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Computer Brain, Or Human Stain

WARNING: If the frank discussion of bodily fluids and their excretion make you squeamish, perhaps you should skip the first paragraph of this essay.

While going to college in the early seventies, my older brother worked for a local cleaning service.  Most of their jobs amounted to scrubbing and waxing floors in supermarkets after hours and cleaning windows at office buildings.  Occasionally they labored at private residences after fires or plumbing disasters.  In one instance, as my brother related later, they were hired to clean a house as part of an estate sale.  It seems an old lady, a neighborhood stalwart for decades, had passed away leaving her modest Victorian home to out-of-town relatives, this despite the fact that she had a son who had lived with her well in to middle age.  As it happened, the son was mentally or emotionally “challenged” and ended up being institutionalized.  As the job progressed, they vacuumed, removed stacks of domestic clutter, squeegeed windows and tried to make things presentable for the real estate agents.  When they went to check on the son’s room, tucked away upstairs under the eaves, they found a small, spare cubical with a chair, a small writing table and a bed pushed against a wall.  On this bedside wall was a thick, pealing accumulation of what my brother described only as “a forty-year residue of God-awful human gunk”.  Despite their best efforts with scrub brushes, steam machines and putty knives, they finally had to slap up new pieces of sheet rock, tape, spackle and paint over this smutch.  In the years since I’ve often thought about this Boo Radley blotch with a kind of comforting disgust.  But it wasn’t till I’d come to New York and involved myself in the marginal underground art scene that I came to realize the pathetic appeal of the skuzzy nature of life. 

It’s not just famous works like Vito Acconci’s 1971 performance piece “Seedbed,” Carolee Schneemann’s 1975 “Interior Scroll” (the actual “scroll” in all its discolored and Scotch-Taped glory is currently on view in the terrific WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution show at PS1) or the grandiosely rotting, long-term sculptures built by Dieter Roth that attracted and repelled me.  Work by anonymous unknown artists, the “Outsider” and “Art Brut,” also had a new resonance.  If the initial attention-tug was Dadaist anti-art shock, eventually the recognition of human frailty, decline, death and decay, and our pathetically gallant struggle despite this knowledge, led to an enhanced appreciation of work that retained an authentic residue of existence.  The hard-worn and piss-stained seemed an undeniably fitting artistic reliquary.

In a way, this was a reaction against the super-slick presentation of the Minimalist artists (think of Don Judd’s pristine metal boxes, Ryman’s über-elegant white canvases or the statements by Warhol the he wanted to “be like a machine”).  Sentiments like these were gaining credence at the time, and led to a cluster of works apparently “untouched by human hands,” produced by followers of the French Deconstructivists and marketed as Neo-Geo and Consumer Art.

Time has passed.  The computer has altered our vision and become a standard studio tool.  Photoshop and animation programming have replaced anatomical drawing and painting classes in some university art departments, and with the ever-expanding galaxy of the Internet, virtual art is becoming an institutionally accepted and vibrant form.  As we’re becoming more accustomed to artificially intelligent accessories infiltrating every aspect of our lives, I can’t help but see on the horizon a final aesthetic cleansing: art by machines for machines, an Academy of the Mechanical.

With The Tunnel, his latest exhibit at Parker’s Box, Patrick Martinez displays works employing various media and concepts—including ballpoint-pen drawings, sheets of paper, hand cut into meandering ribbons and video—but  a couple of works using laser cut paper were what made me take a second look.  In one, “The Web” (2008) Martinez tapped the expertise of the New York Design School at CUNY and programmed its sophisticated computer-driven laser cutter to incise a twenty-sided web pattern into a piece of heavy drawing paper.  The impossibly fine cuts have left behind filaments of thread-thin, scorched browned paper that appear so delicate that a breath might break them off and send them drifting across the room.  The other paper piece that intrigued me, “Winter Tree” (2008), was a silhouette of a tree backgrounded against two grids of tiny rectangular holes cut to form a horizon line.  Again the precision was impeccable, and far beyond human capability.  For these pieces Martinez spent uncounted hours using Illustrator to draw the files.  The process required another six hours of cutting time by a laser mounted on an articulating arm. What troubled me was probably not that different from what bugged the19th century French critic Paul Delaroche when, upon seeing his first daguerreotype spouted, “from today painting is dead”.  Now laser paper-cutting probably won’t mean the end to collage or scissors or X-acto knives, which Martinez used before he got his hands on the laser, but with such a reliance on mechanical and computer-aided techniques, how can the artist introduce and maintain a human presence?  Can the viewers’ expectations for humanly-derived inspiration and ingenuity be satisfied, or should they surrender to the technology? 

In the case of Martinez, the web piece seems to have pushed the laser cutter to its maximum capacity, slicing the strands so thinly as to confound the practical application of the apparatus and push its abilities to a level useless for anything beyond art (in a phone conversation, the artist admitted to testing the capability of the machine to the point of setting the paper on fire).   I felt a certain relief thinking that overly enthusiastic programming could overload the system and goad the machine to levels it wasn’t designed for, leaving evidence of a mischievous hand.

What look like high speed vapor trails or curving tracer shells weaving through crisp modernist architectural space are the subjects of recent paintings by Yoon Lee at Pierogi.  Lee’s approach is yet another take on computer-assisted work with a subversive twist.  On my initial viewing at the opening, I was faced with what appeared to be huge photo-silkscreened images.  Though more textural, and with a considerable overlaying of paint, their facture on PVC board gave every indication that these pictures were produced in some massive commercial print shop with the latest in high-tech digital imaging.  Obviously a lot of thought and effort was expended to create this “machine-made” quality.  When I came up with the idea of writing a piece about art by machines for machines, I Googled Lee and skimmed some reviews.  I gleaned that her pieces are actually produced by hand, using a squirt bottle and other mysterious techniques to paint a composite of scanned images.  A second viewing in an uncrowded gallery was enlightening as was an as yet unpublished catalog interview by Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson.   Lee refers to as her reliance on “digital interfacing” and its ability to introduce the illusion of speed into her forms.  An echo of Warhol’s “I want to be like a machine” no doubt plays a part in justifying the tedious replication of Benday dots, massed and haloed forms,  and other telltale signifiers of photo and commercial computer graphic techniques.

At seven by twenty feet, “JFK” (2008) fills the entire back wall of the gallery, its swooping, abstract vector lines lacing through a realistically painted wall of windows, reading like the afterimages of the blastoff a superhero or some galactic speedball from a computer game or an animated feature.  Broad fingers of yellow green paint taper precipitously from the right margin toward a left-center vanishing point.  Other trails arc through the central space like the rings of Saturn, dissipating into screens of dotted mist.  Strangely, it’s impossible to tell whether the implied momentum is approaching or receding.  Punctuating the foreground are small abstract silhouettes, many in unnamable tones of pinkish grays or beige that could be figures or signage in a parking lot.

“Untitled, 2008” is the only vertical painting.  Again, swirling bands of protoplasm seem to emanate from just over the central horizon.  These have a more organic feel and present a more persuasive pun on the image of paint slinging.  Lee’s colors are muted, with swirls in ochre, black, and powder blue.  There’s a sense of explosive energy and velocity, like an attack by military jets: by the time you seem them coming, it’s too late.  Imagistically, they relate to Pop Abstraction in their knowing use of mass media graphics and slick, crisp finish.   That Lee is able to fake this kind of mechanical precision and also use a variety of transparent and opaque colors is impressive.  Despite the “digital interfacing,” her imitation machine-making bespeaks a technical prowess that subverts the premise with a painstaking, hand-wrought style.  Computers may not yet rule the world, but they make up an ever-larger part of the artist’s toolbox.  Maybe this is just a fad, a new toy to explore, or perhaps unknowingly, artists have already become their tools.