"Brushes," copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum as part of the series First Look: New Art Online, casts light on digital painting at a moment when the practice is gaining more widespread recognition. Unlike works by artists such as Albert Oehlen, who have translated digital gestures and imagery to a gallery context, the works featured in "Brushes"—by artists Laura Brothers, Jacob Ciocci, Petra Cortright, Joe Hamilton, Sara Ludy, Michael Manning, Giovanna Olmos, and Andrej Ujhazy—were created specifically for online circulation and display.
As art historian Alex Bacon writes in an essay for Rhizome, "In a sense, painting has always existed in relation to technology, when the term is understood in its broad definition as the practical application of specialized knowledge: the brush, the compass, the camera obscura, photography, or the inkjet printer." However, if painting has long involved the application of tools and techniques, it has also served another function: it makes technological conditions available for visual contemplation in the gallery. (Think, for example, of Vera Molnár's television paintings, which evoke the visual style of that technology.)
Today, many paintings that are displayed in the gallery are also contemplated online on platforms such as Instagram. This is a widely discussed phenomenon, but what is often overlooked in painting discourse is the role played by works created and experienced on the computer and the internet. This kind of digital painting has existed for decades: for example, the 1970s software SuperPaint already included many features found in modern paint applications. "Brushes" acknowledges this long history while focusing on practices that have emerged in recent years.
In particular, this exhibition highlights artworks that refer back, in some way, to a bodily gesture made by the artist: mouse movements, digitized brushstrokes, or touchscreen swipes. This leaves out the many artists who create painterly work by writing custom code—but despite their shared approach, these artists take diverse positions on questions of process and output.
As the role of painting in the gallery continues to shift, "Brushes" aims to suggest that works produced on the computer and experienced via the browser and the mobile app have an equal place in the medium's discourses, offering a space for contemplation of our technological society from within its complex apparatus.
Several of the artists paint as part of a serial publishing or blogging practice. Laura Brothers creates pixel-perfect works that are uploaded to a vertically scrolling LiveJournal page. Like Brothers, Andrej Ujhazy also posts his work on blogging platforms, but he prefers to present various strains of his expressive, painterly work under the guise of varied profiles across social media platforms and online forums, producing multiple bodies of work simultaneously.
Others explore the potential of "prosumer" tools, acknowledging their limitations while also harnessing their affective and formal potential. Michael Manning's prolific practice incorporates "default" devices and software to create seductive, effortless abstraction. Petra Cortright works with elaborately layered Photoshop compositions and customized brushes, often outputting a single composition in numerous different formats: a GIF, a video, or a print. Sara Ludy generates complex abstractions using the video compositing software After Effects.
Jacob Ciocci sources images from the internet, printing, painting, and collaging them to create object-based works for gallery display. He then scans these back into the computer and collages them again into frenetic animations. Joe Hamilton's Indirect.Flights (2015) also integrates scanned brushstrokes, in this case sourced from famous landscape paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Arthur Streeton, and other artists. These are incorporated into a collaged landscaped that is navigated with an interface that refers to that of Google Maps.
Finally, Giovanna Olmos works with a mobile app called Brushes and the screenshot function of her iPhone, which lacks a working camera, to make Instagram posts that refer to very primary gestures made with a smartphone. The simplicity of her works throws into sharp relief the complex technical ensemble that surrounds and interprets her gestures and those of the other artists featured in the exhibition.
On September 3, 2015, from 7pm to 9pm EST, the New Museum hosted a panel discussion featuring art historian Alex Bacon and artists Laura Brothers, Michael Manning, Giovanna Olmos, and Andrej Ujhazy. Watch the video here:
Laura Brothers' work takes the form of pixel-perfect compositions uploaded serially to her feed on the publishing platform LiveJournal.
She has been posting in this way since 2007. Sometimes the gap between posts is a couple weeks or even a few months, punctuated by several new works uploaded at once. In its lifespan, the blog has has inspired many other artists. For example, Andrej Ujhazy—whose work is also included in "Brushes"—cites her as a key influence, as does artist Robert Lorayn of Computers Club.
Brothers blogs under the pseudonym "out_4_pizza," a handle that reflects the "casual whim" that sparked her project—she initially started her LiveJournal with the intention of posting only a single entry, but the platform soon became a central aspect of her practice. In a 2012 interview, Brothers described the way she approaches this exhibition context:
I assume that the way in which my work is normally viewed is through the action of scrolling. You're on a computer and you are gliding the images in succession past your gaze. I liken this to a sort of super slow motion film strip. It's a way of storytelling. For a post, each individual image is viewed in relation to the one that comes before it and the one that follows. Meanwhile, they are all sort of floating in an endless black space. There's no real clear-cut definition between the images in this context. So to me, within each post, each distinct image is really part of the same piece; the same story.
Posts also have a relationship with one another; elements are recycled and similar themes explored from one to the next. There is consistency across the body of work as a whole: the vertical layout and black background of the blog, allusions to comics, and the pixel-perfect style in which seemingly solid colors are often rendered as half-tone or checkerboard patterns. This latter trait means that Brothers' work often creates a moiré effect as the viewer scrolls; although she describes this as an unintentional byproduct of her visual style—she cites Lichtenstein as a key influence. However, the visual effect is destroyed when images are resized or compressed, and Brother describes the use of LiveJournal as being particularly important because it's among the few publishing platforms that doesn't transform uploaded images in this fashion. The specific relationship between these pixelated patterns and the screen is also difficult to translate to printed form, making the computer in many ways the best context for this work.
Despite the consistency in Brothers' body of work, distinct phases have emerged; for the past year—beginning with the post "Maloo-Ed" (7 August 2014)—Brothers' work has often involved solid color backgrounds (actually composed of half-tones and checkerboards) with gestural marks superimposed on them.
The marks are sometimes abstract scribbles that call to mind automatic drawing; at other times, they loosely describe interior spaces, as in "Deux Blue." Like all of Brothers' works, the marks were made using the computer mouse as input device, rather than the Wacom tablet.
The works in "Deux Blue" bring painting into conversation from multiple perspectives. They include cartoon-style images of abstract paintings leaning against a wall, as if during installation, overlaid with a striated field of blue that calls attention to the grid-oriented aesthetics of the screen, interacting dynamically with more painterly brushstrokes.
A subsequent post, "HENRY HAUNTED" (21 August 2014) shifts the architectural setting from miminal gallery to a crumbling ruin. In HENRYBLUEROOM.png the setting is depicted in an inset window in the composition against a blue background covered with an all-over composition of scribbled marks.
"RUSSHHOUR" (also 21 August 2014) builds on the all-over composition, doing away with the architectural elements. Despite being loose and gestural, the marks are copied and pasted across the composition, highlighting an interplay between the work as an index of Brothers' manual input and as an index of computational processes.
Unsettling, cartoon-like figures enter the compositions in "WHAT'S LEFT" (16 October 2014).
With "FOR THE BIRDS" (21 May 2015), the all-over gestural composition begins to resolve into figuration—specifically a desert landscape populated by tumbleweeds and a figure reminiscent of the roadrunner.
And "SOUP'S ON" (15 June 2015) brings together a number of these threads, introducing a kind of geometric architectural motif that resembles the graphics from a late-1980s videogame. A wide-eyed, expectant figure stands in front of a painting that is inset with a pattern resembles the desert landscapes of "FOR THE BIRDS," in front of a series of tracks in the ground. Behind it, there is a loose evocation of the Road Runner. Altogether, the composition suggests a narrative, as if the Road Runner had run up to and crashed through the painting, leaving a bird-sized hole in it, through which the desert can be glimpsed.
The original Road Runner cartoons were drawn by the great Chuck Jones, the artist who introduced a cross-dressing rabbit into World War II-era American pop culture. Among Jones' written rules for the series were that the Road Runner could never be caught, and that the audience's sympathy must always remain with the coyote, seemingly the aggressor. The Road Runner was the impossible object of desire. And as Jones wrote in rule #3, a rule which may have a certain resonance with Brothers' years-long LiveJournal practice: "The Coyote could stop anytime—if he were not a fanatic."
See Brothers' full LiveJournal here.
Throughout the course of "Brushes," Olmos will be posting artworks to Rhizome's Instagram. The works were made using the Brushes app on her mobile phone, working from screenshots or files in her phone's photo album. She often "paints over" the content of an image, calling attention to the tactile relationship smartphone users have with their images.
Olmos' contribution to the exhibition also included a perfomance at the "Brushes" panel, in which she performed a choreographed sequence of smartphone gestures. Video of that performance can be found at 49:30 in the event documentation.
For her contribution to "Brushes," artist Petra Cortright presents two versions of a Photoshop composition titled all_gold_everything.psd: a GIF that cycles through all of its layers, and a video that uses wipes and dissolves to offer a slowly shifting view of the same imagery.
Click here for the 140MB high-resolution gif.
Read more about this work here.
Andrej Ujhazy undertook this work while playing a video game from the Total War series that features massive armies fighting in grandiose landscapes during the late Roman Empire. Ujhazy set out to make an epic historical painting in the traditional sense, drawing inspiration from the videogame and from the underlying history it represented. The tribe Ujhazy was playing was the Sarmatians, a central Asian people for whom women played an important role in warfare; they were described by Herodotus as the descendants of Amazon mothers. Thus, the painting was partly an intervention into the narrative of the game; however, it departs markedly from the game's photorealistic style, introducing gestural digital brushwork that bridges the gap between historical epic and personal expression.
To view the 70MB work, click here. To see further works by Ujhazy, visit acidyblog.blogspot.com and bluzzard.tumblr.com.
Jacob Ciocci's New Expressions gifs are made by printing material from the internet, gluing, collaging and painting it, scanning the result back into the computer, animating it digitally, and repeating. He has applied this practice to works that are shown onscreen, such as these GIFs, while also creating objects for gallery display, some of which incorporate video projection into the work.
The gifs were first published as part of an essay on the web authoring and publishing platform NewHive in which he presented them as part of a step-by-step tutorial with the title "How to Make an Expression." The title played on the incongruity between the ideal of free creative expression and the rigidity of a howto; Ciocci described the NewHive project to art blog Hyperallergic as an attempt to create his own artistic rules that mirrored the (often unacknowledged) rules that are applied to creativity by, on the one hand, online platforms like NewHive, and on the other, by craft stores like Michael's or JoAnn's. Ciocci has an ambivalent relationship with such rules, at once acknowledging that they can be freeing while urging himself in his own practice to "think outside the box," a personal mantra he has embraced since his days as a member of the influential Paper Rad collective in the mid-2000s.
Indirect Flights, a new online work by Joe Hamilton with sound by J.G. Biberkopf and supported by The Moving Museum, is a sprawling landscape of layered images. Raw materials, satellite images, organic textures, brush strokes and architectural fragments are all blended together into a dense panorama extending in all directions. The brush strokes are extracted from very high resolution images of famous landscape paintings by artist such as Vincent van Gogh and Arthur Streeton, which is a nod to past methods of representation as well as contemporary technologies of perception. The navigation system uses a Google Maps-like panning interface, a further reference to contemporary technologies that structure perception.
As you pan, the layers move at different speeds, giving the illusion of depth, constantly changing what is hidden and exposed. This shifting composition is an attempt to depict the landscape , in a moment defined by the proliferation of digital technologies and the global transportation of bodies, commodities and goods.
For this series of abstract video works, originally created for the online collaborative w-a-l-l-p-a-p-e-r-s.net, Sara Ludy begins with images created in Adobe Photoshop using the "Difference Clouds" feature, which alters color levels in an image according to cloud-like patterns. This software-generated image is then imported into Adobe Aftereffects, where Ludy adjusts preset parameters to create these swirling cloud patterns. In part, the works are an investigation of the aesthetics inherent in the software tools—but unlike artists such as Cory Arcangel who previously explored such "default" aesthetics in his Photoshop gradient series, Ludy allows more latitude for her own improvisation, seeking out a visual complexity that transcends the seemingly mundane origins of her imagery.
Read more here.
The website 100paintings.gallery (by Michael Manning, with code by Zach Shipko) recombines layers from one hundred paintings to create a unique composition for each visit or refresh. According to the artist statement, "this set of parameters allows for over 9 billion unique works." Each 800x1000 pixel composition can be downloaded as well as shared via a generated permalink.
"Brushes" is copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum as part of First Look: New Art Online, and curated by Michael Connor.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson/Edlis Artist Commissions Fund. Additional support is provided by the New York State Council on the Arts and the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund. Rhizome's public programs are made possible, in part, through the support of the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, the Carolyn K. Tribe Foundation, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts. .