The Image Object Post-Photoshop

On post-internet ideals and the artists 'brushing it in' at London's Flowers Gallery

We are living in a post-Photoshop era — or so Lorenzo Durantini postulates, with a wry smile. Durantini has curated Brush It In, a group exhibition at Flowers Gallery taking its title from a colloquial expression for the act of digital manipulation using Adobe’s ubiquitous image editing software. Here, six artists have been assembled whose works engage with the pictorial tension between virtual and material editing, between photographic representation and fabrication.

Antonio Marguet’s garish images of pastel-coloured sculptures glisten with a sickly sheen. Their oversized and flaccid Claes Oldenburg-esque components are supported by crude wooden supports; sinister and unbalanced like perverse sexual contraptions about to spring into action. Entitled Santa Barbara New Car Scent and Exotic Juicy Tutti Frutti, they allude to the saccharine allures of consumerism. The subject matter here, like so many advertisements, is evidently more likely the result of computer-aided assemblage than any kind of physical actuality. The results are, however, no less potent and unsettling.

The work of Joshua Citarella further muddies the digital waters. Skew Merge Curves Clone, a scene in which a chair is surrounded by three floating geometric forms, appears to be a routine enough texture-mapped 3D CGI rendering. On closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that this is in fact a ‘straight’ photograph, every visible surface having been covered in marbled contact paper, achieving the illusion of unreality. 126,270,089 and 231,639,853 are more multifaceted affairs, with vertiginous compositions squeezed within frames that mirror the familiar dimensions of the widescreen LCD monitors on which we are so accustomed to scrolling across virtual vistas. Fragments of flat, jagged colour battle it out with the elemental materiality of rocks and water droplets. Two-dimensional elements are gifted weight by the lens, whilst objects that possess real-world physicality are rendered suspect by post-production processes. Pixelations and the detritus of ‘botched’ digital touch-ups confound our reading of the images, prohibiting a thorough unravelling of their tangled forms. The reward is the pleasure of an immersive and chaotic medium confusion, contained here within the image object, hanging with definite and bounded physical presence on the gallery wall.

Durantini takes his thematic cue from the term ‘post-internet’, coined by Marisa Olson and advocated most emphatically by Artie Vierkant in his 2010 essay, The Image Object Post-Internet. The premise here is that the internet has, with time, passed from novelty to banality. Vierkant proposes that the rhizomatic networks in which we are now active, both absorbing and creating content, should be reflected in a shift in the way art is made, moving from the one-to-many hierarchy of traditional media towards a many-to-many mode of production. In the same stroke, he describes artworks without any “representational fixity” that are able to seamlessly slide between the physical and the digital, released from the constraints of medium specificity:

In the Post-Internet climate, it is assumed that the work of art lies equally in the version of the object one would encounter at a gallery or museum, the images and other representations disseminated through the Internet and print publications, bootleg images of the object or its representations, and variations on any of these as edited and recontextualized by any other author. […]  For objects after the Internet there can be no “original copy.”[1]

There is much about Vierkant’s idealism to be commended, particularly the will for this kind of radically autonomous art object, and for the proliferation of collaborative frameworks of production. However, his is also a rather unsatisfying stance in terms of its failure to affirm the continuing value and revelatory capacity of art in its singular material form. With so much emphasis on technological emancipation and the appropriation, curation and remixing of content, he is perhaps bypassing the metamodern yearning for the transcendent creative act in its first, immaculate instance, in all its futile glory. Instead, entrenched in the defeatist doctrine of internet banality, Vierkant’s position is somewhat stymied by the same overpowering cynicism that befell the outmoded postmodernist mindsets of yesteryear.

Far from being banal, however, the unabated novelty of the internet age is plain for all to see, revitalised with every passing innovation. Fresh avenues are continually opening at unpredictable junctures, with technological advancement triggering evermore unintended and ingenious uses, both by specialists and the masses. Post-internet is, then, an irritating name indeed, as it implies a period of stasis in this most dynamic of environments. However, in the same vein as The New Aesthetic, it has admittedly performed the function of stimulating debate amongst creative thinkers in admirable fashion.

Durantini too recognises the absurdity of such nomenclature, describing the term post-Photoshop as “a playful provocation amidst the endless proliferation of posts; post-rock, post-digital, post-human, post-everything. The entropic succession of thesis and antithesis becomes a feedback loop that eludes synthesis.”[2] Whilst this might seem detrimental in terms of the coherent communication of any given position, the increasing compulsion to stake territorial claims for movements and genres is arguably further evidence of the renewed impetus and enthusiasm for cultural and societal progress, driven by the oscillatory spirit of the metamodern age.

Durantini goes on to suggest that “the inevitable disappointment of mass-produced commodities has created a sort of haptic half-life where the image produces more pleasure than the object itself.”[3] And yet the reality here is perhaps more complex and nuanced than either this statement or Vierkant’s text would indicate. In this exhibition, we are indeed presented with a series of images, the optical pleasure of which is clear. However, these are also physical photo-objects, whose function as artworks is cultivated by means of their very material presence here in the gallery. This is an exhibition that would not succeed in an on-screen incarnation. And nor should it, for these works do not profess to enact the idealism of a ‘post-internet’ fluidity between gallery and screen. Rather, they are indebted to the gallery space; to the box frames, white walls and solid wooden floors that act as their supports. In light of the current profusion of digital ephemeralism, such a return of the ‘real’ is refreshing.

Fleur van Dodewaard’s Study for a Black Nude provides a saturated yellow and blue arrangement, dominated by a flat piece of board propped up at its centre. The board’s crisp, angular edges and jet-black hue seem to mimic an act of Photoshop manipulation, as if its boundaries had been selected with a polygonal lasso tool and the delete key deployed. In Darren Harvey-Regan’s More or Less Obvious Forms, a series of archetypal classical statuettes are immersed in a chequerboard pattern: the same pattern that acts as the signifier for a transparency layer in the digital world. As with van Dodewaard’s piece, here it is clear that the pseudo-virtual elements have been crafted by hand, the work of meticulous manual labour, drawing comparisons to Gabriel Orozco’s 1997 skull piece, Black Kites.

With these pieces, the contemporary digital vernacular has enriched the artists’ visual vocabularies. Both continue the tradition of the artistic pursuit of the void, their works bearing the physical scars of a longing for erasure and nothingness. They are not pictures that could be mistaken for digital renderings, for they wear their flaws with pride. They fail, and fail gracefully. The joy of physical construction, of the material image object with all its limitations and transcendent impossibilities, remains at the heart of things here, as with the show as a whole.

Whilst the augmented realities of the future will indeed allow all kinds of disembodied art forms to flow and thrive, there is also the danger that a total abandonment of material specificity could lead us to existential crisis. Elsewhere on the net, Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo’s recent dystopian short film, Sight, serves as a chilling vision of what might happen if technological advancement were to result in us losing touch with touch itself, our values skewed by technology’s omnipotent helping hand. Here, a swirling animated version of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, superimposed on the wall of the protagonist’s apartment, has truly become banal — art as nothing more than life’s screensaver — and that is surely not a ‘post’ anyone would wish for.

Brush It In at London’s Flowers Gallery runs until 5th January 2013.

[1] Vierkant, Artie. The Image Object Post-Internet, 2010. http://jstchillin.org/artie/vierkant.html
[2] Durantini, Lorenzo. Brush It In, exhibition catalogue. London: Flowers Gallery, 2012.
[3] Ibid.
Images (from top): Joshua Citarella, 126,270,089 (2012) and Skew Merge Curves Clone (2012)
Fleur van Dodewaard, Study for a Black Nude (2011)
Darren Harvey-Regan, More or Less Obvious Forms (2012)
Antonio Marguet, Santa Barbara New Car Scent (2011)
Joshua Citarella, 231,639,853 (2012)
Brush It In, exhibition view (2012)
All works © the artists, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.
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Notes on Metamodernism, 2014