Around & Through Digital Tech: Untouched at Heights Arts
The earliest exhibitions of digital art took place in Stuttgart, Germany and New York City back in the first half of 1965, yet today’s debates over how (or if) “digital” and “art” ought to mix too often lack maturity to match their advancing age. In the ‘60s the New York Times feared that “almost any kind of painting can be computer-generated—the actual touch of the artist will no longer play any part in the making of a work of art.” The very same concerns persist, with present-day holdouts complaining that digital art lacks skillful technique, physical presence, or a connection to the real world. Untouched: The Digital Paradox, an exhibition at Heights Arts curated by Matthew Hollern and featuring work by nine artists, offers a fresh variety of alternative perspectives. It’s on view August 30 – October 13.
In his curatorial thesis, Hollern (Professor and Chair of Jewelry and Metals at the Cleveland Institute of Art) writes that new technologies demand the same “vigilance” as older techniques, and moreover that while tools and materials matter “engagement and commitment to process, craftsmanship, work and workflow” do more to define works of art. In Untouched, these points are well supported by Janice Lessman-Moss’s lush textiles. Some of these are shown in small frames, while others are much larger, as much as five feet on a side. The artist produced them using a digital jacquard loom that is part hand-operated and part computer-controlled. Along the way she added paint and made improvised adjustments. Especially because weaving and computing are similarly discrete and mathematical (such that a digital pattern can be translated cleanly into a pattern of threads) Lessman-Moss’s many techniques mesh together. Looking at her textiles I think little about a contest between the digital and the human, and much more about diligent and careful work, dense patterns, and widely varying textures.
Barry Underwood’s photographs raise similar ideas, but in a decidedly opposite way. While Lessman-Moss’s work makes the use of digital techniques seem quite natural, Underwood’s pictures appear unnatural despite having been made with analog technology. Their rigid, flat, and brightly glowing lines seem at first like just the sort of thing one might add on top of a photograph with the drag of a mouse. However, Underwood’s artist’s statement about the images forthrightly explains that they are in fact “long-exposure photographic images of sculptural structures build on-site.” On a second look this makes perfect sense—in all likelihood it is easier to place actual lights in a scene than to teach a computer to perfectly represent every stray bit of glinting light. Still, Underwood’s lines look so much like something out of a movie like TRON that I cannot imagine them existing in a pre-computer world. They seem to rely on digital technology for inspiration, if not technical execution.
In his introduction to Untouched, Hollern indeed suggests that digital subject matter is so common as to be unavoidable: “Digital technology is ubiquitous, from the time you get up, throughout your day, until you sign off.” With this in mind, Marcus Brathwaite deserves praise for successfully transporting text messages out of smartphone banality and into gallery wall drama. His three-panel Police Brutality is Saving the Black Family centers on a text chain between a black mother and her child who is detained in a traffic stop. The work’s title points to the racially-charged gravity of the situation while also grimly suggesting that the exchange might strengthen bonds between the protagonists (so long as both of them survive). The messages and the squad car lights surrounding them are rendered as lenticular prints, so viewers see different images depending on their angle of view. Wishfully, I first hoped that walking to the other side of the panels would reveal a relieving conclusion or alternative version of the conversation. Brathwaite withholds such an easy resolution and instead the individual texts fade in and out, making them feel simultaneously ephemeral and dearly, tragically precious. The piece effectively places viewers in the position of an anxious parent, eagerly awaiting what might come with their phone’s next buzzing, nervously extrapolating and imagining from limited information in the meantime.
Throughout the rest of Untouched artists find other ways to make meaning about and through digital technologies. George Kozmon and Tony Ingrisano each work with found digital imagery, Kozmon’s layered and printed either on paper or wood panels, Ingrisano’s painted in acrylic by hand but with an impressively pixilated appearance. Hollern contributes 3D-printed jewelry made in collaboration with Yasniel Valdes, while the duo known as //benitez_vogl also work with wearable 3D-prints, but their tight-fitting forearm cuff is meant to function conceptually—the marks it leaves in skin are also part of their project; temporary like an image on a screen. Remarkably, all of this fits into the front portion of Heights Arts’ space without feeling at all crowded. And it all fits together seamlessly as an exhibition too—one worth seeing as art and so many other activities increasingly turn from analog to digital.