and the rise of the digital

by Justin Son

The Definition is Historical

Whenever the world experiences a drastic change, we get a new movement in art. Industrialization and the emergence of photography gave us Impressionism and Expressionism. WW1 gave us machine guns and chemical weapons and artists responded with Surrealism and Dadaism. With the Atomic Bomb, came Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. In 2016, the digital revolution is here and with it the new, new abstraction in art.

Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital talks about some of the hallmarks of living in the new digital culture, how we’re literally integrating with computer technology. We are as close to the phone as our forefathers were to the axe. Art is the same, as the digital world expands it is changing what we think of as art as well as artistic technique.


David Salle's sensing the future
David Salle, born in Norman Oklahoma (1952), is hardly a child of the digital age, but he is an early adopter in the relationship between the digital and art. Salle’s paintings and prints are comprised of what appear to be randomly juxtaposed images or images placed on top of one other. His investigations are assisted using the Internet, computer, photography, and/or silk screening. Although his painting process does not include much computer integration, his processes require him to source online images or distort them using digital tools. Salle’s paintings mimic Photoshop layering, transparencies controlled by opacity, precise text, all integrated harmoniously into one whole. His work might not be about technology, but the idea of technology and especially digital distortion is apparent and consistent.

Salle’s painting, Five O’clock (2001) is a simple oil and acrylic on linen. Regardless of Salle’s intentions, Five O’clock shows the increasing cultural influence of the computer screen. You can see the way in which the ordering of the visual field mimics windows of layered information all overlapping one and other. Maybe it was just a stylistic choice to arrange the painting in this way but one thing is for sure, it resembles a lot of our desktops or what our desktops would become. Also considering that the painting was made in 1999-2001, it is hard to believe that a lot of his resources and references were not processed through digital techniques.

David Salle's Five O'clock
Five O’clock is part of a series of works that Salle created right at the turn of the century. The seven pieces consist of a repetitive image of a man in a hat pointing to the sky. All of the paintings have similar imagery, but Salle uses different color pallets and shapes to manipulate what is essentially the same painting. The duplicated imagery is reminiscent of the different scales and hues used in Photoshop.


Is this technology?
In other cases, digital tools are key elements to the painting processes of the artist. Laura Owens (born 1970, Euclid, Ohio) has different approaches and motivations to technology and art than David Salle. Her subject matter tends to respond to art history and uses Photoshop to digitally manipulate images and create painterly strokes using the computer.

Owens creates paintings that are screen printed onto large-scale canvases and walls. Her paintings fluctuate between flatness and depth, materiality and illusion, abstraction and representation, grid and gesture. Owens plays both sides of the game, sometimes forcing her paintings to perform tasks that are at odds with painting. Using digital tools in conjunction with hands on nature of painting, she critiques the processes that she uses to create her work.

Owen's using some computer/impasto technique

Looking at the twelve paintings presented at 356 S Mission Road, LA, the thick strokes of Day-Glo paint are enclosed within crisply outlined, rounded shapes that have been generated using digital tools. Owens then projects these figures onto canvases and fills them in with impasto. She then amplifies her illusions of ‘fakeness’ by creating fake drop shadows that are accompanied by real shadows cast by the physical crests of the paint. By doing this, Owens has said that she wanted to, “emphatically try to inhabit a gesture.” She takes it even further by asking, “Is it even possible for a woman artist to be the one who marks?” Here, the new abstraction leads to the most contemporary arguments about art and gender.


Computer or Man?
Albert Oehlen, known for his adventurous, highly inventive style, often features elements of collage mixed with abstract, linear and free painting. Oehlen began the “Computer Paintings” in 1990 after the purchase of his first computer. The artist started with a couple of functional motifs and within four years he was juggling multiple variations of them until he finished working on the series in 2008. The limitations of computer programs at this time provoked Oehlen to finish and smooth out the stair-cased and highly pixilated lines by hand in order to produce a more desirable computer picture. The limitations he experienced with the computer program heightened a sense of irony; new technology, computers in the early 1990’s were imperfect and required a human hand to enhance its final product. Meanwhile, the human hand destroys any authenticity of the term “Computer Paintings.”

A good example of Oehlen's finger painting technique
In Oehlen’s four-dozen Finger Paintings created around 2011, he finds advertisements from grocery stores, salons, and markets and re-appropriates them with oil-based finger painting onto canvases and panels. By using digitally reproduced imagery found from ads, Oehlen comments on the technological influences that saturate our daily lives. He uses his hands to create marks and gestures that resemble earlier expressionistic modes of painting. To use such a primitive technique in the 21st century is already a statement in itself. In this series, Oehlen demonstrates how you can use digital tools in an analog method, marrying the hand with the program.


As crazy as a laptop
Parker Ito is a Los Angeles based artist from Long Beach, CA (born in 1986). Ito has a unique style that is heavily influenced by the Internet and uses digital mediums to communicate his conceptual ideas. Ito goes by multiple pseudonyms such as Deke McLelland Two, Creamy Dreamy, Parker Cheeto, and others. As a byproduct of the digital age, using multiple mediums is a conceptual skill for many contemporary artists. The ‘intersectionality’ of materials and styles in his latest exhibition, A Lil’ Taste of Cheeto in the Night (2013-2015), models the idea of millennial and digital culture of our generation.

During an interview for his latest exhibit, Ito talks briefly about how our brain processes information. “I think about how part of being alive is having to constantly process so much information that you’re pushed to a space where you don’t really know what the thing is—it’s just floating.” The whole idea behind his latest show (and his website) is the fact that you can’t comment on just one aspect of the show. You have to address it in its entirety.

The face of Abstraction
Using an array of different media, processes, and strategies, and many kinds of content, Ito creates densities of information where the chemistry between things becomes unpredictable. I believe his interpretation of information is his art. Being bombarded by images, advertisements, news, social events and having 24/7 access to the world like no other time in history, gives us a generation of artists investigating a frontier of the mind. Ito is not just commenting about the digital age, he (and the millennial generation) is a byproduct of this brave new world.


There are endless contemporary artists that uses digitalism as a keystone to their practice (Petra Cortright, Ken Okiishi, Wade Guyton, Brian Willmont, Devan Shimoyama, etc.), or artists that helped influence ideals of digital abstraction (Luc Tuymans, Christopher Wool, Sigmar Polke, Amy Sillman, Charline Von Heyl, etc.), and artists that are just living and working today in our computer-driven society. If you own a smart phone, you are participating by default.

Digitalism is a beautiful thing. Because of its ability to be everything, to be infinite, an artist is now able to have multiple practices and not be crucified for it. The artist is never bored or grows tedious of the same thing (unless it is within its practice to do so) and is allowed to continuously explore. Art always allows us to think ahead. Learning how to respond to the present to see into the future. Our digital world helps expedite this process. What is next is to create a reality that harmonizes the digital with the real. With that said, it is almost virtual that ‘virtualism’ is the next frontier of the post-Avant Garde.

©Justin Son and the CCA Arts Review

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