Skip to Content

Blog Archives

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?

1 Continue Reading →

Paulo Uccello and 3D Printing

Paolo_uccello,_studio_di_vaso_in_prospettiva

Paulo Uccello – Studio Da Vaso In Prospettiva

I have been fascinated with this image from the fifteenth century by Paulo Uccello.  Of course the image predates computers by many centuries, yet it so accurately prefigures the wireframe animations of today that it is difficult to imagine its true age. Records of Uccello paint a picture of a man consumed by a desire to represent the three dimensional world in two dimensional space.

Whether Uccello and others Renaissance thinkers like Raphael and DaVinci discovered–or invented–perspective is a philosophical question, but it is clear that this system of representing form in space marked a dramatic shift in the way humans thought about their surroundings.  This system is still vital to contemporary artists and designers.  What has changed is that today, very few images and objects are untouched by machines and electronics.  From the oil painter working from a digital photograph to the latest suburban home designed with CAD software, computers are everywhere to help us understand, represent and now even recreate 3D forms and space.  

Last weekend I visited an awesome mini-maker fair in Cincinnati, OH and played with robots (including R2D2) and awesome gadgets.  But by far the main attraction was 3D printers.  At every other table small machines were churning out tiny vessels, toys, letters, and other objects large and small.  Could 3D printing revolutionize the creation and consumption of objects, the way advances in linear perspective–and later mechanical reproduction–revolutionized images?  Here are some downloadable files of chalices from thingverse.com, so that you can print your own plastic chalice at home.  What would Uccello think?!

0 Continue Reading →

Michael Sailstorfer: Masculinity and Quiet Destruction

I recently attended the opening reception for the exhibition Michael Sailstorfer: Every Piece is a New Problem at the Contemporary Arts Center here in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This is the German Sailstorfer’s first major solo show in the United States and the CAC is the perfect place for his large-scale sculptures and installations.

Sailstorfer’s work is characterized by unusual sculptural interventions that investigate the clash between technology and nature.  I too am interested in this intersection and was pleased to see an artist taking on this theme using such a massive scale.  The most prominently displayed Sailstorfer work at the CAC is a collection of four large live trees hang upside down.  Each tree is slowly rotated on a motor so that the branches sweep the floor.  The effect is mesmerizing.  Robotic motors whir and needles bristle and break leaving traces on the concrete ground in quiet circles.  In the graceful airy space of the CAC this strange situation feels almost natural and somehow calming.

Hanging Problems

Hanging Trees

Sailstorfer’s other works include a microphone is encased in a block of concrete, picking up subtle vibrations as visitors walk by.  Many pieces simply document past events: a cabin being completely burnt down using its own wood and wood-burning stove, a young tree exploded using air pressure. and a tire mounted in such a way that as it spins it screeches, leaving a rubber mark on the wall and a burning smell in the gallery.

Sailstorfer’s art is undeniably provocative.  The CAC exhibition evokes surprise and even glee, as visitors are confronted by unlikely and curiously dramatic, almost playful situations.  But while Sailstorfer’s works are consistently memorable and powerful, there lingers an undercurrent of unsettling darkness that may not be initially recognizable.

Burning Cabin

Burning Cabin

The CAC website describes Sailstorfer’s trees as “dancers of a melancholic ballet”.  After think exhibition sunk in a little, I am now more inclined to view them as victims of execution by hanging–an inverted lynching.  There is nothing new about upside down trees.  Take Natalie Jeremijenko’s permanent installation of living upside-down trees at Mass MoCA, Tree Logic.  Jeremijenko built a system which nourishes the trees despite their unusual position, asking viewers to contemplate the possibility of naturalness as thee trees respond over time to an unexpected environment.  Sailstorfer, by contrast, slowly kills his trees using decapitation and mechanical torture.

Natalie Jeremijenko: Tree Logic, MASS MoCA

Natalie Jeremijenko: Tree Logic, MASS MoCA

This interpretation is not metaphorical–Sailstorfer’s trees are indeed, actually, slowly dying. It is possible to become so enamored with the art-ness of Sailstorfers works that the reality of these destructive acts is overlooked.  But Sailstorfer is a materialist.  The essence of his art is material; it is reasonable to take his interventions at face value.  Of course, most contemporary art installations, performances, and actions are generally presented as symbolic provocations even as they are “real”.  The problem for Sailstorfer–and indeed much contemporary art–is that he seems unable to articulate the symbolic part.

Dying trees, exploded trees, burning cabins, burnt rubber, a microphone restricted in concrete and an obsession with the idea of “expansion”–Sailstorfer is a contemporary futurist.  Like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and friends in the Futurist manifesto from 1909, Sailstorfer sings the “love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness…” perhaps even a “contempt for women”–but does all this abstrusely.  Unlike the Futurists, who were transparent about their wholehearted embrace of destruction, machine-power and even fascism, Sailstorfer puts the responsibility on the viewer. This to me is even more unsettling.

Raketenbaum (Rocket Tree)

Raketenbaum (Rocket Tree) – Another Problem Solved

In another arena, Sailstorfer’s works could pass for entertainment or spectacle.  Fireworks, Game of Thrones, the NFL, Nascar–sports and entertainment media are awash in images of male power and violent destruction.  When pressed, however, Sailstorfer describes his art as being solely about nature, technology and art history.

In contemporary art and society ideology has never been more prominent.  For Sailstorfer–and all artists–every piece is indeed a new problem; solving them may require an element preservation, modesty, contraction, compassion and sensitivity.  How do you solve your problems?

 

Michael Sailstorfer: Every Piece is a New Problem
Now through September 14

Contemporary Arts Center
44 E. Sixth St.
Cincinnati, OH 45202

0 Continue Reading →

Selfie or Self-Portrait? Van Gogh and the Art of Sharing

Under the pretense that I was an artist, and that the lives of artists should be documented through self-portraiture, I began taking photos of myself around 2000.  At that time the idea of turning a camera on one’s self was still commonly seen as odd, despite (or perhaps because of) the sudden proliferation of bad MySpace mirror profile pics.  While the practice of spontaneous digital self-portraiture received an enormous boost of in 2013 due to increased usage of camera phones and image-based social media services like Instagram, many still view the practice of taking a selfie as odd or worse–vain, absurd and a reflection of the millennial generation’s self-obsession and inability to enjoy the present moment.  But what happens when an artist makes an image of herself?  Where is the line between a selfie (#selfie) and self-portraiture?

The artist has long enjoyed a special status in culture, an expectation of self-centeredness or even self-obsession.  Thanks to Van Gogh and many others, the self-portrait is connected with ideas of authorship, genius and creative struggle.  Strictly speaking, the selfie is a photograph taken with a digital camera and posted to a social network.  However, self-portraiture is inherently social in nature; through painting or photographing their own faces and bodies, artists attempt to reveal to others some aspect of their very essence or being.  What could be more social than that?

VanGogh-self-portrait-with_bandaged_ear

Does Van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear from 1889 prefigure the #selfie? #vangogh #urgentcare #sucks #whatwasithinking #omg #ear #holyshit #dutchmedicalcare #artist #suffering #torturedartist #modernism #postimpressionism #gauguin #hatehim #sad #lonely #yellowhouse #arles #injured #bandaged #forlorn

Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with a bandage on his ear is perhaps the art world’s first #selfie in that it succinctly captures the image-maker in a peculiar moment.  While the source of Van Gogh’s injury is still unclear, one thing is certain–the event involved his man-crush of the moment and fellow post-impressionist Paul Gaugin.  Perhaps, Van Gogh cut off his own ear in a fit of depression upon hearing Gaugin’s decision to leave their yellow house studio in Arles, France.  Or, was it Gaugin that sliced it off during a fencing accident?  Either way, the image is nothing if not a provocative update about Van Gogh’s status.

For centuries the words visual artist essentially meant image maker.  An image-maker was a particular kind of person and making compelling images required life-long dedication and skill.  Now that photographic and digital media technologies have become less expensive and the speed of transmission is approaching instantaneous (i.e. Instagram), nearly anyone with the means and motivation to acquire and learn to use a cell phone can become a prolific–although not necessarily adept–visual creator.  This renders the majority of self-portraits in existence anything but artistic.  Could an unending stream of images tagged #bored, #drunk, and #cleave really be Joseph Beuys’ dream of the democratization of art?

A Self-Portrait by Albrecht Dürer, 1500.

A Self-Portrait by Albrecht Dürer, 1500. #selfie #artselfie #blinging #robes #mirrorselfie #jesusstyle #pimpcoat, #fur #selfportrait #self-portrait

Since the Renaissance, the self-portrait has been a form of advertising.  We feel no shame; as artists, self-promotion is a necessary part of life, for who can survive without patrons?  Thus, the self-portrait has survived and enjoyed lasting popularity in art as a two-punch tool: a way to communicate proficiency in one’s chosen medium while maintaining appearances.  But Millennials in the twitterverse are not searching for their Medicis.  We (and I use “we” loosely as I am caught between Millennial and Gen-X stereotypes) have been voraciously consuming–or reluctantly swallowing–images our entire lives.  Why should the right and responsibility to promote and preserve one’s image be reserved for artists and corporations?  Seen in this light, the selfie is subversive:  The audience becomes the artist, the consumer becomes the producer selling herself back to the world.

For all the selfie’s alluring sociopolitical ramifications and high entertainment value, the quick digital image simply neglects to do well the things that art does well.  The selfie does not conform to the elements and principles of design.  The selfie is of a positively low-quality.  The selfie is impulsive.  But isn’t that precisely its charm?  The selfie does not apologize for its vanity nor attempt to hide its self-consciousness.  The self-portrait, on the other hand, takes itself so seriously that the posturing of artists is often comical.  After decades of living in a culture of government and corporate lying and spying, is it any wonder that Millenials distrust the idea of authenticity itself?

Some random Instagram Selfies.

Some random Instagram Selfies.

The bad selfie (and most are bad) could be seen as a reflection of the distrust of propaganda (as evidenced by the hashtag “nofilter”): a willingness to put oneself on display without the handling, designing, research and development, testing, photoshoping, retouching, reshooting, retooling, editing and censoring, all the artifice of bureaucracy.  The artist too, unfortunately, has no choice but to self-censor, selecting and editing ad nauseam, having lived forever with an unforgiving, internal overlord, possessed by the specter of art history and bent on getting things just right.  Just maybe, the less a selfie resembles a self-portrait, the closer the image is to truth.   For to create art is to lie.  To represent is to misrepresent, and to create a self-portrait is to, well, #filter.

Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin), September, 1888

Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin), September, 1888

Van Gogh was indeed an interpreter (not a truth teller) but his willingness to interpret, to stretch, to bend and color made him a master and a great innovator of modern art.  His paintings are some of the most moving works of all time, in any media; in the strokes you feel his presence, his suffering, his joy, his life.  This connection with future viewers, forged by a willingness to overshare, secured his legacy.  Most people will never attempt to become great painters or photographers.  But our desire to share our sadness and madness and joy and everything between through images with any available technology is a reflection of our humanness.  Unfortunately, a quick look at the latest selfies in my feed reveals that society at large still has a great deal of catching up to do–the artist has been sharing for a long, long time.

_____________________________________________________________

For a continued exploration of this topic in a fun way, I created an Instagram account dedicated to self-portraits of artists.  Follow me on your cell phone or browse the images so far at instagram.com/artselfie.

Art Self artselfie selfie

0 Continue Reading →

Mintabox.com: A New Interactive Internet Art Project

Well after about six months of tinkering I am finally finished with this project.  This is one of those projects that just grew and grew and I have had to cut myself off, at least for now so that I can launch it.  Please visit:

Mintabox.com

Mintabox.com: An interactive generative web-project designed to investigate the meaning of information storage in the information age.

and add your own box.  mintabox.com is an interactive, generative web-project designed to investigate the meaning of information storage in the information age.  The site is inspired by my paintings and conversely, my paintings have begun to become inspired by the site.  The project is a meld of some of my creative interests including collecting, painting, photography, and web-design as well as a merging of conceptual interests including nostalgia and the effects of digital technologies on our aesthetic and sociological experience.

To use this site, visit the “main array” on the first page at mintabox.com. You may click on any existing box in the main array to “open” the box and see inside it. Inside each box you will see words and images that were submitted by other anonymous contributors. To add your own contribution to the array, select “add a box” from the top menu on any page and follow the instructions on each subsequent screen. Your newer box will cover older boxes. This process will continue indefinitely.

I am hopeful that people will actually take the time to play with the site and possibly even take the time to submit something clever.  I am considering submitting mintabox.com to some internet art databases.

I will be teaching internet art at the University of Cincinnati this fall.  This project is the first of several that I have begun to deeper my understanding and engagement with the medium.

0 Continue Reading →

The Obsolesence of Boxes

Gray-Blue Steel Box with Art Deco Hinge

Some thoughts about the increasing obsolescence of small physical storage boxes.  I know obsolescence is a strong word, and yes, Ikea probably sells thousands and thousands of these kinds of boxes which are made to look old.  However, there is no question that the majority of photographs and documents in our world have moved into the no-space of the internet.  Our world is less and less physical.  Donna Haraway makes my claims seem pretty humble by suggesting that “even bodies themselves may become irrelevant” (Cyborg Manifesto).

  • boxes are becoming obsolete as our world and our methods of archiving move away from the physical and into the digital realm
  • the increasing obsolescence of these particular kinds of small wooden and metal boxes is curious since photographs, documents, and letters, objects that are strongly associated with feelings of sentimentality and nostalgia, are the most important sociological phenomena of human history, while
  • the functionality of other types of boxes that are associated with more banal expressions of our physical existence (such as the refrigerator for food) endure
  • the internet has usurped small boxes as the new repository of emotional relics
  • perhaps a lack of physical evidence for our emotions creates anxiety and an ever-increasing need to share more
  • an embrace of the box as an expression of opposition to the new simulacra of human experience
0 Continue Reading →