Art

Seeing Our Digital Lives More Clearly Through Painting

Downey’s paintings function in the pre-internet and are not seduced by the internet’s promises; instead he shows us part of what we have lost.

Installation view of Wholly Idle at Steven Zevitas gallery (all image courtesy Steven Zevitas gallery)

BOSTON — If this were 2010 when the DIS project and magazine were launched, and when the Post Internet Survival Guide came into being, it would be a compliment to call someone post-internet. But by the time the Ullen Center for Contemporary Art birthed a thousand hot takes by fully institutionalizing the movement with their exhibition Art Post-Internet in 2014, it became impractical to see the internet as something that was escapable. How could you be post the thing that orders your dinner? As the story goes, the culture builds, the artist responds, and out comes a new style. Be it browser windows, the grid of Photoshop blankness surrounding images, brush gradients, stock photos, or even the notion of refreshing a page, artists have created a continuum of art works that deal with the visual nature of the internet and how our lives have changed because of it.

But neither the internet nor art exists in a vacuum, unrelated to its context. Artistic inspiration is not that simple. To quote George Saunders:

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express,” and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

Installation view of Wholly Idle at Steven Zevitas gallery

Only in the classroom does art really happen in the direct way Saunders alludes to. Art is always messy and there is always a gap between that which you want to say and what you end up saying. That which influences the artists with the longest careers is often not obvious. A post-internet worldview certainly was completely intended by some artists and curators who wrote manifestos about their post-internet sensibilities and made work that never contradicted those writings, but for many artists who are called post-internet there are a number of influences that have gone into their work.

Sean Downey’s new exhibition Wholly Idle at Steven Zevitas Gallery could be read as a rejoinder to the whole notion of the post-internet artist. Downey’s show picks up on technology. Specifically, it references the logic and visual language found in the era of movies broadcast on film in theaters and in private homes on VHS — “technology” in the sense as introduced by William Ivins’s book Prints and Visual Communication. For Ivins, as each new printmaking method was born, so was a new visual language. The technological advancements we experience require a new way to communicate.

Downey’s work gives us a lens through which we can see our current digital lives a bit more clearly. Our picture-in-picture digital existence, powered by apps and cascading style sheets puts us in the director’s role. But Downey’s paintings are not seduced by the internet’s promises; instead, he shows us part of what we have lost. Technology has allowed us to create an internally consistent self-portrait that we spread globally while snap chatting locally. In place of an Instagram stream of filtered past moments, these paintings function like a mixtape that creates synchronous, visually dynamic juxtapositions.

Sean Downey, “Schufttan Bones” (2017) oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

Downey’s paintings function in the pre-internet. They resemble the machine language of VHS video. VHS tape encoded the picture not through single frames moving sequentially in a timed sequence as film does, but through interlacing — where two separate moments are overlapped and presented at the same time. There is a layering in Downey’s work that you don’t see in art from the Pictures Generation, who also lived through the VHS era. The visual language they developed created definition, images distilled down to a single outline against a monochrome background (Robert Longo’s flailing people for example), pushed the image back from being “all over” (differentiating them from the Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Expressionism), and presented objects in stark contrast to those other things that are around them (Sarah Charlesworth’s “Arc of Total Eclipse” from 1977–1979, or “Stills” from 1980). Their work created tight-fitting windows into reality rather than creating extended pictorial inventions.

Downey’s work certainly has that early-2000s sensibility of maximalist realism. These paintings do not reference the web browser aesthetic or really any technological or visual development after the internet was born. Their found images could have been sourced from a library search. They don’t explore the stock photo’s ubiquity in contemporary digital culture. They’re not about the web. They don’t even absorb other’s images, à la Richard Prince. The painting “Slow Burners Unite!” (2017) includes images of Shelly Long in the movie The Money Pit (1986), but Downey employs painting’s specific powers by manipulating her image and depicting her as a wispy anamorphic projection of smoke. All seven paintings include some form of picture-in-picture visual infusion. Many of them include a fully framed image skewed or twisted inside the wider canvases. The most enigmatic one, “Cookie,” (2017) is an image of a monkey’s face and a camera on a tripod that seem to be fading into each other.

Sean Downey “Cookie” (2017) oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

The tripod motif — the camera support — is certainly a luscious metonym. Downey has sourced these images from archival 35 mm production stills. With the tripod, the paintings coalesce into a singular, visual lexicon that examines the cultural producers of our past. Even more than the interlaced stripes and picture-in-picture, the tripod becomes a message about what supports our lives. This leads me to ask: What sustains a painting practice? The camera in 2017 is our phone, our mobile computer, our social lives, and it rests on the tripod of our hand. Phones have become plinths for the always-open internet eye that we “control” as post-internet curators.

Installation view of Wholly Idle at Steven Zevitas gallery

In the last 20 years, we have faced new perspectives on where nature and artifice begin and end. We’ve survived a set of quantitative and qualitative visual challenges that were unknown to the Pictures Generation. In the age of GIFs, Murakami, and Koons, it’s cute to see the lion of Jack Goldstein’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1975) as a subversive conceptual art work. Downey’s pre-internet paintings succeed not by being regressive reactionary works but rather by showing us a refreshing alternative that emerges at the same time that we are reevaluating our “swipe left” culture.

Sean Downey’s Wholly Idle continues at Steven Zevitas Gallery (450 Harrison Avenue #47, Boston) through November 11.

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