Mind the Gap: The Collaborative Work of Victor Raphael and Clayton Spada
The image world is filled to overflowing. Man has marked every site, multiplied every depiction, amplified every word. Legions of artists seek to create fresh representations, but eventually realize they are merely maintaining existing portrayals. It seems there are now more images in the world than world to be in the images.
Which is why smart artists seek out the gaps. An in-between space, if you can find one, opens fresh terrain for exploration, enables fruitful freedom of operation. From Zero to Infinity, the collaborative work of artists Victor Raphael and Clayton Spada takes as its territory the largest rift of all — the space between science and the spiritual. They think of it as “an ambitious collaborative trek across the province of Everything.”(1)
The split between science and the spiritual commenced in the Renaissance, accelerated with the Enlightenment, and has spread steadily wider for hundreds of years. By now, of course, the fracture has opened far wider than merely a gap. Between science and the spiritual, lies the “whole chasm of modernity,” in the words of Jean Baudrillard.(2) Consequently, Raphael and Spada’s collaborative series carries the hallmarks of open-minded explorers setting out into terra incognita and bringing back unforeseen finds and unconventional riches.
The results are complex, culturally omnivorous, and deeply layered. Below sumptuous surfaces dance the emblems, allegories, and discoveries central to human culture. Raw materials have been mined from rare original sources made available after the artists were granted access to and worked closely with the staff at the University of Southern California Doheny Libraries Special Collections. Raphael and Spada do not shy away from the significant questions (nor do they dictate simple answers). A sample of titles indicate the scope of the endeavor. By Design; The Machinery of Heaven; The Measure of All Things; Prime Mover; Space-Time.
“I’m interested in the big questions and in the smallest detail that reveals something divine,” asserts artist Victor Raphael.(3) It’s a truism that the largest questions can often attract the smallest minds. Faced with the universe, religious thinkers create petty gods. Confronted with death, they dream up penny-ante afterlives. Raphael is an extreme exception to these tendencies. His sense of the divine is omnivorous and open-ended. An accomplished body of work ranges from radiant abstractions based on the Midrash to large-scale photo collages of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan to widely exhibited, ethereally modified Polaroids that evoke the haunting immensity of deep space. Inclusive in inspiration and open to personal interpretation, Raphael’s work is manifestly spiritual without being doctrinal.
Clayton Spada has worked as a Ph.D. research scientist in the areas of ocular disease, human vision and optical signal processing as well as pursuing a decades-long career as a professional visual artist. Unsurprisingly, Spada’s art focuses on the processes of perception. His widely shown dimensional photo works layer images, graphics, and texts. Transparencies float above other images, silkscreened graphics are layered onto glass, references and meanings hover throughout. The works emulate the layering of Photoshop (Spada served as a Photoshop consultant to Adobe). But in this case, the layers are physically separated and rise toward the viewer. The composite image therefore alters as you shift your angle of view. In these works, Spada is not content with giving us something to see, he wants to show us how we see. He aims high — not just revelations, but how revelations happen.
Given their operating territory between science and the spiritual, it seems natural that Raphael and Spada decided to employ photo-based technologies as the foundation of their collaboration. Photography has been marked with the science-spiritual duality from its inception. In fact, the photochemical entrapment of light was simultaneously invented by an artist and a scientist. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was a French theatrical impresario and panorama painter seeking a way to speed up the creation of images for his new popular entertainment, the Diorama. William Henry Fox Talbot was an English scientist and mathematician who happened upon “photogenic drawing” while pursuing optical research. Talbot’s invention was motivated by romance — as the space between love and frustration. Talbot honeymooned in the Italian Alps. He reported that his attempts to make souvenir drawings of the Lake Como scenery were terrible botches, even when he used a camera lucida drawing aid.(4) In short, honeymoon romanticism led Talbot to photography.
This brings us to Raphael and Spada’s unique collaborative process. Visualize an old-style railroad handcar. You know the type — propelled down the track by two people alternately pushing down on their side of a pivoting rocker arm. Take that model of operation. Make it high tech. Then take away the track. That’s the paradigm for this project. Specifically, the two artists bounce brutally high-resolution layered digital files back and forth between their southern California studios. Raphael generally begins the process, generating one of his celestial photographic abstractions in digital form. He sends the file to Spada, who makes additions and alterations that propel the piece ahead. Then it’s back to Raphael for more forward motion. Some pieces get pushed along in this back-and-forth fashion for up to two years before they reach their final destination as large-format archival inkjet prints on watercolor paper and canvas. (At this writing, output is up to four cohesive portfolios of ten prints each, plus a variety of special pieces.) By devising this unique collaborative process, the two artists employ a clever echo of their basic arena of operations — this art takes shape in the space between two minds.
Artists, of course, profess to take the entire world as subject. However, art world practitioners and gatekeepers for years have paralleled the general culture in their neglect of connections between scientific and spiritual concerns. The space between science and the spiritual is now largely a void, traversed here and there by an occasional intrepid artist orbiting well outside norms of either tradition. But it is precisely this condition of wide-open neglect that has created a profitable opportunity for Raphael and Spada. Their art-making is not just philosophically and operationally unique, it also reclaims territory for the operations of art.
Their approach is not without precedent. Some precursors have mapped this space. “I have a commonplace book for facts and another for poetry,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal on February 18, 1852, “but I find it difficult always to preserve the vague distinctions which I had in mind, for the most and interesting and beautiful are so much more poetry and that is their success. They are translated from earth to heaven. I see that if my facts were sufficiently vital and significant — perhaps transmuted more into the substance of the human mind — I should need but one book of poetry to contain them all.”(5)
Raphael and Spada follow Thoreau’s dictate. The two artists exploit the iconographic freight and specific concerns of both science and the spiritual, but are bound by the dogmatic constraints of neither. Until Thoreau’s time it was a common assumption that the observation of nature was inherently a spiritual enterprise that did not conflict with the tasks of science. Operating in the gap between two rich traditions, Raphael and Spada draw on the vital, varied specifics of both — the symbols, the suggestions, and the substance. Their aim is nothing less than the making of art that “contains them all.”(6)
1. Spada, C., (2009). From Zero to Infinity: The Story of Everything. Los Angeles, CA: University of Southern California, Doheny Memorial Library, public commentary presented in exhibition introduction.
2. Baudrillard, J. (1989). America. London: Verso, 73.
3. Raphael, V. (2005). “A Conversation with the Artist. Victor Raphael and Karen McGuire.” Victor Raphael. Space Fields. Carlsbad, CA: William D. Cannon Art Gallery, 7.
4. Greenough, S., Snyder, J., Travis, D., & Westerbeck, C. (1989). On the Art of Fixing a Shadow. One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, in conjunction with The Art Institute of Chicago, 11. [See also: Newhall, B. (1982). The History of Photography. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art, distributed by New York Graphic Society Books, Little, Brown and Company, 19. Here, excerpts from Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (London: Longman Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1844 – 46) detail the conceptual path by which frustrations over his inability to create satisfactory sketches of the real world with the aid of a camera lucida led him to revisit the camera obscura as a foundation for causing “natural images” to imprint themselves durably.]
5. Thoreau, H. D. (1852). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Journal, 4:356.
6. Spada, C., & Raphael, V. (2012). “From Zero to Infinity: A Story of Everything,” in Biologically-Inspired Computing for the Arts: Scientific Data through Graphics, ed. Anna Ursyn. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, an imprint of IGI Global, 3
Douglas McCulloh is a photographer, writer, and curator based in southern California. He is a five-time recipient of support from the California Council for the Humanities and has curated fifteen exhibitions, including three for the California Museum of Photography.
His own exhibition record includes Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing; Musée de l’Elysee, Lausanne; Musée Nicéphore Niépce, France; La Triennale di Milano, Italy; Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City; Institute de Cultura, Barcelona; Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles; Southeast Museum of Photography, Florida; Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; and Cooper Union School of Art, New York. McCulloh’s fifth book, The Great Picture: Making the World’s Largest Photograph, part of the Legacy Project Collaborative, was published in 2012 by Hudson Hills Press, New York.
The most noted of his curatorial projects is Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists, the first major survey of photography by blind artists. Exhibitions curated by McCulloh have shown in a range of venues: Kennedy Center for the Arts, Washington D.C.; Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg; Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City; Flacon Art Center, Moscow; Center for Visual Art, Denver, Colorado; Manuel Álvarez Bravo Center, Oaxaca; Sejong Center, Seoul, South Korea; Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China; and Peterson Automotive Museum, Los Ang