We all live online now, but what can painting bring to our attention in the post-digital age?

Eve Goulden  |  Ed. Peter Traynor | 1 September 2021
Laura Owens, Untitled, Oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic resin, fabric and pumice on canvas, 2745 × 2134 × 41 mm, 2012. @ courtesy of the artist and Tate collection

As a new generation of artists attempts to make sense of their experiences growing up in the Internet era, screen aesthetics have permeated the visual language of ultra-contemporary painting. Embracing digital forms and translating them from screen to canvas, how can painters challenge us to contemplate the contemporary condition? What can painting specifically disclose about the online vernacular and the manner in which it has impacted our perception?

The screen flattens our vision of an image, restricting it to a specific dimension.  Surface density, scale, and the viewer’s relational position comprise a painting’s aura, its materiality.  By incorporating digital forms into painting, the composition of digital interfaces can be emphasised and called into question.  Furthermore, the still, singular reality of a painting facilitates contemplation, and the opportunity to spend time looking.  This makes the experience of viewing a painting IRL at odds with the action of endlessly scrolling through a feed of images online.

Visual trickery is a tongue-in-cheek element often applied in the paintings of Laura Owens (b. 1970, Euclid, OH).  Copying and pasting kitsch tropes, Owens embodies the Postmodern turn towards the reproduction and remediation of images.  Drawing influence from digital drawing software in the formalism of her painting, Owens’ practice has inadvertently expanded the parameters of painting’s potentiality.  Using painting and silkscreen printing to incorporate screen-based motifs like drop shadows, digital brushstrokes, and grids, Owens creates intricately layered compositions that reference the compression of spatial proportions.

Chris Dorland, Untitled (Instinct Mode) (2020), Acrylic polymer, pigment, ink, gesso, UV coating on linen, 1.7 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artist, Lyles & King, New York, Super Dakota, Brussels, and Nicoletti Contemporary, London

Instead of the medium, the screen becomes subject in the paintings and digitally-printed collages of Chris Dorland (b. 1978, Montreal).  Digital images appear fragmented by their backlighting, seeping through perforations and cracks; surface reflections gloss over visual data beneath.   Depicting a deteriorated screen in this way draws awareness to the screen’s unrelenting presence, as it ceases to function as a portal and instead becomes a barrier to information.

Dorland’s works are a testament to the precarity of technology, as evidenced by the brutalism of their rugged textures.   Apocalyptic colour schemes of black and neon inspire a sense of ultimate futility.  He borrows the visual language of the glitch by incorporating lossy compressions, jumpy interfaces, and pixelated distortions.  Evoking the Cyberpunk genre, Chris Dorland’s paintings force us to pay attention to interruptions and system failures, making the digital age appear like a dystopian vision of the future.

Anne Vieux, Installation View: WAVE (2021) Acrylic and pigment ink on canvas137.16 x 121.92 x 2.54 cm @ Courtesy of the artist and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London

Brooklyn-based painter Anne Vieux’s (born 1985 in Michigan) 2021 body of work was recently exhibited alongside Andre Hemer’s paintings at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery in London.  The work comprises scans of holographic materials, which are constructed and digitally montaged so as to simulate glitchy abstractions.  Digital reproductions printed on canvas are then modified through the application of hand-painting on top of the images. Through the permeation of curved lines reminiscent of the Photoshop ‘clone’ tool, parts of the image are magnified and warped with patterns of reflecting and refracting light rays being exaggerated.  The overlaying of hand-painting causes the viewer to look closely at the resulting composition’s detail in order to determine what is painted and what is real.

As a result of the proliferation of selfie filters and Deepfakes in online spheres, the validity of digital photos is constantly being called into question.  In their hyper-feminine, dream-like appearance, Vieux’s works modify images to construct an escapist vision at the intersection between painting and photography.  As with Chris Dorland’s work, there is a sublime beauty in the incorporation of glitch aesthetics, with their trippily arbitrary patterns.  Referenced in Vaporwave imagery, glitches not only disrupt information but also denote artificiality in screen-based representations.  The candy colours and pattern repetition in Vieux’s work creates a simultaneous sense of intrigue and distrust, which is reminiscent of the potential for the Internet to propagate disinformation.

Trudy Benson, Zero Gravity Painting (2011) acrylic, enamel, spray paint and oil on canvas, 172.7 x 160cm. Image courtesy of Phillips Auctioneers LLC

In a similar way to glitches, referencing or imitating earlier iterations of technology subverts the contemporary era’s pristine, corporate digital aesthetics. From the development of bitmap video games to the creation of Geocities-style websites, post-digital art often embraces the ways in which we previously connected with the digital.  This digital pastiche arguably removes us temporarily from the interconnectedness of Web 2.0, creating a sense of familiarity and comfort in its representation of simpler times.

In Trudy Benson’s (b. 1985, Richmond, VA) works on canvas, she borrows from the visual language of MS Paint.  A bitmap-based application designed to be used with a mouse, the visual nature of the program has inspired its own heavily-memed style, characterised by rudimentary digital brushstrokes and low-tech image quality.  In Benson’s work, digital tools like ‘fill’ and ‘free-form line’ are playfully alluded to.  Thick oil and enamel paints in intense colours are composited with spray paint and washy acrylics.  The juxtaposition of different paint textures and opacities render 2D shapes as hyperreal objects, rejecting the compression of digital images and serving as a reminder of the painting’s material form.

Painters that deal with the subject of digitality, as seen in these four examples, use the canvas as a staging ground for images that are layered to mimic the presence of a computer screen.  Displaying these digital forms in a gallery setting allows the spectator to become a participant in the process of conjuring up these optical illusions.  The substance of paint in these examples provides an ontological framework through which to investigate the parameters of screen-based forms.  In turn, the undeniable impact of the screen on contemporary culture has generated an emotional aesthetic response within these works, reflecting a sense of irony and impotence that permeates the post-digital condition.

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