Installation view of "Decenter" at Abrons Arts Center, with Douglas Melini's "Favorable Transformations" (2012) in the foreground (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The opening of “Decenter” at Abrons Arts Center, with Douglas Melini’s “Favorable Transformations” (2012) in the foreground (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

I first learned about Cubism in an art history class my sophomore year of college. I remember the moment of revelation, after reading a lot about it but still failing to grasp what exactly Picasso and Braque were after. In the darkened lecture hall one afternoon, our teacher summed it up this way: how sparingly could you paint a face while still having the viewer understand it as a face? What was the bare minimum required for representation? As legend has it, these questions and the art they inspired changed the course of art history forever.

Is the same true of the digital revolution? Are widespread computer and internet usage changing the way we make art and understand the world? The answer to those questions is undoubtedly “yes,” and that affirmative is the starting point for Decenter, a physical and virtual exhibition curated by Andrianna Campbell and Daniel S. Palmer at the Abrons Arts Center. Celebrating in a refreshingly forward-thinking way the centennial of the Armory Show, which unleashed Cubism on the US in 1913, Decenter features 27 artists “who explore the changes in perception precipitated by our digital age and who closely parallel the Cubist vernacular of fragmentation, nonlinearity, simultaneity, and decenteredness,” the curators write. As Cubism was to the 20th century, then, so digital and digitally inspired art are to the 21st.

Michael Delucia, "Glint" (2012) (click to enlarge)

Michael Delucia, “Glint” (2012) (click to enlarge)

It’s a plausible premise, and the curators seem to first make their case by highlighting the aesthetic overlap of the two movements, a connection I was surprised I hadn’t made before. Geometric planes and the breaking up of images into squares (cubes) abound in both, as does a dogged interest in the manipulation of flatness and depth. This comes through especially in the physical-space exhibition of Decenter, at Abrons. Upstairs, one room features an excellent pair of paintings by Gabriel Orozco that filter flowers through pixels, while nearby Andrew Kuo has transformed the actions and elements of a single day into a beautifully blocky, nonsensical chart.

Gabriel Orozco, "Broken Red Flower" (2011)

Gabriel Orozco, “Broken Red Flower” (2011)

Across the way, Franklin Evans has taken over a wedge-shaped staircase landing with one of his patented installations, in which colorful panels of images and words are laid out, strung up, and connected intermittently with tape, like the contents of someone’s mind (or computer, or the two as one) exploded into bits. In an adjacent space, a sculpture by Michael Delucia, who creates his geometric forms in enamel and plywood using software and a computer-guided router, brings the concept and practice of digital abstraction into three dimensions.

Franklin Evans, "Bluenudedissent" (2013)

Franklin Evans, “Bluenudedissent” (2013)

All of these works, as well as a handful more at the center, succeed in not just transmitting a digital aesthetic but imposing it on the viewer, pushing our eyes and minds into different modes of perception. But much of the art in Decenter’s physical show — including good, solid pieces by David Kennedy Cutler, Douglas Melini, and Liz Magic Laser — feels digitally inflected (or affected) rather than truly immersed in the digital, which means the connections with Cubism feel mostly superficial, confined to diagonal lines and fragmented planes.

That’s less the case in the online exhibition, where the gleefully chaotic network of artists and artworks you encounter immediately points to the vastness of our digital moment. Although not all of the works here are digital — click on some, and you’ll simply see an image of a painting or installation, which can be confusing and disappointing. Some of the digital works, too, are boring, or at least don’t outlive the neat factor; how many geometrically abstract looping animations or GIFs can you watch before growing restless?

Screen shot of Brenna Murphy, "Latticescanr" (2013)

Screen shot of Brenna Murphy, “Latticescanr” (2013)

A number of pieces here, however, are outstanding. They point to the ways in which artists are not just making art about or on the internet but tapping into and transmitting a profound shift in visual culture, in much the same way that the Cubists did. Perhaps the best of these is Brenna Murphy’s “Latticescanr” (2013), a never-ending network of pages filled with images and GIFs of abstract forms that generally look like a cross between sea coral and ancient Incan or Aztec sculptures, sometimes accompanied by ominous electronic tones. “Latticescanr” is an online maze, a kind of digital architecture that’s profoundly unsettling because there’s no prescribed way to navigate it.

Other standouts include James Bridle’s “Rorschmap” (2013), which turns the logic of Google Maps on its head by transforming sites into Rorschach-like mirror images that you can expand or contract with your arrow keys, and Jennifer Chan’s “Grey Matter” (2012), which mashes up pop culture, net art, and teen-girl online aesthetics into a overloaded diaristic video that questions what privacy and sharing mean in the age of social media. Joe Hamilton’s “An Illusion of Democratic Experience” (2012) presents a series of virtual collages, many of the image snippets seemingly drawn from art historical canvases, as rotating slides in a slide show, which is set to the sounds of a clicking projector and people talking and wandering in a vast hall. Listen for a while and you’ll envision the Great Hall of the Met and begin thinking about how the internet has supplanted the encyclopedic museum as the profferer of the great democratic visual experience.

Screen shot of James Bridle, "Rorschmap" (2013)

Screen shot of James Bridle, “Rorschmap” (2013)

These pieces offer up digitalness as more than just a style or a new aesthetic, and in that sense, they make for case Campbell’s and Palmer’s thesis. And yet, there’s one sticking point I keep coming back to: Cubism was a revolution within art that ostensibly had a broader cultural impact; the digital revolution, meanwhile, is a societal change that’s been shaking up art. In that sense, digital art began as a reaction, whereas Cubism is hailed as a catalyst — which leads me to wonder if visual art has the power to spark such widespread change anymore (if it really ever did). In the end, though, I suppose it doesn’t entirely matter, so long as the artists who are leading the way into uncharted territory are the ones who are remembered when the present becomes history.

Decenter: An Exhibition on the Centenary of the 1913 Armory Show continues at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 7. The online exhibition will stay up longer, until a yet-to-be-determined date.

Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

3 replies on “Tracing a Path from Cubism to Digital Art”

  1. Think about it this way; true digitally generated art is a physical manifestation of quantum mechanic principles applied to aesthetics while a cubist painting is a theoretical version of how quantum mechanics might manifest at a visual level. Digital media is the concretization of the aesthetic investigations that the cubist performed. A true step forward (or maybe a step back depending on how you look at it.. I’m not sure at the moment) This exhibition brings up a lot of interesting questions/ideas/possibilities.

  2. Jillian, thank you for such a thoughtful review of Decenter. I absolutely agree with your opinion that certain works might be digitally inflected (and also sympathize with much of your navigation of the exhibition), but I’d like to maybe add a little to certain historical notions of Cubism. Since I’m an artist in the show, I might perhaps be reading with some sensitivity, but I do believe that the certain ideas about Cubism are inflated. Cubism was also a reaction to changes in contemporaneous technology: cinema, motorized transport, industrial proliferation, photography, consumable audio recordings, and an explosion of printed and disseminated media (notice so many references to newspapers). Cubism, however, didn’t manifest through any of these new technologies, but instead was transmitted through the oldest technology of artifice: painting. While trains, automobiles,movies, and broadsides were the social change of the day, painters were still participating in a elite and rarefied medium. What Cubists were trying to do, I believe, was what every generation of artists tries to do, which is to grapple in a direct and immediate way with how aesthetics are changing, without necessarily masquerading in technology (otherwise wouldn’t we be giving art-historical precedence to filmmakers, inventors and photographers?). I think the curators meant this to be a practical metaphor, for a way to look at disparte art being made right now in a comprehensible way. I know it is a small bone to pick, but I do think that the generation of artists in the physical component of this exhibition are of a certain age group (within a few years of 30, with a few exceptions) who have one foot in a more analog world, while also having fully immersed themselves in digital technology. The curators are also peers of this group, and so it provides evidence of a time and a place where artists are trying to figure out how to negotiate the physical artifact in contrast with the massive abstraction of a purely coded virtual cloud. While perhaps a new wave of artists will come that will do away with any need at all for physical objects or exhibitions, I firmly believe that not enough practical consideration has been paid (except for rare reviews like yours and in curatorial projects like Decenter) to the unique position we are in now, between two worlds as it were.

    David Kennedy Cutler

    1. David, thank you so much for your comment. I think you make an excellent point, and it’s definitely something I’ve thought a lot about in the lead-up to and ever since writing the review. You’re right, of course, that Cubism was a reaction to its time, just as the art of today is a reaction to ours. I thought about that when I was writing, and I was worried that perhaps I was overinflating its origins with the advantage of history. But I suppose every moment is a reaction of some sort, and the question is where we draw the line, or put a mark down and say “this was a reaction but also a beginning.” I don’t think there’s any question our time will be one of those, too.

      I also would never want to give the impression that I’m only interested in digital art, which if I did, I regret. I guess I just felt like certain works in the show, whether physical or digital, were pushing the envelope a little more, trying to (or succeeding in, perhaps) really create a visual shift for the viewer. I think what happens, at least for me with a show like this at a time like now, is that there starts to feel like a lot of repetition—these same visions of digitalness manifested in art. I absolutely think they’re worth exploring, of course, but I’ve begun to feel a bit tired with the novelty aspect and am not trying to identify works that are doing more than just reproducing the look. Does that make some sense? I hope so. This review represents me grappling with these questions and trends, as I believe the show is, too.

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