Ruff’s Substrate (Substratum) series takes its point of departure in Japanese anime and manga comics, which the artist accessed online, downloaded, and altered using digital imaging technology. Figurative elements give way to abstract, swirly shapes, while the bold colors of the original imagery are intensified—an indirect evocation of the sometimes violent and erotic nature of the comics. The resulting works can be seen as part of a long history of cameraless photography, yet their hallucinogenic, fluid patterns defy any genre. For Ruff, the evident lack of visual content here underscores the problematic relationship that exists between any photograph and its subject. Throughout his oeuvre, he has persistently explored how the photographic medium, often considered a “window onto the world,” is mistakenly equated with reality, despite the fact that each image is a construct. As Valentina Sonzogni describes, “The title Substrat provides the key to understanding the
series, and indicates that Ruff is engaged in creating a new genre of abstract photography. In biochemistry, a ‘substrate’ is a molecule modified by an enzyme, while in linguistics, a ‘substratum’ is an element of a language identified as being a relic of an earlier language that is now extinct. The word also refers to geological layers. In short, a substrate is a layered structure that is subject to intervention.”1
1 Valentina Sonzogni, “Substrat,” in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ed., Thomas Ruff. Exh. cat. (Milan: Skira, 2009), p. 98.