New York-based artist J.K. Keller has come up with a new use for his phone — a facial cleanser. In his new project, iPhone Oil Paintings, Keller rubs his iPhone all over his face and then traces patterns and designs into the resulting gunk. By tilting the phone and moving light sources, Keller turns the patterns into animated GIFs that are hilarious, cutting, and cool.
I emailed Keller to find out what was behind the improvisational, accessible project. The artist explained that beyond the addictive GIFs is an investigation of the tension we have with our technology. Check out the full range of iPhone paintings below the interview.
Kyle Chayka: How did you come up with idea for the paintings?
J.K. Keller: It’s an idea that I assumed lots of people have had sitting with their phones while bored, but no one had done anything deliberate with it yet. There’s something really beautiful about the way light plays off of the oils while also having that repulsive effect of grime. It also extends a previous project I had created, called “Echo” mousepads, that dealt with our grimy relationship with technology in longer-term accumulations of filth on paper.
KC: The GIF of you rubbing the phone on your face [copied at left] is hilarious. What role does humor play in the project?
JKK: It’s a project using face oil on an iPhone; if you don’t acknowledge how silly that is on some level, you’re either being disingenuous or daft. But in the larger trajectory of my work, I try to impart a subtle sense of humor. It’s what keeps me interested in the work. Life is weird and tragic and disturbing and we all have awful thoughts and I think acknowledging the humor in life is critical to living a healthy life.
KC: There’s a kind of dance-club or disco vibe about the colors and shifting lights of your GIFs. What kind of style are you going for when you present the oil paintings?
JKK: The dance-clubby vibe is more the result of the project’s early development state than an objective goal. It’s at the beginning stage, and I am just trying to get the project to work technically, so it’s a little heavy-handed and overt in effect. Further development will likely subdue the colors and harshness, though I would still like to have the project keep some connection to technology outside of it being an iPhone. It’s all about further development at this point, an effort to push it past the immediate state of “Oh that’s finger grease,” into “What the what? How did he do that?”
KC: What did you have to do to get all of that oil off your screen?
KC: Why do you think viewers find the iPhone GIFs so entrancing?
JKK: I think people are drawn to it at this moment because there’s a current thread of uneasy tension that we all have with our technology. People are very interested in these places where beauty and repulsion are at odds with each other in very relatable ways. It also helps that, as I mentioned above, almost everyone has looked at and manipulated the grease and oils on their own phone at one point or another and can immediately engage with the work as a result.
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