Saturday, May 12, 2012

Chess in Art Postscript: It's The Thought That Counts

Some time back in these Chess in Art posts we encountered artists who made chess-artworks from the moves of master games. There was the incised circuitry of German Ugo Dossi – chess-art by spirograph? – and the vegetative tracery of Frenchman Dominique Digeon – chess-art by secateurs, perhaps. Now we have a third example: home-grown Tom Hackney, who came to our blog’s attention via this article by Jennifer Shahade. Here is an example of his work:

Chess Painting No. 2
(Duchamp vs. Crépeaux, Nice, 1925)
Intrigued, a few weeks ago I made contact with Tom and he very kindly agreed to submit to my layman’s email-questioning about his chess-art. So, here we go, head to head with a serious Chess-in-Artist.

To begin with Tom describes his method:
“The path of each move is painted as if the base of the piece were dragged across the board, so with a knight, the full ‘L’ would be painted. With diagonal moves, the path of the move is painted – something that semi-crosses into adjacent squares.”
As one painted path overlays another the traces of earlier moves are either blocked out by the opaque black or, through semi-transparent white, appear as fading reminders of the history of the game, just as in reality earlier moves lose themselves in later ones. If, as happens, a square remains untouched by a piece, it shows up as bare canvas. Although you can’t see it in the on-line images, Tom says the paintings have a structural relief created by the varying number of layers of paint on the squares.

And here, to give an insight into the work, is the game itself.

So, is Tom Hackney an active chess player? Not so much now, he explained: he was taught by his mother; played at primary school; continued with lots of junior chess for Somerset and in the South West C.C.U; then drifted away; and subsequently…
“I enjoyed watching Kasparov vs. Short on TV (particularly for the punditry and analysis) and I have always admired the genius of Fischer – probably more so given the context of his troubled life & career. Latterly though, it’s the games of Marcel Duchamp that have been of greatest interest.”
As for his artistic trajectory: you can see from his website that his earlier work (circa 2000) appears to be severely, and surprisingly, representational – landscapes, portraits and the like. But even these conceal a “conceptual art” dimension as they are in fact hyper-realist painted copies of photographs. Here is Tom again:
“…both the photorealistic work and my recent chess paintings both involve a form of painted transposition, using specific reference material, whether that be a photograph of a specific film location, or a game played by Duchamp in Paris in the 1920s. I see both working practices as coming from a similar place, in terms of authorship.”
The idea of using the moves of chess games as the “data” (as Tom puts it) for artworks arrived when he was doing a Masters at Goldsmiths in 2008 (Goldsmiths College of Art – the HQ of the YBAs). Incidentally, along the way, in 2003, he was winner of the BOC Emerging Artist Award.

Time for another painting and its respective game-player. It's Deep Blue, "playing" white, chewing up humankind's finest - if you can bear to look - in 1996.

Chess Painting No. 3.
(Kasparov vs Deep Blue, Game 1, Philadelphia, 1996)

N.B. Kasparov is black and is playing up the board
- read why further along in the interview below
I asked Tom how he chose which games to paint, expecting it would be according to their place in the canon, but not quite:
“It started with the 1st Fischer vs. Spassky game from the ’72 series – no particular reason other than I had always been fascinated by the match (at and away from the board) and by that time in general.”
And as for Marcel Duchamp I wondered why, in the ten or so of his games that Tom had painted, he had included defeats and draws:
“The first Duchamp game I chose was Duchamp vs. Crépeaux, Nice, 1925 [as above - MS]. Had Duchamp won that game, he would likely have become the French Champion, but of course he didn’t. I think all of his games are significant, and I hope to paint them all in time. My selections so far have been based on particular times or places – I like the idea that these games I’m re-enacting took place in, say, Paris in the 1920s. To that extent the outcomes of the games aren’t that important to me”
Paint them all”? I didn't dare remind Tom that he has yet another 60-odd published games of Duchamp to go (including one more that recently came on our radar). Might he need a small army of assistants, such as fellow Goldsmiths alumnus Damien Hirst employs, to pull it off? (Another question I didn't ask.)

An insightful (if, for your blogger, challenging) catalogue essay for Tom’s last exhibition, by Dr Ed Krčma of Greenwich University, makes the same point: that some of the games/matches Tom has selected have wider significance, Spassky-Fischer (1972) and the Cold War, for example, or Kasparov-Deep Blue (1996) and the triumph of the computer. Some pictures, however, go further and, by omitting any reference at all to the players’ names, make the political context paramount, as in two chess-game works titled simply “Paris 1968”.

So what are we to make of Tom Hackney’s chess-artworks?

Looking as a chess player I was interested in the “legibility” of the game portrayed. In the rendering of Duchamp vs. Crépeaux you can see the territorial pattern of the struggle, with white's attack on the Queenside, and on the Kingside the site of Crépeaux's swindle (the flip-side of Marcel's blunder). And there's the thrust of Kasparov’s doomed attack down (i.e."up") the e file, as Deep Blue gets at K's king along the 7th.

More specifically you can sometimes see the mark of a significant game-changer such as 29…Bxh2? in Spassky vs Fischer (1972), game 1, or maybe Duchamp's h6 tactic v Menchik in 1929 (both games below). Of these two, you can see that the first is, well, more "bishopy" and the second is more "rooky"- Deep Blue v K has a touch of both.

Compared with the other chess-game artists who give us the whole game in a visual tangle of moves, in Tom's work we have a perspective on the game as it resolves in its final phase, as if you had stumbled on it, kibitzer-fashion, half-a-dozen or so moves before the end.

I commented so to Tom, who said:
“I met with Jennifer Shahade at a recent exhibition, and her reaction, similar to your own, was one of extrapolation and analysis. I think chess players can decode the works to some extent, whether through a historical knowledge of the particular players/games, or by interpreting the visual composition”
…and non-chessers...
“…tend see them as paintings of chess games, and then perhaps make connections – they tend to develop the art-historical side of things.”
The “art-historical side” is talked about by Dr Krčma with reference to Mondrian and De Stijl – although if you are looking for others, for me the rebarbatively named Post-Painterly Abstraction springs to mind (though maybe not to the lips), or the formalism of Ben Nicholson.

Tom has also done a few chess paintings where he has done away with the “polarity“ of black and white to produce a monochrome of the game: not to evoke peace and love à la Yoko Ono’s all-white chess set, but to refer us, as Dr Krčma suggests, to the players' thought process, pure and simple, in the raised relief of the paint layers. He also points out that this monochrome approach (Tom has some other works in the same vein, though not chess-based) provides another reference: to Malevich, who in the 1910s pioneered geometric abstract art, and, in one notorious composition, painted just a single large black square.

You can see Tom's monochromes on his website, so here are couple more of his black and white (and, here and there, canvas-coloured) chess paintings (with links to their game-players):

You can, if you wish, apply aesthetic judgements alone to these (throwing the chess out of the window, as it were, for the purpose) and decide which please you, or are more successful in terms of gestalt, geometry, movement, significant form, or whatever, just as Mondrian and Nicholson would have done when refining their works. They’d have been looking for some kind rational, intellectual, abstract perfection.

Following this thought through, I asked Tom if he regarded any of these paintings as failures (which he might now be hiding in some East-End lock-up), and here is his fascinating answer:
“My authorship seems to take place conceptually, before the painting materialises, and the resulting work has a degree of formal autonomy. In this respect, failure is neutral – that’s not really where my concern rests in this work.”
Except, except…if the look doesn't matter, why in some of his chess-game pictures has he switched things so black is "playing" up the “board” (against convention, as in Deep Blue v K above)? Tom said:
“…although I try to orientate the games with white playing up, these examples were just placed in way I liked the look of…”
…and “aha” I thought, how it looks does matter.

But, not quite. Tom continued:
“I like how with square works rotation comes into play – and that in chess, a 3-dimensional appreciation of the board I find important, in terms of ‘seeing’ the game.”
He won't be painted into a corner: the rotation is for chessic, and not, to use Duchamp's term, "retinal" reasons. It's not rotated for the look of the picture as a picture, but to get a better grip on the game.

And when I taxed him that he was basically leaving it all to chance anyway, as it's an accident whether or not a set of moves results in a worthwhile visual image, something Mondrian and Nicholson, arch-rationalists, would never have countenanced, he said:
“In terms of rationality vs. chance, the paintings negotiate both aspects – they encompass chance elements - automatically playing out found data, whilst at the same time, this data is actively sourced, and the paintings follow the data through an absolute geometry. My authorship seems to take place conceptually, before the painting materialises, and the resulting work has a degree of formal autonomy.”
And we've definitively changed gear again. His art-works are not simply about those particular chess-games; or just about how they look. They are about the idea underpinning them.

So, in contrast to how, when I'm down at my portrait-painting class on a Tuesday morning, I "author" (might as well get into this art-speak; though not sure if I've got it right) my stuff by trying to see my subject, Tom has thinking do the heavy lifting. To risk a paraphrase: his painting is a technical application, following a set of rules, of data identified by a pre-conceived idea, and it refers us back to that principal idea, and on to any other associations it throws up.

It's about the thought behind the picture or, more precisely, before it.

Tom goes on to say:
“I’m also interested in how the paintings are comprised according to the data within them, rather like how the grooves on a vinyl record hold sound, but that the music can’t be determined just by looking at them. I guess the paintings are like LPs, in that they have become detached, fetishized objects.”
As a comment I'd underline the point you can’t see those associations, you have to do some head-work to get them; and we may need clues to help, something some of those other fully paid-up, card-carrying, "conceptual artists" sometimes maddeningly, willfully even, refuse to do, save occasionally in a work's title.

It seems to me, though, that you do have to have an object to view as the indicator or pointer to the motivating concept that drives the work. So this sort of art can never be totally "non-retinal", just as, in a book you need the text from which to read the ideas. We are not blindfold.

In a subsequent email, Tom patiently had one more go at explaining the "retinal v conceptual" issue:
"It's worth wrestling with the non-retinal paradox. I understand this as, whilst the encounter with the work happens visually/physically, the object opens up a space for the art to 'happen' in the mind. I consider looking and thinking parallel activities - as I heard an art historian once say, "the art in your head is as important as the art you are looking at." Very hard to separate the two, into something either purely visual or conceptual, I see it as more of a dialectical arrangement. The art work can be a rendezvous (as Duchamp might argue)..."
Which is a pretty helpful comment (thanks Tom) about art, pertinent to the chess mind also. It's a good moment to recall the well-known "chess beauty lies not in the move, but the thought behind it..." as said (more or less) by Nimzovitch (or was it Tarrasch...). Chess players might recognise familiar territory in this look/think world, even though the landmarks may be disorienting.

Whichever way you look at his art-works, or think about them, it's been revealing (for me, and I hope for you, too) to connect with a modern chess artist fluent in both "art-speak" and "chess-speak"; so thanks again to Tom Hackney for sharing his thoughts, and art, with us. Of course, any misinterpretation or misrepresentation of his views in this post, or confusion otherwise, is my responsibility.

Good luck to Tom for his next exhibition, Eye To The Ground, at the
R O O M Gallery, London
from 17 May to 16 June, 2012; Wednesday - Saturday 12pm - 6pm.

There will be some of his chess pictures on show - so it's a Must See.

All pictures in this post have Tom Hackney's copyright and are reproduced with his kind permission.
Dr Ed Krčma (2011) Moves, Throws, Plays. University of Greenwich.

Chess in Art Index

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