are interested in the written word. I think in terms of symbols and signs. Or rather, it is the onset of my work’.

‘Previously, I have regarded the body as text and concept. But I am getting more and more conscious of the tactile, of ‘flesh as performed’ rather than ‘preformed’.

The world of New Media is one into which Stern has immersed himself.

He has contributed to practically all of the facets of this developing industry. In New York – where he was born and bred – he participated in a group show with his work hektor.net and enter.hektor – video poetry and an interactive installation.

He obtained his Masters Degree in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.

Shortly after 2001, Stern established himself in South Africa and is married to Nicole Ridgway, an academic, who was at that stage, at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of the Arts. Collaborating with the choreographer PJ Sabbagha, Stern worked on animation productions for stage – The Double Room has been awarded three Vita awards, following on what was also seen in 2005 on the Grahamstown Festival.

Currently, Stern is busy with his Doctoral studies at the Trinity College in Dublin – with his thesis titled The Implicit Body.

On the Call and Response exhibition, Stern shows lambda prints as well as graphic prints – etchings, gravures with chine colle, aquatints, and polyester plate lithographies.

‘To make graphic prints is very exciting – it was wonderful to work with Jillian Ross of the David Krut Print Workshop.

‘To try something new is always exhilarating. There is still so much that I want to do’. A remark that sticks with you when you look at the busy website nathanielstern.com with his many blog entries.

‘I constantly realise that I am interested in questions even more than answers’.

And when one looks at Stern’s work, one realises that postmodernism is more than what is sometimes attuned to it: impressions of reality, and the truth alongside it, is ephemeral, place-specific, and ever tentative.