Art

Altarpieces for the Digital Age

Plato's Cave (installation view), photo courtesy of Susan Silas
Installation view, Carla Gannis’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ at Transfer gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Enter Transfer gallery and your entire field of vision is instantly taken up by a vast screen, measuring 10 by 10 feet, nearly the width of the room. The image on the screen is formulated like an altarpiece with a predella, or at least what a modern version of one might look like. The bulk of the screen shows a digitally animated image, with three additional, smaller ones lining the bottom. The reference to a 16th-century altarpiece is not by chance: artist Carla Gannis began her career as a painter, and this work feels oddly flat and non-perspectival, despite being derived from actual photographs. In a playful and ironic way, the pieces on view are modern-day altars to both the artist and the selfie.

Theresa with Angel (lower left screen of Bunny) courtesy of the artist
Carla Gannis, “Theresa with Angel” (2016), lower left screen of ‘Bunny’ (all images courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)

In fact, the entire exhibition — whose title is A Subject Self-Defined — is born of the selfie. Gannis has used herself in her work intermittently for a long time. At some point about a year ago, she began making hybrid forms of the selfie: digitally painted or enhanced images of herself that she then shared on various social networks. As this portfolio of images grew, an expanded notion of what they might become began to take shape. This exhibition takes us to the endgame of those ideas.

Gannis made 52 selfies, one for each week of the year. At Transfer, those images can be seen on a computer to the left of the door. They were also just published as a book, and every week from the time of publication, a new selfie in the book will become an augmented image with the help of a phone app. For the exhibition, the artist decided to create animated versions of a number of the selfies, to be projected on a much larger scale, taking up the main space of the gallery. There are two projection panels suspended from the ceiling with works on their front and rear surfaces; they consume so much of our field of vision that only one is available to us at any given moment. Just as the original selfies represent a week each, the four panels of animated selfies mark time too: the artist referrs to them as Four Seasons.

Bunny (installation view) photo courtesy of Susan Silas
Installation view, Carla Gannis’s ‘Bunny’ at Transfer gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In each case, a grouping of a larger image and three smaller ones below constitutes a loose narrative arc. So, for example, when we enter the space, the first large-scale image, “Nude Descending a Staircase” (named for Duchamp’s painting), depicts the artist descending the staircase of a spaceship and about to walk on water. She is holding a phone and watching her reflection intently as she goes. On her belly appears a television screen; the footage is a view you might see out a car windshield while driving down the road. So, the passage of time is invoked in the juxtaposition of space travel with the quaint analogue notion of the road trip.

This season, named after its primary image, “Nude Descending a Staircase,” is described in press materials as “the season of apocalypse and post-human potentialities.” On the bottom left of the panel, we see “Monkey on Your Back,” in which a fireplace burns and, above the mantle, an animated painting shows the artist scurrying along into the distance. Her backpack loaded down, she stares at her phone and moves across parched, cracked earth into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Outside the screen-within-a-screen, the back wall behind the mantle appears as a lush Edenic landscape, and if we watch carefully, just as the artist is about to disappear into the bleak background, her tiny figure escapes the frame and runs off into the green fantasy-scape. One section over, in the center of the bottom row, the artist seems to slowly dissolve into an abstraction, and on the far right, in “Electronic Graveyard No. 2,” the tombstones appear to be giant iPhones, presumably allowing us to download the life contained therein onto our own devices. Here we see space travel, the post-nuclear landscape, the dissolution of the self, and the data archiving of our dead selves joined together to represent one possible variant of our future.

Golden Shower (middle screen on Plato's Cave) courtesy of the artist
Carla Gannis, “Golden Shower” (2016), middle screen on ‘Plato’s Cave’

As this description of just one of the four projection screens suggests, the gallery feels frantically activated and busy. Everything is in motion all of the time, and it’s hard for the eye to decide where to settle. The remaining three seasons are Plato’s Cave, described by the artist as a time of atavism, myth, and past/present collisions; The Eccentric, the season of role playing and identification with popular culture; and Bunny, the season of interiority and comedic eroticism. As the titles reveal, the panels move from myth making and popular culture to interiority and “post-human potentialities,” or the currently imagined technologies that would leave the sentient body behind. The work suggests an update of sorts to A Brief History of Time, focused not on the stars but on ourselves.

Selfie Drawing 01, 2015 courtesy of the artist
Carla Gannis, “Selfie Drawing 01” (2015)

Gannis’s references run the gamut, from surrealist painting (Dalí and Magritte) to science fiction and cartoons. The self is everywhere, yet not anchored anywhere. The self is transmuted into an avatar descending the staircase of a spaceship; a character reclining on her back and surrounded by video monitors, the recipient of endless media; a nude figure in a cave painting; a quasi-Shiva; the melting face in a Dalí-esque painting; Wonder Woman; a young woman with a backpack who’s slipping away in a Magritte painting. In this digital world, a multitude of selves can cohabit comfortably.

Fault Line, 2016 courtesy of the artist
Carla Gannis, “Fault Line” (2016)

The use of self-representation for women is not a neutral choice — it is coupled with the will to self-assertion. And, in the case of Gannis, it is a project of self-assertion at the same time that it is a quest to redefine the self in a world that’s rapidly changing due to digital media and a networked environment. Her practice has been hybrid for a long time, using combinations of photography, video, drawing, and painting, along with digital animation and Photoshop. On the back wall of the gallery space, a standalone video titled “Fault Line” rehearses an evolution of the artist from 19th-century woman to modern one, split down the middle in the process of moving forward through time. The argument made by this work can be best summed up as a straightforward question: how does the transition from the analogue to the digital world transform our notion of the self (and ourselves)?

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Carla Gannis, “Selfie Drawing 52, Powers of 10” (2015)

If Shakespeare showed us psychological interiority for the first time, as Harold Bloom observed, and he did so at the moment of the transition from feudalism to mercantile capitalism (see Paul Mason’s recently published Postcapitalism), what happens to our understanding of the self when we leave the analogue capitalist world for the less clearly defined postcapitalist, digital one (or, if things go poorly, the post-apocalyptic one)? Perhaps more to the point, what happens to the self when those two worlds coexist, with neither paradigm entirely displaced? Gannis’s work functions in the scarcity economy which governs the art world, a stand-in for the capitalist model where rare commodities are sold at high prices in art galleries, and also in the digital networked economy, a stand-in for the postcapitalist model where there is abundance and everything is given away for free. What makes her work prescient is that it already inhabits the two spaces simultaneously, despite the absurd contradictions that arise.

Carla Gannis, ‘The Selfie Drawings’ book cover

Her book also lives in both real and networked space. It’s part traditional publication, a book that you hold in your hands and turn the pages of, and part digital experience, in which weekly updates continue for an entire year to augment the images inside. Gannis’s exhibition brilliantly captures a moment when the world is shifting gears, from the economic order we’re all familiar with to another whose shape we can only guess.

Carla Gannis: A Subject Self-Defined continues at Transfer (1030 Metropolitan Avenue, East Willamsburg, Brooklyn) through March 19.

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