On The Painting As A Fantasy

exhibition essay for Plugged-in Paintings, SITE 131, January 2019

Art depends less and less on physicality to exist. The painting as an unreproducible work is a symbol of longing, emboldened by the absence of tactility in our experience of the world. The institution of painting as a medium has died many deaths in the critical sphere. Still, the painting itself remains a worshipped object. Artists who make something and call it a painting thus refer to a span of fraught discussions — traditional values of the art market, environmental responsibility, classical humanism — just by making something and calling it a painting. What have they really done?

The nine artists of Plugged-in Paintings at SITE 131 bring irrevocable qualities of the painting to the fore. Pointedly large works in the show are referred to by the curators as digital paintings, an established term used to describe works on canvas that recreate traditional painting techniques through the use of computers and software. In this exhibition, manipulation of photographs and experimental modes of printing test or subvert the idea of digital painting.

Excitement generated by a painting is owed to the performance it documents. These works isolate gestures of performance from physical material, investigate both using digital methods, and return them to a canvas. By calling itself a painting, each work poses as a door to the history of what has been valued in art. To enter is to see the future.

Petra Cortright was among the first multimedia artists seen peering into a webcam in videos posted on YouTube, mimicking the experience of the viewer on the other side of the screen. She sold her work for the first time in 2008 at Dallas gallery And/Or. Cortright’s remarkable success as a post-internet, feminist artist who engages with social issues has been supported by critics and the market; her work appeared in Paddles On!, the first digital art auction by a major auction house when Paddle8 caught up in 2014.

It is both curious and fitting that her contribution to this exhibition is the most painterly. The triptych Wrestling Entrance Themes_smoke+the_weed+mp3 is part of a series based on a grey sea landscape. While Cortright is known to disassemble pointed images, like a photo of Julian Schnabel’s ex-wife’s kitchen, for her impressionistic body of digital paintings, this time the source images simply depict flowers and water that appear as such in the work. Errant lines pull motion downward in a rose-and-sage fantasy of nature and rest.

Desire for the presence of land and the corporeal appears in Plugged-in Paintings even when the artists commit to hide it. Technology melds with the structures of its users, who like to believe they are in charge. Co-curator and featured artist John Pomara began experimenting with scanners in the late ‘80s, inspired by the concept of painting’s demise in the essays of Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture (1986). Pomara traced the formations of paint drips on his studio floor and slid the renderings around on a scanner, animating the refuse of his painting practice. Fascinated with images of cell structure as seen through the lens of a microscope, he fused paint to microbiology.

Pomara later made a ritual of applying oil paint atop the patterns of heavily glitched digital photographs. His contribution to this show features no paint. The subject of Red Alert is a stranger’s nude self-portrait as posted on Instagram in black-and-white. (A comment of heart and lightning-bolt emojis from Pomara’s account appears on the woman’s originally posted photograph.) After using glitch techniques to make the image unrecognizable and running the canvas through a printer multiple times to manipulate it further, Pomara offers, with the blessing of the source image’s subject and author, a bold color version in UV ink that keeps her form an open secret.

Dean Terry’s provocative Suburban White Woman #1 is his return to 2D production after almost three decades away. Dallas audiences might recognize him as the leader of the experimental performance group Therefore, with whom Terry created a testament to the raw horrors of living in the age of artificial intelligence in 2018. The Alexa Dialogues used the so-named Amazon device in the show as an improv actor.

As a co-curator and featured artist in Plugged In Paintings, Terry expresses obsession with methods of surveillance and his frustration over technology’s unkept promises. “I’m playing White Guy Yelling At His T.V. From The Couch,” Terry writes on his website to preface the piece. The layers of Suburban White Woman #1 are made with camera angles and lenses — photographs of photographs. Terry’s subject is a woman who presents as an affirming Trump supporter, pictured at a televised rally for the president immediately after then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. Screens that see the woman’s face make their presence known with debris over the image. The artist who sees the woman through the screens imagines she is now less certain of her allegiance to the president, but for all his searching studies of her expression, he can’t be sure.  

Chris Dorland alludes to vulnerability in technology with Untitled (Apache Struts). The title’s reference to a hopeful, free, open-source system for making web apps carries the context of its downfall: a glitch that hackers can easily exploit. Dorland’s chaotic process yields a musical series of repeated lines and forms, a generative code like a (dangerous) trance.

Liz Trosper is a careful investigator, fundamentally interested in texture and the elemental. She translates the feel and touch of studio process to digital images. Squeezes of acrylic paint and a hue of cardboard in Accumulation 2 create a desire in the viewer to put their hands in, situating them at a supposed first gate of artmaking when materials arrive in the mail. The limits of 2D media are reinforced when all the viewer can do is witness what has not yet begun and join the artist in her studies of color.

The religiosity of minimalism doesn’t work for Zeke Williams, whose collage-like digital works are too playful to fall into that tradition and too experimental to be considered graphic design though he uses tools like Adobe Illustrator, traditional for an industrialized image-maker. The stripes you see in Klymene are emblematic of his design sensibility, and the patterns repeat across his body of work.

Lucas Martell is the only artist in this exhibition who calls themself a traditional painter. He adopted a new way of working to make Light Weight. Scavenging for mundane, small objects to photograph and feed to Photoshop, he began to see himself as an extractor; where painting with watercolor, for example, had been a kind of push, the modes required for digital assemblage were a pull. The result evokes arid earth and primitive sculpture, punctuated with an image of a die like a souvenir of this experiment.

The land peeks out again with incidental woodgrain patterns in Matthew Choberka’s Sounding Board. The artist connected with co-curator John Pomara through Instagram. As an analog painter from the Studio School in New York, he picked up a tablet and the painting app Procreate first as a kind of mobile painting studio. His iPad setup was a way to investigate color while he was traveling. Later when he tried the Apple pencil, his practice began to shift. Choberka's contribution to Plugged In Paintings carries a sense of humor about coming to digital tools from New York School traditions. This is the first time Choberka has shown in Dallas.

Lorraine Tady uses dream logic to make maps that express the motion of specific places and how she remembers traveling through them. Octagon Vibration Series, Frequency Piccadilly Circus is made of tactile dry point monotypes whose parts she re-images and re-appropriates. In this way Tady makes a place for the analog printing process in digital painting and, tenderly, allows rough edges to preserve the one-take life of printmaking. In this piece, London’s public transportation and the Thames river walkway are treasured with a grid. The orange strokes stand for the so-colored poles in Piccadilly Circus tube station.

For all the ways painting has been decentralized, the painting’s insistence as a supreme object is powerful inasmuch as its language is still used to validate new modes. Whether that validation serves the artist in the market or complicates a work of conceptual art as a symbol, the painting finds ways to demand attention.

"To be modern is to know that which is not possible anymore." Yve Alain-Bois attributed this quote to Roland Barthes in his essay "Painting: The Task Of Mourning,” which appears in the Endgame collection Pomara read before harvesting those paint drips on his studio floor for the scanner. That line can be found other places, attributed to Barthes, but the original text source remains elusive. Another proclaimed end carries a challenge. The gesture is a loop.

— Lyndsay Knecht