Sublime / (sub)liminal: dicing with doubles and shadow-play in the work of Caroline List

Richard Dyer

The runner wins the race; the moment of the tape breaking, in that instant, pain is transformed into pleasure, the “sublime moment”. In Ditto Ditto Caroline List phototropically irrigates the Kantian notion of the sublime. In Kant’s Critique of Judgement he unloads the notion of the sublime from the concept of the beautiful1. That which we would term the sublime arises not from the object of contemplation, but from the subjective experience of the observer, their response to the object. The sublime lies in the territory of feeling, it cannot be explained by reason or logic, as Lyotard states: “The admixture of fear and exaltation that constitutes sublime feeling is insoluble.”2

Kant deems the “beauty” in the beautiful to be “purposiveness without purpose”, Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck; organisation, symmetry, harmony of colour and form; attributes of the useful but serving no purpose. Conversely the sublime stems from the principal of disorder, perposivelessness, an encounter with that which cannot be contained, organised, explained; the limitless; that which cannot be figured by reason, and thus induces a sense of terror and pain, a pain which is transformed into joy at the “sublime moment”, when we embrace our impotence in the face of the ineffable and infinite force of nature.

Burke stated of the sublime that “…its strongest emotion is an emotion of distress”3 and Kant rightly charged him with not taking his argument far enough, it is this very distress, this fear in the face of the mighty which makes the sublime so attractive, precisely because we are untouched by it, we are an observer, safe in the haven of reason.

The Romantic movement of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century was profoundly shaped by the notion of the sublime as expounded by Burke, and in the first French translation of On the Sublime (1674) attributed to Longinus. As with the critical concepts of structuralism and postmodernism in the twentieth-century, the sublime and the more general notion of the romantic were first associated with literary and poetic criticism, and only later came to be applied to the visual arts.

Although Romanticism is a historical term referring to a specific period and particular texts and images – from Milton to Delacroix – it continues today not only as a term applicable to certain individual artists; Kiefer, O’Donahugh, Paladino, but also to certain tropes exploited by the advertising and image generation industry. Image banks, with their endless arrays of perfect bodies in perfect environments at perfect moments are sourced by photo-researchers for advertisements, books, public information booklets, pamphlets, magazines and newspapers; the whole veneer of seduction that constitutes the visual matrix of aspirational imagery which forms the plasma of the post-industrial socio-political environment4.

The engine of production, in search of a “quick-fix” image to represent an ideal of pleasure, ecstasy, fulfilment, perfection, or desire, uses images of perfect blandness; fully saturated colour, high-resolution printing, sharp-edged shadows, clean, clear textures, bright high-angled lighting, over-toned, trim and tonsured bodies clad in the mantel of synthetic sartorial seamlessness, the shiny skin of the postmodern, perfect, featureless and micro-thin. List takes these ersatz projections of the quintessential moment of the sublime – the moment of suspension in the air before plunging into deep blue water, the second of releasing a ball at high speed, reaching the summit of a mountain, the bliss of a first kiss – and subjects them to a tripartite process which performs a semiotic excavation of content and meaning, uncovering their subconscious alignment to the concept of the romantic sublime.

First the image is printed in black and white onto a canvas which has already been prepared with coloured pigment, then the image is doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled and reversed, to form the impression of a series, a reflection, and finally it is worked over with more paint, augmenting, concealing or mutating the image beneath. Warhol would paint sections of his canvas in different colours before overprinting it with a photographic silk-screen image, at this point the process ended. By taking it one step further and painting into the photograph again List inverts the history of the influence of photography on painting and initiates a rich discourse of image, meaning, method and morphology. First there was painting, then photography; to begin with photography tried to imitate painting, then painting tried to imitate photography, now both practices are conflated in List?s work in a hybridised form which is neither painting nor photography, and yet is both.

By trapping the chemical skin of photography between the layers of paint List develops a dynamic dialogue between the two modes of representation. We must remember that these are not just silk-screened images, but actual photographs, the canvas – that most traditional support for oil painting – has actually been coated with photographic emulsion and exposed to the image in the dark-room, developed, washed and fixed; the delimiting aspects of photography are smuggled into the conventional arena of the easel painting, while at the same time the denotative signifiers of oil-painting trap in their wafer-thin interstice the veneer of photography. This praxis is in opposition to that of the photorealist painter whose “subject” is the photograph itself.

For List one of the most important aspects of photography is its infinite reproducibility. The evaporation of the “aura” of uniqueness and authenticity as posited by Benjamin5 due to the endless proliferation of images since the invention of photography is here exploited to conjure the “double”, Jung’s “Shadow”6 the repressed, unconscious aspects of the personality; instinctual, creative, but uncanny and troubling – it can be seen as the psychic concomitant of the physical structure of the cerebellum, our primitive “reptilian” brain. It is this aspect of the psyche which responds to the sublime, an ur-verbal “knowing” which bypasses, or even short-circuits the reason-based functioning of the conscious, rational mind. It is through the shadow, our inner double, that we encounter the sublime.

List’s doubles are usually mirror images, in such works as How Does it Feel to be YouWith or Without YouWe and Falling (all 2001–2002), the artist inverts the figure, confronting it with its mirror image. Reproduction invokes an un-nameable anguish, an uneasiness before the mirror-image, the evocation of “the uncanny” through the presence of the simulacrum7 to confront the shadow is to question the reality of “the real”, when we are confronted with the sublime.

Bold, overhanging, and as it were threatening rocks; clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river… as in Kant’s examples, our notion of the real, as encountered in the safety of “the everyday” is shattered, buckled by the might of nature in extremis.

The caesura where the image and its virtual shadow meet – Vanishing PointRock GirlWith or Without You (all 2001–2002) – is the site of the limen, the liminal, where consciousness gives over to the shadow in order to experience the sublime. Usually the sublime is subliminal, literally sub-liminal, below the threshold of consciousness, sublimated into the territory of the Kitsch – the sunset postcard, the “beautiful” flower painting, the electronically animated waterfall picture – but it is here, at this fissure between the real and the hypereal, the conscious and the subconscious, the self and the other, that occurs the integration of the shadow with the self, nature with the human, the ineffable with its coagulation in the real; the sublime moment.

Richard Dyer © 2002

Richard Dyer is assistant editor at Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture and art editor of Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing.

He was news editor and London correspondent for Contemporary magazine for over ten years. He is a widely published art critic, reviewer, poet, fiction writer and also a practicing artist.

His critical writing has appeared in ContemporaryFriezeFlash ArtArt ReviewArt Press (London correspondent), Third TextWasafiriPLUCKThe IndependentThe GuardianTime OutCitizen K (London correspondent), Rapid EyePerformance Magazine (assistant editor), The Jewish Chronicle and many other publications and catalogues.

Publications include: Electronic Shadows: The Art of Tina Kean (Black Dog, 2004); Dan Hays: Impressions of Colorado (Southampton City Art Gallery, 2006); Riddled With Light: Corpus Lumen: Susie Hamilton, 1996–2000 (Paul Stolper, 2006), Zineb Sedira: Saphir (Photographer’s Gallery, 2006) and Transitive Transduction: Breaking the Integument in the work of Tony Bevan (Ben Brown Gallery, 2006).

His latest publications are Controfacciata: Solid Water, Liquid Stone, on the work of German photographer Matthias Schaller (Ben Brown Gallery, London, 2008), Keith Coventry: Deconstructing the Modernist Utopia (Haunch of Venison, Zurich, 2008), Making the (In)visible in the Work of Mark Francis (Lund Humphries, 2008), Painting: The Essential Verb (Jerwood Foundation, Contemporary Painters Prize, 2008), The Descent of Man: Wolfe von Lenkiewicz (All Visual Arts, 2009); Clement Page: Screen Memories: Picturing Lost Time in the Watercolours of Clement Page (Kuckei + Kuckei, Berlin, 2009); Art on Demand: Custom Colours and Materials: Sébastien de GanayAbstract Works Catalogue, 2008–2009 (onestar press, 2009); Demi-Monde: Alexander de Cadenet (F-ish Gallery, 2009) and Valérie Jolly: Infra-Thin (Alexia Goethe Gallery, 2010).

  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, [1790], J.H.Bernard, trans., Hafner Press, MacMillan Publishing Co, Inc, New York, 1951
  2. Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Elizabeth Rottenberg, trans., Stanford University Press, 1994
  3. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, [1757], Adam Phillips, ed. and intro., OUP, Oxford, 1990
  4. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, London, 1972
  5. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, [1935], in Illuminations, Cape, London, 1970
  6. C.G.Jung, “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”, in Collected Works, vol 9, R.F.Hull, trans., Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, London, 1951
  7. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman, trans, Semiotext(e), Inc, New York, 1983