Algorithmic Unconscious

DEVOTION GALLERY | NOVEMBER 4 – 28, 2011

Despite the long-established and pervasive presence of the digital computer, computer art—untouched by human hands, if not by human minds—has somehow failed to gain traction, except in circles of affinity, while abstract and conceptual art have been thoroughly integrated into the art-cultural canon. We’re still, it seems, enamored of the animal, preferring human-generated rhythms to “perfect” ones; even digital cinematographers tell narrative stories with characters drawn, then digitized and interpolated. So it’s of interest to see an emerging generation of artists attempting what has proven so elusive thus far: to harness the electronic brute to approach divinity, if not humanity.

Daniel Temkin “Dither Study 1,” digital print, 2011. Courtesy Devotion Gallery.

Algorithmic Unconscious is a brave new show—a tightly consistent collection of computer-produced (“generative”) artwork at Brooklyn’s Devotion Gallery, curated by artist Phillip Stearns. The show features the work of Arcangel Constantini, Daniel Temkin, Jeff Snyder, Jeff Donaldson (inscrutable), and Stearns. Each employs a unique visual language and technological methodology. The experience, from the viewer’s perspective, is surprisingly satisfying; still, it’s improbable that the work will win converts to the notion that the computer has arrived as a medium whose visual and intellectual potential has been realized.

Temkin’s work is the most obviously accessible, and bold. His two pieces, “Dither Study 1” and “Dither Study 2,” are two-color Photoshop enlargements, 250 pixels wide (enlarged to 40 by 27 inches). The immediate impression is one of Op-Art illusion, as Temkin’s orange and turquoise, and chartreuse and carmine palettes vibrate against each other in a most hyper-chromatic, retinally-stimulating way. Although these works are truly minimal and free of representational content—true abstractions recalling Agnes Martin, Mark Rothko, and Josef Albers—they also evoke the psychedelic concert posters of the West Coast ’60s and, yes (forgive me), the jarring complementary colors of Yellow Submarine’s “Lucy in the Sky” sequence as well as the posters of Peter Max. As patternlike compositions, they evoke the analog fabric design geometries of Sonia Delaunay (recently shown at the Cooper-Hewitt museum), and Anni Albers, whose work was recently included in a Black Mountain show at the Loretta Howard Gallery. They also change character at different distances, revealing new patterns as one steps back. In other words, they offer more than immediately meets the eye. It seems that Temkin may be withholding supply; it’s easy to imagine a solo show of 40 of these pieces at different scales and in different permutations.

Stearns’s “DCP 0091” and “DCP 0103” utilize an aleatoric approach to create a visually similar effect. By performing a Frankensteinian lobotomy on a digital camera, Stearns is able to educe unpredicted pixelstorms of strange colored snow in micromosaic RGB Eigenlicht. Whether or not actual patterns emerge in these creations (which are intensified by being printed on metallic paper), it is certainly true that the resulting images suggest Stearns is onto an approach that has the potential to yield provocative results (restricted, one hopes, to non-human subjects).

Jeff Snyder takes a retro, harmonographic approach to technology, inking sheets of earthtone paper with quirky races generated by a long-outdated Bausch & Lomb pen plotter. The result is Spirograph steampunk, and associatively irresistible. Prismatic photograms? Scribblings by pre-school computers? Sol LeWitt’s brainwaves? Snyder’s work suggests that computerized art can be, like its abstract analog complements, aesthetic and mysterious, and, even, intelligently designed.

Constantini’s work was represented by a programmed audiovisual loop on a jumbo flat screen, which, because of its medium, functioned as static background noise. Despite artists’ fondest hopes, humans today, in aggregate, aren’t willing to stand still to watch non-narrative, non-representational video for more than a second (Andy Warhol’s sucker punch filmography and Christian Marclay’s zerovalent “The Clock” notwithstanding). In this case, A.D.H.D. is virtuous: Sorry, there’s no there here, and it’s not personal. In fairness to Constantini, connecting the unfathomed ambient audio element might have amplified the experience.

We now give computer-generated art a pass (we grant that it’s—in surrogate—“creative”). Algorithmic Unconscious nevertheless re-raises questions of abstraction in entirely new contexts—those of abdication and a disavowal of accountability by the current generation, and that of computer-accelerated special evolution. In regard to the former, we may ask: Do these works imply that their creators wish to avoid addressing the pressing issues of the times—including overpopulation, societal dysfunction, and ecospheric despoliation, escaping to the safety of the electronic atelier and thought-free obliviousness, i.e., algorithmically unconscious? And, as we merge into the global electronic brain, are we becoming a new, insipid species, accepting the framing of our lives as defined by opportunistic technologists, interdependent upon our devices and their wallpaper apps? We should be grateful to shows like this for prompting such questions, if not providing answers.

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