Screen Shot of the landing page for the online exhibition Words and Actions (all photos by the author)

The problem with most of the online shows I’ve been seeing lately is that they don’t really function like they are online, that is, that they exist in a digital space — with all possibilities of visual presentation that this technology entails. Like many of my colleagues, I get inundated with offers to view shows in person and on the World Wide Web. While I’ve been getting back into the groove of visiting galleries, popups, and museums, I’ve also been glancing at digitized exhibitions whenever I get an email invitation, and I must admit that the pickings are slim.

I very much wanted to like e pluribus: Out of Many, launched by the National Academy of Design, curated by the art and cultural historian Dr. Kelli Morgan, and designed by Linked by Air. It’s a great premise — letting go of the notion of a unifying national identity to pursue incongruity — but it reads like a visual encyclopedia with clickable images and supplemental text that can be viewed by scrolling. There is a plethora of images here that show the main, selected work in detail views and from a variety of angles, alongside an explanation of the work (by an unknown writer), an artist’s statement, often an account “reflecting on the year,” and the artist’s biography. More than a hundred members of the academy are featured, so there’s much to see along with videos of artists talking with either Dr. Morgan or Sara Reisman, who is the chief curator. But the seeing isn’t fun or adventurous — it’s just one plodding click after another until I run out of the will to go on.

Screenshot of the landing page for e pluribus: Out of Many

Similarly, the online show Words and Actions” was described to me by the curator Naomi Lev as “an online exhibition that features four all-women art collectives.” Putting aside for a moment that the exhibition title conveys a theme so elastic that it hardly can hold anything together and doesn’t bring the collectives into any meaningful relation, the landing page, with its white text on black backdrop and Google-Domains-website-builder aesthetic, augurs a humdrum viewing experience. Words and Actions functions more like an archive where Lev has organized the various projects produced by the collectives — Oda Projesi + Nadin Reschke (Istanbul/Berlin); Mujeres de Maiz (Los Angeles); Collective_View (New York), and The 8th of March Group (Sofia, Bulgaria) — into discrete sections that weigh heavy with video. Here, too, the prospect of watching all the videos was preemptively exhausting. Who has four hours of screen time to give to one exhibition? And the photography for Collective_View was just terrible: indifferently lit, no possibility of enlarging the image or zooming into it, dull hues and tones. The problem for me is that when a digital site is described as an “exhibition,” I go into it wanting a visual experience that is animated by lively and inventive juxtapositions and means of navigation, spirited in its quest to convey meaning. An archive is a completely valid endeavor for digital record-keeping, but it exists in contradistinction to an exhibition.

Screenshot of the page for the Oda Projesi + Nadin Reschke collective within the online exhibition Words and Actions

Then there are the soi-disant exhibitions or viewing “rooms” that are really just well-lit, static imagery that showcases the featured artist. Findlay galleries show of Zvonimir Mihanović’s paintings is a good example of this monkeyshines. While the views are enhanced and allow for enlarging and easy navigation, the experience is very much like flitting through a flip book. Alternatively, Findlay does offer the option of entering a virtual viewing room, which provides the illusion of moving through a three-dimensional space to approach the paintings and scrutinize them from a selected distance. This is a slightly more engaging experience.

The problem with all these sites is that they don’t take advantage of the digital medium. They keep the house money in their pockets instead of playing with it. In contrast, the Dutch-Brazilian artist Rafaël Rozendaal uses the digital space to conjure up invigorating uses of imagery. He has gifs and animations among his websites and NFTs. These kinds of visual tools excite my eyes and get me to look more intently. If these stratagems are married to viewer controlled inputs, then the online exhibition feels more to me like an encounter which really does hold out the promise of surprise. Rozendaal does something like this with his site “Looking at Something,” which depicts a rainstorm, but depending on where the cursor is placed on the page, the weather can move from dark and stormy with flashes of lightning, to a sky blue background above a white cloudscape with only occasional drops of rain plonking on the periphery.

Screenshot of “Looking at Something” by Rafaël Rozendaal

If curators, artists, and institutions mean to create online exhibitions that serve as inviting visual experiences, they don’t need to replace the gallery visit, but they do need to offer a meaningful substitute. Throughout the rest of the fall season I’ll be looking out for better examples of exhibitions that will keep the conversation going.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...