In 1955, Clement Greenberg argued that the abstract expressionists succeeded in distilling painting to its essential and defining feature: flatness. While this argument allowed Greenberg to put a select group of artists in dialogue with a history of Western modernism, he also effectively declared an end-point for painting. Among the uncountable debates that have taken place about the supposed death and inevitable resurrection of the medium was a 2003 roundtable discussion, during which the artist David Reed declared: “Rather than initiating the death of painting, as was expected, photography and other media of mechanical reproduction have been like a vampire’s kiss that makes painting immortal.” Taking its title from Reed’s statement, “Vampire’s Kiss” is a group exhibition curated by Tyler Blackwell, that brings together the work of five artists—EJ Hauser, Erin Hayden, Albert Oehlen, Laura Owens and Siebren Versteeg—to explore how the two-dimensional qualities of digital production and reproduction inform, influence and intersect with painting and drawing practices. The show’s most compelling works explore the slippage between the gestural marks produced by digital media and painting and employ the language of painting to lay bare the logic of digitally produced media.
Several artists, for example, reference the visual qualities of digitally constructed images. Owens, for example, has become particularly well-known for integrating tell-tale signs of the digital landscape by using a “drop shadow”—the illusion of a shadow on a two-dimensional shape or object. Rather than a comment on the essential qualities of painting, flatness is used to point to the two-dimensional nature of the digital screen, a screen which at once mimics the visual markers of a three-dimensional world while also producing its own iconographies.
Other works produce compelling tensions between the hand-drawn and the mechanically printed gesture. Hayden’s “Hate Cares,” for example, includes a storybook rendering of a lion’s head printed directly on the canvas, which she partially covers over with yellow paint, filling in the remaining contours of the lion’s face with painted red lines. An amorphous black blot in the background is rendered using a similar tactic, although it is less apparent where the printed form stops and the painting begins. One has to inspect the surface closely, thus the artist blurs the line between the two types of mark-making while at the same time making the viewer increasingly aware of the difference that exists between them.
Finally, Versteeg has created a computer program that culls the most circulated images from one day’s news feed and fills the surface of a canvas with sweeping brushstrokes of color. With titles such as “2017_04_11_0003219_Today_3800 x 4600” the artist evokes a digitally rendered image, but one which intentionally reproduces the gestures produced by putting brush to canvas. On closer inspection, one can see small photographs pulled by the program floating amidst the bands of color. In many ways, the artist has arrested and visualized an invisible process—that of the algorithm—which allows uncountable images each day to circulate on our screens. Mechanical reproduction has taken on the aesthetic of the handmade, calling the authenticity of both into question. The flatness of the digital image and the flatness of the brushstroke are thus brought eerily closer together. (Katja Rivera)
“Vampire’s Kiss” shows through July 14 at Aspect Ratio Projects, 864 North Ashland.