December 15, 2017 – January 14, 2018
Blinn & Lambert’s multimedia exhibition New Grey Planet feels as much like a theoretical experiment as an aesthetic experience. Presenting still life and video works that juxtapose the effects of CGI and 3D imaging with material forms, the artists invite us to participate in exercises of perception that complicate the ontology of objects through technological vision.
Artists have historically turned to the genre of still life when revolutions of perception are underway, for in order to grasp new cosmologies of seeing, we must begin with our recognition of basic forms. One thinks of Cézanne, who spent much of his life trying to paint the skin around the edge of an apple, interrogating the physical and ethereal qualities that comprised its presence. Centuries before him, artists in the Netherlands employed newly developed oil glazing techniques to render astonishing optical realism for the first time, confronting Flemish viewers with painted objects that looked virtually real.
Today, the realm of “virtual reality” raises new questions and contradictions about the phenomenology of the object, and the exhibition New Gray Planet engages them within this history of the still life. At the entrance of the dark gallery, we are invited to put on a pair of red-and-blue 3D glasses as if entering a movie theater. The space is dominated by four multimedia assemblages made up of ramshackle objects such as tennis rackets, tableware, glass vases, and flea-market trinkets, which are illuminated from below by dual projections of red and blue light, casting sharp shadows on the walls behind them. Through the 3D lenses, a stereoscopic effect created by the dual-colored projections transforms the objects’ flat silhouettes into sculptural forms seeming to occupy Euclidean space. In Untitled (U-Shaped Table, Out), a glass coffee table covered in strips of black tape sits atop two wooden sawhorses. As a sculpture it is quite flimsy, but through the 3D lenses, its projected shadow resembles a massive science-fiction architecture, evoking a 1970s space station. The objects experience a shift from provisional reality to cinematic space as they flattened into shadows then pulled into three dimensions again.
An adjacent video piece titled New Grey Planet: Library achieves a similar effect without the aid of the 3D glasses. A fixed camera angle shows a milk-glass vase slowly revolving on a rich black background; it is a study of utmost formal simplicity, but at certain moments, the dramatic play of shadow on its surface causes the vase to resemble an enormous vessel floating in deep space. The evocations of science fiction cinema in these works are enhanced by the movie-magic associations carried by the glasses themselves, which notably are not of the newer, reusable plastic sort issued at theaters today, but a retro model with uncomfortable white paper frames. Given how common it has become for artists to utilize virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift in the gallery, it is evident that Blinn & Lambert’s interest lies precisely in the low-tech, analog aesthetic of the installation.
The character of these artworks is in direct contrast to that of many artists working with CGI and VR technologies today, from Ian Cheng’s sophisticated “live simulations” and Michael Joaquin Grey’s “computational cinema” to the sensuously uncanny tableaus of Ed Atkins and Helen Martin. To employ a term from Hito Steyerl’s influential essay, Blinn & Lambert’s faintly three-dimensional shadows on the wall are “poor images” compared to the technical achievements of many of their contemporaries. However, it’s clear that this duo is equally engaged with questions of digital vision. “Blinn” and “Lambert”—the aliases of artists Nicholas Steindorf and Kyle Williams—reference two surface material options in the animation software Maya; in this program, ‘blinn’ and ‘lambert’ are algorithms assigned to an animated object to determine its interaction with the light sources around it. The terms personify the fluidity of objecthood within the art of digital animation, in which fundamental characteristics such as surface and form are entirely mutable, leaving no foothold for the fixed “nature” or “essence” of a thing. Blinn & Lambert’s theoretical experiment lies within this context of uncertain digital objecthood. They seem to ask: Can the sense of speculative uncertainty associated with digital objects be brought to our perception of plain-old material forms? Can simple technical gestures provoke a sense of fluidity in physical space?
In another projection piece, a little porcelain deer stands on a glass table, while a water pump sends miniature streams across the surface that periodically engulf the deer’s diminutive silhouette with their own shifting shadows. This image of the deer-in-the-stream is repeated on the opposite wall of the gallery in a 3D video projection, this time an actual CGI sequence that shows a deer dissolving and reforming again as the camera angle shifts in and out of a forest stream. The two pieces are mirrored exercises in seeing the deer, indulging in the breakdown of recognizable form. I was reminded of a painting lesson in art school when the teacher drew the curtains and illuminated a still life with red and blue clamp lights, an exercise intended to make us doubt our assurance of what it was we were observing.
New Grey Planet attempts to take the squishy sense of uncertainty associated with digital media back into the physical world, challenging us to look at physical and virtual objects with equal intensity, and proposing that digital and physical phenomenologies are equally open-ended. While reinforcing an aura of cinematic spectatorship, the 3D glasses impart unexpected, expansive qualities onto objects, “animating” them in both senses of the word. Meanwhile, the rich history of still life implicit here serves to reminds us that the enigma of the object as a specter of some hypothetical “reality” is an artistic subject not limited to the present digital moment.