I judge JPEGs all day. You probably do, too, using them to make decisions about what to eat, what to see, and what to buy. But in the case of art—which we’re often told we need to see in person—how much of our IRL experience can we replace with online viewing? That decision has to be made on a case-by-case basis, but there’s a good deal of work that loses its life in reproduction.
That’s why I made a special point to take my friend to the Ken Price show (at the Met through September 22), an exhibition that’s been (rightly) raved about; in reproduction, it just looks like a collection of MoMA Design Store knickknacks. This disjunction between reproduction and the object is immediately evident in Price’s show, which begins with the sculpture used in all its ads. “Pastel” (1995) is a round green sea creature-like ceramic piece from which Price has removed a small square to reveal its red insides. The colors vibrate.
It’s hard to explain the difference between seeing the ad and seeing the sculpture in the museum, but in person, it’s one of those rare pieces that looks so precisely made that you can’t imagine it in any other form. “Big Load,” a nearby blue blob the color of an old sock, is similarly cut open. In this case, the removed piece reveals a yellow center with a hollow black core, which fucks with your spatial perception: I spent several minutes trying to figure out whether the black hole was actually a three-dimensional cube.
The sculptures—62 in total—were incredibly satisfying, but the installation wasn’t. Images of the show itself were nowhere to be found on the website, and it’s not hard to see why—the sculptures were mostly on pedestals pushed against the walls; the rest were relegated to enormous and garish vitrines located in the center of the room. They had no relationship to their mounts, and they often looked misplaced. That’s a problem with the show probably no amount of photography can fix—even the Times photos look awkward—so in this case, images neither communicate the power of the work nor the exhibition space.
Compare this to Lorna Mills’s exhibition The Axis of Something at Transfer Gallery over in Bushwick (through July 13), which handles the problems of installation and reproduction more effectively. Mills’s show, too, must be seen in person, which is unusual for shows by most artists working in digital media. Part of this has to do with the importance of color in the exhibition’s handmade prints. The bulk of the show is made up of these works, which depict groupings by animal species—dogs, unicorns, and deer—each gridded, printed out, and glazed on computer paper. Each time I see them, I’m pretty sure the hues have changed (and thanks to the paper quality, I suspect I’m not wrong).
The rest of the exhibition is made up of an array of gifs on different types of screens: a man with huge saline-injected balls fucking who-knows-what while surrounded by blooming flowers; a tower of moving map gifs for frequent fliers. These two works were on wall-mounted flat screens. Any number of these pieces could be seen online, but connecting the movement of, say, the gif tower with the reflective light depicted in the dog mural isn’t going to happen on your computer.
The front page of Transfer’s website won’t make those connections for you, but it does one better: it gets you out to see the show. On the site, a short video loop shows the bottom of some hung-up papers moving gently in the wind. It doesn’t seem like much, but it made me want to head out and see the show again. It’s those small, changing details that can’t be reproduced.