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Invisible Instruments: From Paintbrushes to Pixels

I once imagined the push and pull between the natural and the mechanistic as a desperate struggle: spiritual individuals vs. industrial machines.  Is now much easier to see this relationship as symbiotic.  Walter Benjamin’s hugely influential work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction describes what happens when artworks are reproduced mechanically.  But in a digital age–when production may or may not mean object-making–the lines between production, editing, reproduction, and consumption are blurred, resulting in tectonic shifts in seeing, making and learning.

It can be easy to forget that the humble pencil and the acoustic guitar are forms of technology.  Before graphite there was metalpoint; before the guitar…lutes?  Unlike designers who wear their Adobe technologies on their sleeves, for visual artists, tracing, working from a photograph (as opposed to working from life), painting by numbers, digital reproductions like giclee prints, and many other forms of image-making are seen as inauthentic. The corollary for musicians is computers-aided editing software and the excessive use of plug-in’s like auto-tune.  When is the use of technology cheating?  And what is the difference between a tool and a crutch?

Avid M-Box with Pro-Tools software

Avid M-Box with Pro-Tools software

At nineteen I remember listening to an early version of a song I had written, after the track had been recorded and heavily edited by an established record producer using an early version of Pro-Tools recording software.  My drummer and good friend Sam said, “We sound like machines!”  And the band did, suddenly, sound like robots.  The players we were listening to were us, but at the same time not us–we had never performed the song with such a high level of precision (coming of age in the heyday of grunge rock).  However, after hearing the song several times in its new brutally mechanistic incarnation, we began to internalize the more precise rhythms.  The next performances would grow tighter and tighter until we achieved a nearly machine-like proficiency.  We became more machine-like, after a machine showed us the way.  (For a related discussion of musicians and digital editing check out RadioLab short: http://www.radiolab.org/story/313542-dawn-midi/)

Just as recording artists create and modify arrangements and performances “in the box” (on a computer), visual artists now make use of Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and other digital image manipulation software to generate imagery to then paint or draw from, print, 3D print, etc.  And just as musicians have learned from computers, artists too now borrow from the aesthetics of computer-generated imagery without ever touching a computer.

Rembrandt-self-portrait

Rembrandt van_Rijn – Self-Portrait (1659). Rembrandt was enamored with paint in the way some contemporary artists are enamored with pixels.

Consider Rembrandt’s self-portraits.  As a virtuosic painter, Rembrandt often hid or completely eliminated the marks of his paint brush in his early years.  Later, he began to experiment with embracing brushstrokes, leaving evidence of the tool as if to say, “this is a painting.  Look what I have done with paint!  Boo-ya!”.  As contemporary artists, we too must grapple with the decision to disguise or parade our tools, from photoshop to paintbrushes.

Usually, computer-artist exchanges happen covertly; the resulting charcoal portraits, landscape paintings, and indie-folk albums read as organic and naturalistic regardless of any digital interventions along the way.  But for some artists, digital-machine-partnerships are more evident.  And occasionally, the tool becomes an integral part of the product, as the paintbrush did with Rembrandt’s paintings.

Below is a small sampling of visual artists using digital tools more opaquely to inform or create art.  Can you think of others?  Can you think of recording artists who leave evidence of their digital tools?

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New Paintings

The show at DAAP was a success.  I will try and find some photos of the reception.  Here are some images of the paintings, as well as installation shots from the exhibition in 840 Gallery at the Department of Art Architecture and Planning at the University of Cincinnati last week.  the paintings look so much smaller in these photos!  maybe the camera adds ten pounds to people but it subtracts a few feet from paintings.

It was so nice to see the paintings in a clean space with good light after living with them in my cramped and often messy studio for months.  I was especially pleased with the way the colors read in this space.  i received a great deal of valuable criticism and praise.  i feel pretty satisfied with this small series; i am considering ways i can expand and push things from here.  i am also working on an internet project that relates to these paintings; i hope to launch that in the next couple weeks.

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Boxes: Point of Departure

Tower – Oil on Canvas, 36″ x 36″

I am making paintings of boxes. I have several canvases in my studio at various levels of completion, each with compositions of stacks of jumbled, sometimes anti-gravital configurations of wooden and metal boxes and drawers.  Some areas of the paintings are straightforwardly representational.  In other areas passages of paint become only paint, creating dripping or pixel-like obstructions.  This may or may not sustain my interest as i begin to consider my MFA thesis at the University of Cincinnati.

"Tower" Oil on Canvas - detail

I did not initially understand my compulsion to make these paintings or my attraction to boxes and drawers but I am getting closer.  Throughout the next few weeks and months I hope writing in this blog will help to solidify my understanding of my own psychological interests in compartmentalization and containment, outline a clear course for further exploration of these themes, and perhaps even make a compelling case that something as seemingly banal as an old box can also be endlessly extraordinary and deep.

some initial somewhat random thoughts about boxes and stacks of boxes:

  • a box has two states: open and closed.  Open and closed can be thought of as a metaphor, the yin and yang of our experience of the universe.  people, paths, goals, spaces, personalities, impulses, stores, homes, windows, compositions, melodies, sentences–many many things can be open or closed.
  • a box is containment, means containment.
  • we were born in a contained state.  the womb is a box.
  • containment is safety; containment is also imprisonment.
  • the box is a metaphor for our minds.
  • the mind is often conceived as having compartments for different functions.
  • a pragmatic understanding of the universe is only possible when we shut ourselves off to the reality of interconnectedness, preferring organizational strategies that draw lines around seemingly disparate phenomena, placing these phenomena in imagined compartments and boxes.
  • a box can conceal that which should not be seen. thus,
  • a box holds secrets
  • a lock on a small box is absurd, since the box can simply be stolen.  thus,
  • locks on small boxes (especially decorative locks) are an expression of our cultural reverence for our small treasures and our secrets
  • “all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits…and live for their secrets” -Radiohead (lyrics from “Subterranean Homesick Alien”about potential alien observations on humans)
  • For psychologists, compartmentalization is useful mechanism to hold opposing viewpoints within the same mind.
  • for social scientists compartmentalization may involve the division of labor. the industrial revolution as well as mechanical time and other kinds of new systems that have imposed radical fragmentation and separation of aspects of daily life.
  • fragmentation has become our natural condition
  • “defrag” is to defragment a hard drive–to move components (imagined as cubes) and to pack them tightly into the same area like stacked boxes
  • perhaps defragmentation as a metaphor could be extended
  • maybe my interest in fragmentation is a manifestation of my own feelings of disconnection from myself, having had to adopt sub identities to exist in the worlds of music and art, to meet the expectations of different audiences
  • a painting is a box.  thus,
  • the paintings, as fragmented representations of information storage, are metaphors for themselves–they (hopefully) synthesize several psychological and sociological themes in creating unified artworks
  • a stack of closed boxes expresses inherent tension between separation and unity
  • a box is more contained than a drawer because it can be solitary
  • a single removed drawer should read as lonelier than a single box, since singular is an unnatural condition for a drawer
  • boxes are tiny museums,
  • mummy memories,
  • undead documents, periodically reincarnated
  • “…there will always be more things in a closed, than an open, box.  To verify images kills them, and it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience.”  – Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

more to follow.

 

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