Isca Greenfield-Sanders: The Silent Glow of Light


In her work, Isca Greenfield-Sanders interweaves photography and painting. This mix poses many intriguing questions about the practice and development of photography in the post-digital era, as well as painting’s history and its contemporary practice. These two parallel lines of inquiry intertwine as the main thread running throughout her work. I will treat both discourses in their relevant contexts.

Greenfield-Sanders’ latest series Film Edge Paintings is her most abstract to date, but in many ways they are a consistent step in her progression from the more figurative painting of her previous series. She finds the raw material for her work in rolls of tossed out 35mm film and negatives, which she finds in flea markets, and then transforms them into oil paintings. In her studio, the painting process is involved and complex. She scans the photographs, prints them on rice paper, enlarges and reduces, scans again, and so on until the final versions are eventually printed on rice paper. Then she transfers the image onto a canvas and the oil painting begins. During the entire process, most of the personal characteristics and specific features of the location are erased from the original photograph. Its origins and highly personal nature have slowly and gradually been remoulded under the artist’s hand. After her metamorphosis there still remains a place populated by humankind, a situation, speaking to us through its universality.

Her previous work has seen series of paintings based around similar sequences of images; holiday snaps from the beach, a football match, a summer’s day by the pool, people parachuting. I’m Scandinavian, and tired as I am in March of the long winter, her paintings are as invigorating as a thirsty wanderer in the desert suddenly finding an oasis. In her work we continually encounter the traces of the amateur photographer’s universe. No doubt, the photos were intended for the family album, but for some reason have gone missing or been thrown away. These earlier lives inhabiting the original photographs have past us by without a trace and we remain uncertain as to who is portrayed, when and where, or who took the pictures. However, we do recognise these conventional scenes, now turned into paintings. How many times have we photographed our families at celebrations, on holidays and other trips in front of monuments the world over, the names of which we no longer recall?

Greenfield-Sanders exploits the amateur photograph and all that implies: overexposure, light seepage, partial blurring and pictures knowing nothing about composition. These found pictures are far from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’.

The digital revolution of the 90s, when analogue photography was largely replaced by digital swung open the door for anyone to play the role of “professional photographer.” The digital revolution showed photography’s inherent and potential possibilities; for example immediately erasing images out of step with whatever the photographer might have had in mind when she snapped the picture. There was no more waiting for an end result after laborious work in the darkroom. There was a shift in the photographer’s site-specific work to largely post-production and photoshopping. Today, the majority of images are never printed, but circulated and viewed on the Internet. Anyone can print Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait, the first to be taken with a digital camera, and slap it up on their refrigerator. Digital photography democratized image making; there are five billon images on Flickr and counting.

The sheer number of photographs produced is skyrocketing. Taking snapshots in the new century is more like a constant diary of images, with the personal photo-album replaced by Facebook (with 500 million members 2.5 billion images are uploaded on Facebook a month or 964 pictures a second), blogs and websites, providing a publishing free-for-all with associated commentary. Via online social media, photographs achieve a global coverage that was hardly dreamt of previously.

The digital boom has redefined the influence of photography; it has not only become a social tool, but a political one. News reports now include reporting by amateur photographers who are first on the scene, which means amateur photography’s quality has made its mark as politically independent and therefore an authentic first-hand documentary of political and social events. Thanks to digital photography, allowing pictures to circulate around the globe in no time, like those seen in Muslim countries such as Libya and Egypt, can seize the world’s attention. We even have the privilege of witnessing political events in real time. Digital photography’s ability to distribute news globally is the most significance difference between Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid in the 60’s and the current revolution carried out by freedom fighters in Muslim countries. Back then, it took the United Nations 20 years to reach an agreement and implement trade sanctions against the South African regime; last month it took a few days for the United Nations to support the Libyan people’s struggle for freedom. This is historic.

Consequently, amateur photography has become empowered with authenticity and credibility. There is another factor we are experiencing in the post-digital age, something like a backwards recoil effect. More and more people are dusting off their old Super 8 projectors and using analogue photography again. With iPhone apps like Hipstermatic, photographs can appear as if they were taken with early 20th century equipment; we long for nostalgia, and an earlier and simpler time. Here is Greenfield-Sanders’ zone. Her paintings remind us of the cult of amateur photography that has gradually developed and won ground after the digital revolution and the emergence of our collective longing for the authentic and nostalgic. Compared to the practice of earlier photographers in the 1990s, she is more interested in unveiling photography’s flaws rather than seeking the perfect picture.

Film Edge Paintings takes her one step further from nostalgia and the forgotten amateur pictures, towards the very fringes of what was never allowed to take form. Film Edge Paintings unveils those analogue pictures that never turned out when the film role reached its end. There is a poetic space of time in her works, where we are left wondering what preceded the picture and what would have come after, but never took place. Instead, there is the splice, which is never allowed in the picture; its salvage photography, those miscoloured photographs in pastel tones. In a few cases, you can make out something recognisable. Listen to Pablo Picasso: ‘There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality’ Greenfield-Sanders’ Film Edge Paintings sidesteps this axiom. Her paintings don’t start with anything. She begins with nothing, which she then turns into something. Her photographic statement established, we turn to the other parallel track in her work: painting.

In 1524, when Michelangelo despatched his final plans for the Laurentian Library’s vestibule and staircase to Florence for construction; he could not have known he would never witness his own masterwork completed. He died in 1564. It is said the idea for the vestibule came to him in a dream. Considering it is part of a cloister in San Lorenzo, a place dedicated to enlightenment and tranquillity, the building’s entrance has more of a nightmarish feel reminiscent of The Trial by Kafka. Life is a labyrinth, without a way out.

The library’s vestibule has a strict structure of columns from white to dark grey. The lowest row is painted a dense grey, creating a trompe l’oeil effect of shut windows. The vestibule leads to a magnificently vivid and undulating staircase that contrasts with otherwise strict geometric lines. As a whole, the vestibule emanates with compact silence and tension, with the striking illusion of windows. The same effect is produced by the brilliant Reverse of a Framed Painting from 1670-1672 by the Flemish painter and virtuoso of trompe l’oeil, Cornelis Norbert Gijsbrecht. Just like Michelangelo, Gijsbrecht, uses his skills as a painter to take the illusion to the extreme; photographic precision, the reverse side of a painting, a flat grey surface in a wooden frame. The most effective way to demonstrate his vision was to paint nothing at all.

More than four hundred years after Michelangelo made his first drawings for the Laurentian Library, Mark Rothko visited Michelangelo’s cloister. In his own words, the strong impact of the painted, grey windows in the vestibule gave him a feeling of ‘hitting my head against the wall.’ Rothko’s well-known series The Seagram Murals – now dedicated to its own room at the Tate Modern – was painted at the same time as his visit to the library. Some years later, he commenced his final series of paintings, often referred to as The Dark Paintings. This was a series of works with a horizontal line dividing the paintings into two different shades of grey.

Just like Michelangelo, Rothko never lived to see his work finished at the Tate. Debate continues about Rothko’s visions with The Seagram Murals. Some say the monumental paintings were meant to act as a portal; others say they offer a contemplative journey into their inner selves. Maybe a more touching conclusion comes from the relationship between Rothko’s visit to San Lorentzo, and his series The Dark Paintings.

It is not difficult to relate Greenfield-Sanders’ series Film Edge paintings to Michelangelo’s windows in San Lorentzo, Gijsbrecht and Rothko’s Dark Paintings, with his consistent division of the picture into two colour fields. Perhaps even more like Greenfield-Sanders’ work, is the smaller and more intimate series that Rothko worked on parallel to The Dark Paintings. These like Greenfield-Sanders’ paintings were painted on paper, with lighter more pastel-like colours in scales of pink, light blue and yellow. The final dark series casts a fateful shadow; his suicide in 1970 is not far from mind. Gradually, Rothko was moving towards a new era in his work, leaving behind the vertical structure for one more horizontal.

It is with ease that we can see references from Greenfield-Sanders’ work to modernists such as Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko, however the dramatic structure, their epic and truly fateful grandeur are missing. She moves in a different sphere in the 21st century where amateur photography and the photo-album call out for the authentic, seeking what once was, her movement is consistently towards the imperfect. She seeks that which cannot be created. She starts with nothing, which she turns into something. But what is this something?

Of all references, Film Edge Paintings relates most strongly to the natural world and then landscape painting. Titles include more specific descriptions in brackets, for example Film Edge (Pink Sky, Yellow Horizon). More often than not, titles describe various combinations of sky, sea and the horizon as well as a pastel-like colour scale. In some examples, there are even more detailed titles, such as Film Edge (Yellow Leaves) and Film Edge (Black Tree).

Looking at Greenfield-Sanders’ pictures landscape painting naturally comes to mind, and above all the romantically grandiose; Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner. The late works of Turner stand out, for example Sunrise with Sea Monsters, 1845, where he developed a freer, atmospheric style. They are, like Greenfield-Sanders hallucinatory, abstract observations of a seascape. Dispersed forms with a highly subjective depiction of nature, and they carry his claim to the extreme; ‘I paint what I see, not what I know.’ Turner’s The Evening Star, 1830, is perhaps even more interesting in relation to Greenfield-Sanders’ work. The Evening Star demonstrates his interest in the shifting light conditions as the star’s light is drowned out by the stronger moonlight. He and Greenfield-Sanders find a common ground.

A group of American landscape painters, the Hudson River School, followed more or less in Turner’s footsteps, creating a movement later called Luminism. These were certainly realist painters, more than either Turner or European Impressionists. The landscapes are similar because light, just as in photography, plays its central role. The Luminists intended that light should radiate from within the painting and transcend the distance to the viewer and result in a more sublime, tranquil and pure experience, therefore also reducing visible brush strokes in the painting’s surface.

Greenfield-Sanders’ paintings have their own silent glow. Consider her Film Edge (Mauve Sky, Yellow Horizon) next to Frederic Edwin Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, or Film Edge (Cream Sky) aside Georg Caleb Bingham’s painting Fur Traders Descending the Missouri from 1845, or when Film Edge (Yellow Sky) meets James Augustus Suydam’s sunset in Long Island, 1862. The Luminists echo in her work.

A last thought. Who could ignore the relationship between Greenfield-Sanders and the magnificent Swedish painter, Carl Fredrik Hill (between 1877-1878 and prior to his illness). Hill seems to reach out to Greenfield-Sanders in his frozen landscapes, twilights and dawns, not least Sister Anna. The painting shows his recently deceased sister standing in a landscape with an inner light contrasting with the darker forest and shadows. There is a strange discrepancy, and simultaneously a similar likeness between Hill’s figurative painting and Greenfield-Sanders’s contemporary subject matter; it finds itself along the splice, on the point of coming into existence.

While Modernists possessed a monumental vision for what they would accomplish, Greenfield-Sanders presents something different. Mark Rothko said art had an opportunity to liberate unconscious energies and fill the spiritual emptiness in humankind. Clyfford Still portrayed our spiritual ‘vertical’ struggle where colour, form and material should be fashioned into one single living entity. Greenfield-Sanders’ work is quieter in tone, and reveals beauty in what is imperfect and undramatic, her splice between the narrative and the silent glow of light.