New Portraits of Old Art 

Not everything about contemporary existence can be gleaned from the digital detritus of Tumblr blogs, Flickr tags, YouTube videos and eBay ephemera, an impression one might get from the New Museum's nonetheless excellent exhibition Free. A few blocks south, two artists are using historically, aesthetically and politically charged artifacts of the past to give new form and expression to current and near-future phenomenological sensibilities. Both follow a distinctly computational logic, though there's little else to connect the meticulously realistic digital environments created by John Gerrard and Pieter Schoolwerth's deconstructed and reassembled old masters canvases, save their texturally rich surfaces and exquisitely stylized interpretations of existing creations. Each deploys a medium befitting his subject: Gerrard represents 20th century architecture in real time digital environments; Schoolwerth symbolically disassembles famous paintings in jarring compositions. Their distantly parallel projects reveal common sensibilities to the ways we process visual culture.

What's unique to Gerrard's digital portraits of existing structures, beyond their stunning levels of detail, is his incorporation of time. These are neither the rapidly traversed and transformed 3D environments of shoot-em-up video games and web-based social environments, nor the looped sequences of video art. Rather, each work he creates with a studio of coders evolves in a 365-day cycle, changing in real time based on the time at the location where each work is situated. So, on the late afternoon that I sat watching the titular centerpiece of his new exhibition at Simon Preston Gallery, Cuban School (Community of 5th of October) 2010 (pictured above, through December 19), the sun was setting on the dilapidated Soviet-style modular, modernist building on the rural outskirts of Havana. As she does every day at dusk, the still functioning though barely standing school's caretaker, Mariebelle Leon, recreated like every architectural and environmental feature through exhaustive photo-scanning and image-mapping, appeared on the passageway between the 60s-built complex's two wings, turning on its fluorescent lights. She returns to switch the lights off at dawn, though the gallery's never open that early—New York, with its characteristically short minute, is way out of sync with real time.

Aside from the day's one moment of action, "Cuban School" is almost excruciating in its enforcement of exact time. The point of view portrayed in the two-channel projection rotates around the building always in the exact same pattern, not unlike the hands of a clock or revolutions of a planet, with each turn around taking nearly twenty minutes. Whereas digital environments have come to signify infinite possibilities for self-directed exploration, impulsive and intuitive customization, and instantaneous user control, Gerrard imposes exact time on pixels and data bits that seem by design to want to accelerate.

In addition to this epic temporal breadth, shared by the other work on view, "Universal (near Iron Springs, Alberta) 2010" (2010)—which features two slowly-pumping oil wells amidst expansive nothingness—both pieces continue Gerrard's interest in landscapes shaped by the global oil industry. In this case a fossil fuel-rich location, the oil sands-filled flats of the Canadian prairies, contrasts sharply with the impoverished but verdant outskirts of Havana, where trade embargoes and communism have made oil scarce. The building, miraculously upright though falling to ruin, doubles as a monument to persistent Cold War-era conditions.

Gerrard's work evokes both land art and endurance-based performance art, in that each involves creating a piece based on strict, pre-determined concepts and letting it run its course for however long that takes. Land art might last centuries, or weeks, while performance artists rarely go over the year for which Gerrard programs his 3D artworks. In fact, his pieces effectively turn viewers into performers, sitting in silence as the digital sun rises, returning the following day in hopes of catching the caretaker as she comes to flip on the lights at dusk. He takes us out of the ever-accelerating pace of contemporary life by imposing an unflinchingly accurate temporality that, counter-intuitively, exists in an environment created using the same cutting-edge technology that's speeding up time. Initially frustrating, the experience of this tortuously panning piece quickly turns to wonder.
Pieter Schoolwerth at Miguel Abreu Gallery

Schoolwerth, though also concerned with contemporary ways of looking, gladly and playfully indulges the deconstructive impulse to manipulate time and space by reassembling existing artifacts. His work, oddly, would be more at home in the NuMu's Free than Gerrard's. Rather than generic or oddly specific architecture, he goes straight for the art historical canon. The latest pieces in the Missouri-born, New York-based artist's Portraits of Paintings series, on view at Miguel Abreu Gallery (through December 23), offer his postmodern, near-abstract reinterpretations of famous compositions by Gaspare Traversi, Juan Meléndez Valdés, Eugène Delacroix and the like. Earlier iterations of this project featured more filled out canvases, but the six paintings and one study here quite literally unfold against monochrome backdrops. He seeks insight through reorganization rather than reinterpretation.

Schoolwerth takes an algorithmic approach almost akin to data visualization, separating out specific parts of each original and presenting them in jarringly linear ways. So, in "Portrait of 'The Sitting'" (after Traversi)" (2010), the half-dozen figures from the 1754 original are turned to thin, color-coded outlines and superimposed one atop the other. The rest of the canvas is evenly coated in the shade of rich brown that dominates Traversi's painting, save a few thick, expressive swaths of more vivid tones, dramatic smears of royal blue and bright orange. In "Portrait of 'Still Life With Beef, Bowl of Ham and Vegetables, and Receptacles' (after Melendez)" (2010, above), the 1772 counter-top cornucopia's diagonal top-left to bottom-right composition remains, accentuated even, though the only figurative detail is a head of garlic floating absurdly between a squash that's blown apart and a ham whose flesh peels away from the fat in a spectacular bright red blur. Still lives are rarely so dynamic. It's the kind of spread you'd expect to find next to one of Francis Bacon's tortured subjects—in fact, Schoolwerth's nearby arachnid-eyed take on a Bernando Strozzi portrait is unmistakably Bacon-ian.

The disassembled landscape of "Portrait of 'Barge On A River At Sunset' (after Pynacker)" (2010) on the gallery's back wall may be the most radical deconstruction on view because so much of its source painting appears intact, albeit dissected into separate elements of earth, sky and water. The composition is mostly inverted, though fluid too in its distribution of the creamy early-morning sky, serenely calm waters and bustling activity aboard the moored barge.

Like Gerrard's slowly revolving 3D architectural tableaux, Schoolwerth applies an aggressively contemporary aesthetic to previous periods' artifacts. Both artists use these relatively fixed objects—buildings, old masters paintings—to explore the unstable and fluctuating modes of present-day perception. They deploy visual systems that follow digital methods of organization: Schoolwerth arranges his canvases as if using a tagging system, with figures, land-masses, bodies of water and skies clustered together by type; Gerrard confines digital environments to a strict temporal existence, one that's doubly binding since his works repeat the same one-year cycle, rather than evolving in truly real time. Both artists re-calibrate our web-warped sensitivities to time and space.

(images courtesy the artists, Miguel Abreu Gallery and Simon Preston Gallery)

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