Back in the days of “I Like Ike” and “I Love Lucy,” little artists, whether gifted or just plain goofy, could try out weird, silly or forbidden ideas without leaving a trace. With a “magic slate,” they could scribble something and then pull up the writing surface, erase the evidence and start over … again and again. But any masterpiece produced this way was doomed to disappear. All it took was a sneaky little brother and zip, all gone.
In the post-digital age, Magic Slate has become a copyrighted computer program, joining hundreds of others that promise to ease John Q. Picasso or Mary Q. Rembrandt into the joys of creativity, literacy and design. But the new virtual tools are also being taken up by practiced artists with years of experience — painters expert with their brushes, sculptors long familiar with the joys of granite and wet clay, fiber artists who’ve played traditional looms like harpsichords — in the name of radically new art. And Cranbrook Art Museum, in its current “Post-Digital Painting” exhibition, is giving us a long look at the world that the PC and the Mac built.
To hear Cranbrook curator of exhibitions Joe Houston tell it, the “Post-Digital” show is “really about how people see differently now, because technology is embedded in our lives. The way we see changes throughout history. Vision is not purely a biological process, but a cultural one as well which is influenced by evolving technologies. A channel-surfing society processes visual stimuli much differently than Renaissance observers would.”
Houston stops before the work of each of the 12 painters on view at the museum through March 23, and his attitude is one of awed recognition. As a painter himself, he has an intimate understanding of the techniques involved in these various departures from the good old ways of imagining two-dimensional surfaces. He’s impressed with the care that artists as different as Dan Hays and Yeardley Leonard take with their minutely hand-painted canvases. But he’s even more intrigued with the aesthetic possibilities opening up in the 21st century, post-digital environment, as his catalogue essay explains:
It is ironic that the traditional craft of painting is providing perhaps one of the clearest reflections of the perceptual changes in our midst. … [W]e can only imagine the profound consequences a tool as multifunctional and pervasive as the computer will ultimately have on our lives.
In order to weigh the importance of Houston’s words, we need to remember that the main genres of the centuries-old painting tradition — portraiture, still life, landscape, as well as historical scenes — were fairly well eclipsed by abstraction in the 20th century. In the wake of the visions of Kandinsky and Mondrian, Albers and Rothko, we stopped trying to guess at the representational content of art. An abstract painting, instead of reproducing the world of things, entered nature as a new fact, a thing that the world had not yet seen.
In the 21st century, computer-generated imagery takes this process a few dizzying steps further. The gap between the “real” and the “imaginary” shows no sign of narrowing, but rather branches out into a series of pathways down which we travel to even newer information. Pictures of the real are fed into the digital hopper as raw material and come back out looking more like data than “reality.” Yet the painters in the Cranbrook show, despite all their digital-tooling around, still take a hands- (or brushes-) on attitude to their canvases.
For instance, English painter Dan Hays can appropriate Internet images of the Colorado Rockies (from a site maintained by his uncanny American counterpart, a Boulder businessman named Dan Hays!), but it’s his computer-aided transformation of this material that becomes fascinating as the template for his own paintings. Up close, his canvases, rather than “depicting” the Rockies, are about the ways digital information explodes into a new kind of beauty when pixilated visual files are blown up into a blur of geometric points. Then from 20 or more feet away, his Colorado Impression X A (After Dan Hays, Colorado) begins to regain its focus, like retinal debris settling after a burst of sunlight.
Houston has organized “Post-Digital Painting” into three sections — deconstructing, recombining and encoding — with painters grouped together by their ways of planning their images rather than by the looks of their end results. This cues us into the fact that the show isn’t one of those familiar overviews of a movement such as cubism, abstract expressionism or minimalism. When Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein et al. were first grouped together as “Pop” artists, the underlying affinities had almost nothing to do with their ways of working. Instead what mattered were their ironic takes on popular culture that seemed to draw on Dada humor and advertising for their imagery. But the “Post-Digital” artists are involved in a technological sea change rather than an aesthetic movement. Houston is giving us a rare glimpse at the way virtual tools are changing the way art is conceived, regardless of style or ism.
So “landscape artist” Hays is involved in deconstructing, as is “color-field abstractionist” Peter Zimmerman from Germany. Though Zimmerman lays his canvases on the floor, then pours semitransparent plastic resins onto them to create an amorphous, flowing expanse (pictured on the cover), it’s the way he arrives at his forms that places him squarely in this show. Rather than confronting each blank canvas with an action painter’s intuitive energy and pulling up improvisations from his unconscious (à la Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline), Zimmerman scans other image sources into a computer and manipulates them with PhotoShop filters, projecting the outcome onto the canvas where he painstakingly directs the flow of the paint to correspond to his manipulations. By constructing small dams to control the spreading pigment, he limits the role that accident plays in his work and carefully reproduces his forays into hypothetical reality.
In the “recombining” section of the show, it comes as no surprise that a few of the artists make what might be called surreal paintings. One of surrealism’s main strategies involves taking two or more very different objects — things that are never associated in everyday life — and combining them to form a new reality, a “surreality” (e.g. Dali’s watches melting like grilled cheese or Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup). Except what the “Post-Digital” painters really share, deeper down, is the fact that a latter-day version of the surrealist method has apparently been built into the functions of PhotoShop and other software — mixing and matching, cutting and collaging, layering and morphing — allowing these artists (or any of us) to jam together images in very unfamiliar combinations.
Scott Anderson’s creepy, color-mad works, titled in Esperanto, at first seem so otherworldly that they’re like a sci-fi shock to the nervous system. But the longer we look, the more the everyday elements of which they’re composed — is that a lawn mower, a freeway ramp, a city skyline, a length of small intestine? — make themselves visible, rising to the surface (a-hah!) like clues in some criminal investigation.
Randy Wray starts his pieces as sculptures, allowing his intuition to run wild in a psychic picnic of assemblage; then he photographs these beasties and feeds their portraits into a computer. Once on-screen, the images get goosed, grilled and blended into amalgams that respond, again, to the painter’s unconscious desires and formal inclinations, before they wind up silk-screened and/or painted on the two-dimensional surface. Wray’s end products isolate strange cartoon monsters as they move through submicroscopic universes (pictured).
Further from surrealism, but disorienting nonetheless (though in a sexy, big-screen kind of way) are the whacked-out post-Disney excursions of Amy Yoes. Picking up decorative elements from the history of architecture and design, she creates nutty beautylands where shapes and motifs go bananas and hot colors add to the visual cacophony (pictured). Her paintings are a surreal love affair between the animated comforts of pop culture and the tropical storms of the unexpected.
In the show’s final section are the encoders, painters with a future-is-now sense of the zeitgeist. Though their images seem to bring back the old genres (landscapes, still lifes, etc.) for an encore, Chris Finley, Beverly Fishman and Carl Fudge (all pictured) are more concerned with the eerie variations that technology plays on our poor, tired mental and anatomical instruments. Encoding, in a real sense, means creating new forms of meaning in which manipulation, penetration and transgression — and the fear and bewilderment that result — are common occurrences.
Finley’s image resources are “twirled” by the computer to create portraits of objects with a sinister, violated-meat look — and his somber, flat palette completes the effect. Fishman extends what we know about the techno-medical-industrial complex to scary conclusions, though her bright, modular works, with their polished and rounded edges, their stacked and stored icons (images that stand in for the real), seem like old friends of ours from the shelves of the consumer culture. And Fudge generates a kind of techno-calligraphy in which modular machines reproduce themselves, proliferating beyond our ability to control them (oh, cool).
“Computers are dumb. They only know what you tell them.”
—Seth Brundle, The Fly
There’s a scene in David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly where scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) demonstrates a teleportation experiment to his science-reporter girlfriend, Veronica (Geena Davis). But the computer that breaks down the object to be teleported into digital code has trouble sending flesh of any kind. Seth decides to send a raw steak from point A to point B, fry it up for dinner and serve it to you know who:
Veronica: Oh, it tastes funny.
Seth: Funny how?
Veronica: It tastes, um, synthetic.
Veronica: So what have we proved?
Seth: The computer is giving us its interpretation of a steak. It’s translating it for us. It’s rethinking it rather than reproducing it, and something’s getting lost in the translation.
Likewise, is it possible that art made with the help of computers is somehow leaving an important part of the process behind? Becoming synthetic? With something vital getting lost in the translation?
Heather McGill, head of sculpture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, doesn’t think so. In her studio, surrounded by renderings and layouts for various projects, she describes her working method as a hybrid of the hands-on and the technological:
“The digital has a lot to do with how the eye sees things. When you use digital technology, you’re talking about mathematics, a perfect set of numbers. When I do a drawing or a sculpture, it all starts with the hand drawing and then it goes into the computer. It goes back and forth. But if I want to do reproducible parts — parts layered on top of parts — then I need to use digital technology, because it’s just more efficient.
“So, I see working with a computer as gain. But that’s because, for me, it’s a supplement. I go between the manual and then the digital, back and forth, constantly. My drawings are all laser-cut paper … but when I initially started with that single icon of a car, that was hand-drawn. Because I’m so into patterning and repetition, that’s when this [digital] tool becomes really valuable. This little hand-drawn car gets entered and the lines are drawn so that they remain hand-drawn in the computer — so you keep a lot of that quality — and then I use a little icon, that I created by putting two cars together, to move around on screen. It comes back to my playing with the information manually, and then the drawings get cut when I’ve done the layout, and then they go back to being hand-airbrushed. They go back and forth the whole time, and they never stay one way at all.”
What’s amazing about seeing one of McGill’s laser-cut drawings (pictured) — aside from its delicate airy patterning that turns industrial imagery into a kind of lyricism — is noticing that the lines on the front of each sheet are replicated exactly on the back. The laser cuts go right through the paper, creating a whole new kind of draftsmanship.
But McGill as a sculptor also turns to digital applications when it comes to building her high-tech installation pieces. She has developed working relationships with Detroit technicians whose expertise normally services the automobile industry:
“If you go to them with a certain amount of information and are pretty clear about what you want to build, many of these people are exceptionally kind and will work with you to get you going. But then they always say, ‘What do we call this?’ And I’m like, ‘Sculpture?’”
What to call art when it reflects a totally new approach to its own making? Painter Beverly Fishman, who heads the painting department at Cranbrook and whose works figure prominently in the “Post-Digital” show, has spent the past 15 years redefining two-dimensional space in terms of technology. On the walls and floor of her studio is a maze of works in progress, pieces that incorporate social critique and apocalyptic vision with an almost discomforting sense of color:
“I’ve been looking at scientific imagery — or the way we imagine the world through the use of technology — for years. There are icons of pharmaceuticals, of pills, in this work. And there are structures that are really close to a kind of neurological processing that takes place, but they’re not a literal representation. I’m interested in what I would call a mindscape, a mental landscape. I’m simultaneously trying to deal with interior and exterior — what’s going on in the body in an interior way, what’s being processed, and the exterior which is the pharmaceutical, the stuff that we take to either elevate our consciousness or alter our consciousness or our bodies.
“I get images of the pharmaceuticals that I’m interested in and work them out on the computer, and shift them in terms of scale shifts, linear shifts, all kinds of manipulations — I have an assistant with whom I work side by side — and from there endless shades of vinyl get outputted at a sign shop. The pieces are powder-coated on aluminum, so that I pick a coloration that interests me and develop a kind of color world in order to start the piece. So that there’s a sense of what that color has to be from the very beginning.”
And that’s when Fishman takes over as a painter in the more traditional sense of the word. She conceives of her larger pieces in groups of three or five that stack up vertically, like stereo components, on the wall. They’re the techno-grandchildren of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd’s vertical works, only with a digitized bite — a chemically dependent overdose — for the new century.
Art-world insiders, such as Paul Kotula, director of Revolution Gallery in Ferndale, have accepted the new digital techniques as just another development in the endlessly unfolding, endlessly fascinating history of the imagination. For them, to paraphrase Will Shakespeare, “The work’s the thing” — and visual artists using computers are just finally catching on to the tools and possibilities that electronic music composers, rock musicians, architects and graphic designers have been exploring for years.
“The paintings in the ‘Post-Digital’ show,” says Kotula, “are much more classical, even more familiar, than one would expect. With the exception of a few painters — Peter Zimmerman and Alex Brown — the physical reality of the paintings is very classical. Both of these artists’ work conveys how we see digital images via the computer — that kind of jittery or staccato-like activity. But everybody has to find their own vocabulary and their own language within whatever working practice they’re in.”
For those of us whose computer literacy is just starting to develop beyond surfing the Internet, “Post-Digital Painting” might be a shock or simply a strange new way of seeing. But isn’t that the effect new art has always had?
“Post-Digital Painting” is at the Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills) through March 23. Call 248-645-3323.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]