Beyond the screen you’re reading lies a vast digital infrastructure, from data centers to satellites, algorithms to interfaces. There’s nary a corner of society to which information technology and the esoteric conjuring of programmers, data scientists and engineers are not fundamental. In 2011, the artist and author James Bridle began collecting examples of what they call the New Aesthetic. Signal processing errors and visual patterns that resemble pixelation in the non-digital, they suggest, reveal the nebulously complex processes of computation and networked technologies that shape not only the digital but also the physical world. These ideas are top of mind when I consider Jonathan Worcester’s “Tempers,” on view now at the Humboldt Park artist-run exhibition and studio space, Cleaner Gallery+Projects.
In the digital world, images, encoded in bits and expressed as pixels, are discontinuous, differentiated, quantized. But the stippled patterns in Worcester’s paintings are not cartoonish depictions of pixelation. Rather, they’re derived from the weave of fabrics or the mesh of interlaced materials through which paint—we could just as easily call it information, or the signal—passes, is filtered, subdivided, and, in a process I don’t entirely understand, is cast elsewhere. The absent readymade tempers the expressive, painterly mark. Worcester, who was awarded a Luminarts Fellowship last year and will receive his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in May, is evasive when asked about his process, lest it be all anyone sees. But contrary to his intention, desire only grows for what we’re left to imagine.
Of the six paintings in the show (there’s also a small sculpture that feels like an afterthought), all but two are over eighty inches tall and have exaggerated depths of three inches. They feel imposing if not cramped, because there’s a way in which getting up close to examine them as objects reveals even less about the images they transmit at a distance. The acrylic, in thin semitransparent skin-like sheets, is fixed in layers to the supports. The effect is at once organic in the waveforms that result and unnatural in the segmented regularity of their constituent parts. The dots (dots is a disservice, they’re shaped more like diamonds) are highly saturated, sometimes fluorescent, in various hues that include red, green, blue (RGB); cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMYK). Looking very much like the synthetic polymers they are under the gallery’s LEDs, they seem to attest to the claim the artist and critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe makes in his book “Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime” that painting, “especially nonrepresentational painting, can nowadays only refer to the colors of plastic/color photography/video.” Depending on how you look at them, the colors shift. A combination of simultaneous contrast and the eye’s (in)ability to resolve detail.
To a list of artists that have used visual phenomena to explore visual perception, an art-historical lineage that begins with the Pointillism of George Seurat and carries through to the Op Art of Bridget Riley, Worcester’s name can be added. When two or more highly similar patterns are superimposed onto one another at slightly skewed, warped or rotated angles, a phenomenon can occur called moiré interference. The pulsing, vibrating, kinetic effects can cause eye strain, dizziness or headache. What at a different time I might have described as psychedelic is now a metaphor for information overload, brain rot and burnout. Like the glitch that reveals the computational, artworks that generate moiré interference, what Riley has referred to as a “disturbance,” calls our attention to the still unexplained relationship between body and mind: perception, cognition and consciousness, what philosophers call qualia, and asks how we might reconcile the part of us that is matter with our sensations and the incorporeal Self.
These are not the poppy Ben-Day dots of Roy Lichtenstein or the spectral halftones of Sigmar Polke. Nobody will mistake Worcester’s paintings for figuration, prevalent as it is these days. Yet there’s something distinctly figurative about them. In their scale, proportions and orientations. In the protruding ornaments that look like nipples all the more for their symmetry. In the way their patterned surfaces, as I move about, appear to gently expand and contract like a body breathing. And, as Meghan O’Gieblyn points out in her book “God, Human, Animal, Machine,” if you ask a transhumanist like Ray Kurzweil, author of “The Age of Spiritual Machines,” “The Singularity is Near,” and “How to Create a Mind,” they might just tell you that’s all we really are, patterns of information.
Two paintings especially have scales and proportions (eighty-four inches tall by forty-and-a-half inches wide with depths of three inches) I find reminiscent of the mysterious monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And the associations don’t stop there. Worcester’s waveforms recall for me the film’s famous “Stargate sequence,” in which astronaut and audience jump a technicolor wormhole. A twisted neon grid fuses at lightspeed with a cloud of incomprehensible dimensionalities.
Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans evolved a remarkable propensity to discern patterns in their environment—perhaps our species’ one true superpower. Yet today, computers far exceed our abilities. In this context, paintings like Worcester’s that emphasize for the viewer what on his website he calls “an experience specific to the lens of their body” feel particularly relevant, as embodiment might just be the one thing that, at least for now, makes human cognition distinct from an artificial intelligence like, say, HAL 9000.
“Tempers” by Jonathan Worcester is on view at Cleaner Gallery+Projects, 1856 North Richmond, through March 2.