Against Attribution / Lukas Baden

Against Attribution

About the Common and the Shared in the Paintings and Objects of the Artist-duo Quirarte + Ornelas

Essay by Lukas Baden


Artworks that have been created by an artist collective quickly provoke the question of who contributed how much to the piece. The division of labor (which implies an anticipatory obedience to the possibility of establishing a clear attribution of efforts) seems to be of such central interest to our society that other interests such as aesthetics, are pushed to the back, even when contemplating works of art.

On the one hand I hear the claim, or at least the proposition, for transdisciplinary collaboration in all aspects of life, particularly in the academic and artistic community. On the other hand, knowledge about shared authorship causes a strange uneasiness. The undiscernible producer causes a discomfort of consumption. Where things are without frames or where effects cannot be clearly attributed to their origin or cause, they confuse human reasoning. Lately, with “Bildwissenschaft” and visual culture studies prominently on the rise, the academic debate has once again embraced the issue of the frame that divides subject from object. Is the supposed power of the object or image a question of agency of the thing or projection of the mind? The answer might entail an epistemic shift that threatens capitalist logic. With the help of some selected artworks, signed by the Mexican artist couple Anabel Quirarte and Jorge Ornelas, this text seeks to investigate the potential connection of collective authorship with the rhetoric of re-enchantment provoked by the “iconic turn”, the last great paradigm shift in the humanities.[1]

Quirarte + Ornelas consciously oppose the blurring of the boundaries between distinct subjectivities by means of a rigorously objective and outline-centered aesthetic. Brittleness, sobriety and virtuous naturalism lend to their pictures and objects an almost demonstrative essence.[2] Everything about their watercolors and small-scale sculptures is highly precise; they are the continuation of still life painting purged of its symbolic means.[3] Notwithstanding, the slickness of the drawings and the meticulousness of the sculptures cause suspicion.

Contradictions on all levels are what make the works of Quirarte + Ornelas interesting. First of all, their most recent production shows a deep concern for the problem of presentation and representation in the sense of a semiological[4] and phenomenological confrontation or differentiation. The result of which is the simultaneous and equivalent presentation of an item or thing as both object and drawing.

Second – and older works prove this as well – the artist duo is concerned about the conditions of possibility of common creation, i.e. the withdrawing of the individual for the benefit of agency of a third party. Their work raises questions about the reciprocity of (both in singular and plural) artist and artist, artist and artwork, artwork and viewer, artwork and artwork, as well as questions about the general framework of the processes that determine these mutual perceptions. Eventually, the positioning of the artist duo in the art world depends upon the functioning of these references.

Quirarte + Ornelas treat the issue of individuality (inseparability) of the person and of the object artistically via a highly naturalistic[5] way of painting. This technique, which seemingly affirms the concept of individuality, on the contrary exposes it as a construction and convention. On the one hand there is the approach to the object as an image-constituting element by maintaining an almost illusory objectivity in painting. On the other hand the depiction of the object shows it alienated from its conventional usage. Quirarte + Ornelas approach their objects from a constructivist perspective, which causes a distancing from the idea of an object as individual thing or tool.

At the same time, Quirarte + Ornelas’ extremely neat and meticulous way of painting creates a recognizable production scheme in the sense of an artistic style[6].  And yet the notion of style seems paradoxical here because Quirarte + Ornelas actually avoid personal traces or gestures, that is all the marks that are traditionally related to the individual character of the art work, and by doing so call their authority as artists and as individual and ingenious creators into question.

Although the artist-duo strives to invest as little affect as possible into the creation of their unspectacular assemblages, they cannot prevent a certain comical moment when those disinterestedly pleasing configurations tip over into unexpected contexts of recognizability. Evident examples are the carefully shaped paper balls, crossways perforated by pencils (fig. 1 and 2)[7], and the playful structural models made of geometrically shaped cardboard pieces and tubes (some parts of which are colored), which often find themselves in a precarious balance (fig. 3, 4 and 5).[8]

In the first case, all things indicate that failure got the work going, at least in an allegorical sense. It might even be the result of an idea rejected twice (crumpled and punctured). The second case presents us, metaphorically speaking, with the permutation of El Lissitzky’s sublime register of Prounes, which also leads to an unwitting recall of the ubiquitous kindergarden toy brick games of the German pedagogical pioneer Friedrich Froebel.

It seems that the sculptures and drawings, technically clear and thematically unexciting as they are, would want to mislead the viewer with respect to the oddness of the situation in which they are exhibited. I find this oddness in their similarity, their duplicity[9], their reciprocal hiding between Nominalism and Realism.[10]

What can be seen in the pictures is the observation of the object. Vice versa, it’s equally valid to claim to see the observation of the picture through the object. The reciprocal relationship of similarity cancels out any fixed order of observation. Visitors to the exhibition encounter the crumpled paper ball pierced with pencils simultaneously as crumpled paper ball pierced with pencils and as pencil on paper, that is, both in its presentation as object as well as in its representational form as a watercolored drawing. Is the starting point of this juxtaposition a moment of boredom, filled with playful thoughts or thoughts about the conditions of production? Idea, drawing, object, … How arbitrary is this order? How much can we flip a thought, how far can we turn thinking around forwards and backwards? Where, between abstraction and concretion, does figuration start? And how can this semiological or phenomenological problem turn into a question about the collective singular of an artistic duo?

Long before iconology instituted the first “turn” in art history, this hitherto young scientific discipline concentrated its energy on the attribution of certain artworks to single artists. The presupposition for the counting of folds and the separation of hands[11] was the idea of the individual originator, the genius, who, measured by the immanent and evident effect of his works, must have benefited from some sort of access to the transcendental realm. The talented author is a semi-secular notion of the divinely inspired creator. Authorship thus determined the paradigm of becoming of art or knowledge as produced by humans in the modern and high capitalist era. The “linguistic turn” however, put an end to this bourgeois projection. The subject turned to interface.[12] And yet the feeling remained that something had been overlooked. With the last and presumably reciprocal “iconic turn” the initial question was back: There must be some power to set it all in motion. So the “iconic turn” is an epistemological interpolation[13] for opaque relations of reciprocity.

Now, do we have to part from the modern program of individualism and revert to an old order where arcane laws determine universe and society? Or is there hope for aesthetic justice? How can we turn towards each other in mutual autonomy? Under what frame of conditions does our perception of the world work? Is freedom not – as freely adopted from Immanuel Kant – the liberty to impose a frame upon oneself?  Which view, which perspective would be possible without the assumed progression of point to line, plane to volume, time to causality?

Quirarte + Ornelas assume alternating viewing angles and show their work under perspectives which make themselves potentially disappear. First, there is the comparison of similar appearances as small-scale sculpture and watercolor drawing. Secondly there is the hyper-individual painterly gesture combined with an illusionistic technique of representation, exhausting the possibilities of a suspension of disbelief. Thirdly there is the separation and framing within the borders of the works on paper. All this shows the mutuality and contradiction of relationships of reciprocity. The representations of the small-scale sculptures are formally isolated on the picture plane – masked out, so to speak. The shadows that are cast appear latently obsolete or oblivious, and in later series they are completely absent. Maybe they are a subtle reminiscence of Plato’s concept of the idea featuring the allegory of the cave. The presence and absence of shadows is a play with grounds, in other words, a free formation of the foundation of things.  Once again in free adaptation of Immanuel Kant’s provocative concept of illustration, this might hint to man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity of imagination even beyond the confinement of artistic means, but always under the law of the medium.

The combinations of drawings and objects by the artist duo Quirarte + Ornelas discussed in this essay, are naturally self-referential. They center on the topics of what artists do and how they do it: drawing and its tools. At least in their most recent works they consistently short-circuit the means of observation with the observation itself.[14] This interlacing embraces the shared, that is, the common gaze of four eyes, as well as the artistic collaboration, that is, the work of two hands.  At the same time this interlacing intimately passes through a social pattern that we all yearn for: justification in reciprocity, happiness in the shared gaze and the common image.


[1] Keith Moxey. “Visual Studies and the Iconic Turn“. Journal of Visual Culture 7.2 (2008): 131–146.

[2] Quirarte + Ornelas works are close to those of Muntean/ Rosenblum and Los Carpinteros respectively both aesthetically as well as in their means of production; they avoid, however, the psychological as well as magical realism or the fantastic.

[3] “A realistic touch of still life painting as justification of a tradition of a clear day with a free horizon. Thence the cool, unrebellious, serious, the slick artificial, the objective reflective – painting as morally intellectual stage.”Axel Heil: “Anabel Quirarte & Jorge Ornelas.” In Leinzell OPEN 2006. Leinzell: Silvia und Helmut Wickleder Stiftung, 2006.

[4] Semiology, according to Charles S. Peirce, is based on the concepts of similarity (icon), trace (index) and convention (symbol). For a lucid and succinct explanation, see Beat Wyss: Vom Bild zum Kunstsystem (From the Picture to the Art System), Köln, Verlag Walther König, 2006, page 43-48.

[5] Quirarte + Ornelas themselves define their style or approach as “realistic” (Quirarte + Ornelas, “Estructuras Modulares”, 2013, en Proyectos, unpublished manuscript).

[6] The picture detail, the selection of objects and their compilation is of course equally important to the establishing of a “signature style”.

[7] Figures 1 and 2: Drawing Structure 2, 2012, watercolor on paper, 6 parts, 208 x 235 cm, and Drawing Structure 2, 2013, pencils and paper, dimensions variable.

[8] Figures 3,4 and 5: Extrapolación (Objetos), 2015, cardboard, plastic, metal, cotton, dimensions variable; Extrapolación 2, 2015, watercolor on Paper, 29 x 39 cm.

[9] With “duplicidad / duplicity”, Amanda De la Garza refers to Quirarte + Ornelas as two artistic subjects and the importance of affect in the process of creation and as image-effect. In my opinion, the productive tension of duplicity (or double existence) is less an effect of affect in the works of Q+O but a result of an intellectual game between object and (its) representation. Cf. Amanda de la Garza. “El Espacio de Lo Cotidiano. Arte-Colaboración En Pareja.” Revista Tierra Adentro, 2013, p. 40.

[10] Notwithstanding the high degree of illusionism in Q+O’s watercolors (which in fact constitute the major part of their works up to this day) I would appeal for an interpretation of their work that considers issues commonly attributed to concrete or conceptual art respectively. They are closer to the problem of universals or Joseph Kosuth’s One and three Chairs (1965) than to any other expression of contemporary naturalism.

[11] Mechthild Bellmann-Schöner. “Anfänge Der Niederländischen Tafelmalerei – Händescheidung/ The beginning of dutch painting – separation of hands”  Mai 2012., 10.07.2015. The logic that ruled this analysis of folds and strokes was capitalism: Once a painting could be assigned to a recognized creator, it achieved a higher price in the art market. Nevertheless, pre-modern painting was usually done collectively in workshops or anonymously anyway. Consequently, the 19th century’s yearning for an individually created medieval artwork is already an anachronistic and paradoxical projection, if not a compensation for the repressed individual contribution in early industrialization’s mechanized working processes.

[12]Gerhard Johann Lischka. Schnittstellen: Das Postmoderne Weltbild/ Interfaces: The postmodern world view; [Symposion Schnittstellen; Vortrag im Kunstmuseum Bern am 4. November 1994]. Bern: Benteli, 1997.

[13] Ariadna Ramonetti transfers the mathematical problem of interpolation in a function onto the area of geometric-concrete art (“Si llevamos esta idea al terreno de la geometría concreta ...“), and describes the work of Q+O as “volumetric exercises” (“ejercicios volumétricos”). According to Ramonetti, it is possible to state that Q+O apply some sort of tomographic procedure while drawing, filling the dimensions between the given extremes – point, line, plane, space, time/ presentation and representation. Ariadna Ramonetti: “Interpolación Lineal“. Curatorial statement to the exhibition Quirarte + Ornelas – Interpolación Lineal at Tiro al Blanco Gallery, Guadalajara, México, 2015.

[14] Q+O’s self description-technique is a result of the autonomy and differentiation defined by the art system. Their art works are autopoetic in the sense that they strictly refer to themselves and draw their energy from this self-referentiality. They fulfill their function as art by getting the process of communication going. Cf. Niklas Luhmann. Die Kunst Der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995 (Art as social system, 2000).