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Brave New World of Digital Imaging Wears a Traditional Face Too

Kids and Computer Games: "Gepetto I" by Margi Geerlinks and "After Dusk" by Anthony Goicolea (below)

By Lee Gardner | Posted 2/6/2002

Situated Realities

Robert Lazzarini, Anthony Goicolea, Margi Geerlinks, others

Maryland Institute College of Art's Decker and Meyerhoff galleries through March 17

If you want a literally mind-bending vision of the possibilities offered by 21st-century digital technology, step just inside the Decker Gallery at Maryland Institute College of Art and take a look at Robert Lazzarini's sculpture "Phone, Hammer, Skull."

By now, almost all of us are accustomed to, even blasé about, the use of computer software to warp realistic two-dimensional images in everything from print ads to motion pictures. Lazzarini takes advantage of that jadedness by using new-jack computer-assisted design technology to warp three-dimensional computer scans of familiar objects and fabricate unnerving new 3D versions--an old plastic rotary telephone elongated as if it were accelerating to light speed; two wood-and-steel claw hammers distorted as if suspended in some uneven light-refracting jelly; a human skull (molded from actual bone dust) compressed and twisted as if under pressure from some punishing alien gravity. The shadows on the gallery wall offer evidence of the objects' physical reality, but the brain boggles in an attempt to visually resolve these new versions with their iconic shapes. The piece provides a boffo intro to Situated Realities, an uneven but fascinating new MICA show that explores the frontier where artists and digital innovators pioneer in sync.

Lazzarini's piece is one of remarkably few in the show, curated by MICA photography and digital-imaging guru Will Larson, to rely on such an extreme level of computer-assisted trompe l'oeil. In fact, many of the artists exhibited use digital-imaging technology to assist work that falls very much within the realm of traditional pictorial appeal. Despite the not-found-in-nature vibrancy of its purple and pink highlights, the careful arrangement of a crumpled fox, fallen grapes, leafy branches, and small birds in Gregory Crewdson's large Cibachrome print "Untitled (Dead Fox With Grapes)" echoes--and, perhaps, faintly mocks--classic still-life composition. Yasumasa Morimura and Kathy Grove use digital technology to alter art history itself--the former inserting himself into classic paintings in his large digital prints "Queen and Dog" and "An Inner Dialogue With Frida Kahlo," the latter digitally altering a series of classic photographs to transform, say, Dorothea Lange's weathered "Migrant Mother" into a smooth-cheeked magazine-ad model for her own "After Lange."

Art-history tweaks aside, the really interesting stuff in the show uses similar photo-manipulation technologies to subvert traditional representation--or at least our traditional assumptions about representation and any inherent real-world truth it may bear--to transfixing, even troubling effect. Charles White's Cibachrome print "Highland Park" presents a photojournalistic shot of shirtless, surly boys standing around what looks like a gritty back alley; it takes a few beats to notice that two of them are hoisting the perfectly "real"-looking severed head of some snarling, pale-skinned nightmare monster in their fly-dotted fists. The impression made by Anthony Goicolea's "After Dusk," a striking photo of a dozen or so prep-school boys bent on some strange nocturnal errand, deepens when you realize that each boy bears the artist's own face. Goicolea's work represents a new era in self-portraiture, or a novel expression of megalomania, or maybe both.

Several other artists in the show turn their cutting edges back on themselves, or rather ourselves. In Dutch artist Margi Geerlinks' large, digitally manipulated Cibachrome print "Untitled II," a white-haired old man feeds a curvy female nude headfirst into a sewing machine; in her "Gepetto I," a woman knits a little girl from a ball of peachy yarn. In both cases, Geerlinks remakes photographic reality to comment on the way we remake our own reality vis-à-vis family and intimates, or perhaps how we would if we could. The human body also gets a rethink in Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cucher's grossly engrossing Lambda print series "Chimeras," three David Cronenbergian reimaginings of human flesh--no organs, no orifices, just lobes of flesh and jutting subcutaneous structures and whorls of hair--and in the altered animal people/Chinese zodiac symbols of Daniel Lee's "The Jury."

Situated Realities also effectively demonstrates that new technology does not guarantee new artistic breakthroughs. Karin Sander's exact, computer-assisted, 1/10th-size re-creation of "Dr. Andreas Siedl" and Jeff Weiss' faintly unreal computer-generated landscape "Navigator" fail to outdo the average mass-produced action figure or video-game screen, respectively, for visual and intellectual frisson. Anna Ullrich's Ilfochrome print "The Manufacture of Consent" and Martina Lopez's two Cibachrome prints, titled "Questioning Nature's Way," prove that lackluster collage will continue to have a place in the brave new world of art.

Such minor missteps aside, Situated Realities appeals not only because of the many worthwhile works included, but also because it offers a somewhat hopeful vision of our future in the face of all this transformative technology. At the rear of the Decker Gallery space, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau have created an untitled, unheralded installation. In front of a large screen stand five podia holding five spotlit houseplants--a fern, a small fig tree, some ivy, an aloe plant, and a jade plant. Once you come to grips with the plants, literally, the piece literally blossoms in a way that is both unexpected and inexplicably delightful--tactile, wordless, and unabashedly humanistic in nature.

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