To Adjust the Default Settings
The Common Zone of Painting and Digitality-Influenced Imagery
Orsolya Lia Vető
The traditionally slow genre of painting is capable of challenging the inhumanly fast circulation of digital imagery. Painting interacts with the digital by appropriating, and formally codifying its heterogeneous and ephemeral visual experiences. While utopian notions of the correlation between the human and the machine are becoming blurred, the digital is restructured as something increasingly real and thus permeating the nervous system of contemporary painting. One of the fundamental motivations behind post-digital painting is the recognition that the materialization of digital visuality presents us with a valuable source pack of new tactics and upgrades the toolkit of the artist. This entanglement of the analogue and the digital sheds light on the delineated conventions of easel painting and the highly controlled visual logic of the digital sphere. The fault lines emerging between the different languages of post-digital painting preserve the present tense dilemmas of the artist navigating through virtual and physical environments.
According to Florian Cramer, a leading theorist on these issues, the term post-digital refers to the “dotcom era,” the millennial paradigm shift that was a result of the gradual diminution and historicization of the digital revolution. Cramer characterizes this as disillusionment with the techno positivist momentum and – recalling certain principles of romanticism and the Arts and Crafts-movement – as a resistance against the dominance of the machine apparatus and, finally, as a return to the celebration of individual mark-making. The author connects these specific strategies – mutations of digitality – with a “neo-analog do-it-yourself (DIY)” attitude.
The art historian Luke Smythe mentions – in his study, Pigment Vs. Pixel – Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Wade Guyton and Fabian Marcaccio, among the prominent figures of extended painting, whose work resolves the dichotomic relationship between pigment and light-based imagery and appropriates the machine pool of digital printing. These artists blur the boundaries between different genres with the help of complex mimetic strategies. The glitches and digital hiccups – accidental byproducts of the format changes between the material and the immaterial – bear the aesthetics of data decay and function as popular motifs in this discourse, alluding to the fact that our ability to control technology is a mere illusion. This can be seen in the work of Chris Dorland for example. In the Hungarian art scene, we could raise similar questions concerning certain series by Márk Fridvalszki: the involuntary slips and other contingencies of the paint start to corrode the quote-like aspect, which is almost inseparable from the use of digital transfers and printed elements.
Apart from the expansion of media, the formal and thematic elements borrowed from the context of the digital sphere present an inherent component of this discourse. Wedged between the traditional organizing principles of painting, one can find the visual effects of different computer software, the inexhaustible mine of filters and distortions, the fervent nostalgia for pixels, the infinite perspective of virtual spaces and the perfect gradients which suggest an ungraspable perfectness. These aspects appear in motifs filtered through the trend waves and the fluid iconography of user experience, mingling with earlier painterly references.
The broader notion of post-internet further nuances the theoretical discourse of post-digital painting, which continues to grow tentacles towards new media and mobilizes different visual cross-references. According to art writer Gene McHugh, the post-internet aesthetic is defined by the moment when we finally confront the Internet as a commonplace and let it emerge as a medium of art. This is why the artist Artie Vierkant describes the post-internet era as a transformation in attitude that affects the entire spectrum of culture. According to Vierkant, the significance of this paradigm shift is the turning away from the utilization of linguistic and semiotic metaphors, in favour of classification and evaluation happening according to language-independent aesthetic categories articulated by online communities – such as designer brush strokes, gradients, transparent layers and other search label references. Artworks, according to this reasoning, exist as digital exchange objects rather than one-off pieces that one can experience in a physical space.
The influence of the digital on painting is closely related to the recognition of the computer as a creative meta-machine and the technical development of the Graphical User Interface (GUI). The quest for a complex interface design was a secondary question in the 60s and the 70s, as it required a vast amount of machine power to perform even the most elementary visualization. Ivan Sutherland’s program, Sketchpad (1963), was the first answer to the pursuit of digitalizing the gesture, followed by Richard Shoup’s SuperPaint in 1973, which ushered in the era of 8-Bit drawing and painting systems, followed by increasingly sophisticated solutions in sync with the advancing technological conditions. Even though Photoshop and Microsoft Paint assumes a leading position among the intricate evolution of image editing software, the sporadically spreading online editing programs and mobile phone applications question their autocratic status. While the goal of these creative platforms has always been reproducing the intricate qualities of human handwriting, post-digital painters are drawn to referring back to the visual side-tracks of old times.
The limited expressive nature of archaic image editing programs is brought into play by the pixilated paths of Albert Oehlen’s series, Computer Paintings (1990-2008). By deploying the so-called “staircase-effect” of pixels arranged in step-like formation, Oehlen simultaneously parodies and points to the dynamic myth of painterly bravura or signature.  Digital patterns, that mimic different textures and typographic elements – hidden in the pictorial fabric – interrupt the fluidity of the sprawling motifs in the black-and-white compositions. The artist breaks down the brittle, sharply separated forms with barely perceptible, manually executed modifications, giving an organic vibe to certain gestures with various glazes and spray-painted details.
One can detect a wide scope of interactions between digital visuality and the tradition of the painterly brushstroke in certain series by Christopher Wool, David Reed, Jeff Elrod, Christine Streuli and Laura Owens. The gestures – infused with the associations of electronically generated surfaces – negate their surroundings and react to the modernist celebration of the autonomous painterly signature. The work of Owens reflects on the logic of the touch screen and the digital eraser as a kind of magical excavation tool, that reveals different layers. The seconds of casual scribbling – which one can manipulate and distort until infinity – are conserved in the pasty materiality of the artist’s hybrid process. Róbert Batykó’s oil paintings from the past few years also reveal their digital past. Here, however, the afterimage-like figures of computer operations wear the complete armor of geometric abstraction.
In works like these, the protagonist is the individual controlling the cursor and the brush, who, navigating the surface, forms a specific signifying system, often featuring elements familiar from the history of abstraction. According to Florian Cramer – when interpreting post-digital works – the emphasis shifts from the symbolical to the indexical, that is to the mark and its context, which becomes a metaphor of the self-determined subject who confronts the techno-political environment. The digital media theoretician, Justin Hodgson, describes this as the struggle of the artist in the maze of screens, software, formats and platforms. Hodgson claims that it is this interaction – between the human and the machine – itself, which causes the artwork to emerge. The graphic software act here as a kind of art prosthesis.
In the case of a virtual brush, the artist uses a pseudo-tool that can be optimized in a myriad of parameters, where the spontaneity and lively character of the traces can always be questioned. The continuity of the brush stroke is also illusory: it is the close positioning and repetition of a motif (stamping) that gives the illusion of squirming animism. We can observe this in certain series by Arno Beck, Eric Shaw, Josh Reames and Mathew Zefeldt, where cloned/stamped symbols – often placed at equal distances – delineate silhouette-like paths and vectors. An ancient portrait bust, a playing card or a simple circle may become the formal starting point for these gestures. In contrast to the organic slide and the articulated formlessness of a real brush, stamping always remains fragmented and indicative. In this scenario the brushstroke becomes just one of many icons that the artist can arrange on the surface of the canvas.
From a formal point of view, the visual possibilities of complex image editing programs (e.g. perfectly blended fields of colour, geometrically rounded objects and bodies, hermetically sealed visual layers with different functions) and three-dimensional graphics are an inspiration for a series of artists telling their stories through figural narratives. In the work of Brian Willmont, Austin Lee, Brandon Lipchik and Morgan Blair, the artists divert the homogeneity of the gradient-filled pictorial space by utilizing fake drop shadows and illusory light spills. In contrast, in the works of Philip Gerald or Maja Djordjevic, homogeneous gestures evoke the traces of the most archaic, 100%-opacity virtual brushes and thus the perfectly flat surface of the monitor.
In terms of subject matter, post-digital artists – as heirs to the postmodern attitude of David Salle’s paintings – work by embedding art historical references and the imagery of the media into an abstract pseudo-digital environment. One can recognize this specific relationship to cultural artefacts in the works of Michel Majerus, Johannes Daniel and Matthew Hansel through the notion of the remix, which – because of the accumulation of motifs – results in the erasure of certain layers of meaning and to the surfacing of unusual, new surpluses. Formal fragments and figural variations reminiscent of antiquity free-fall through digital filters in the predominantly grey-tone compositions of Benjámin Nagy.
Oli Epp donned the label “post-digital pop” to the young artists who harness the associational power of a pop-influenced, intentionally regression-close imagery in their energetic work. Besides Epp and some artists I have mentioned earlier, the 2019 Amsterdam exhibition titled Post-Digital Pop featured work from Cathrin Hoffmann, a painter of insect-like humanoids and Super Future Kid whose work depicts bizarre hallucinations dipped in the rainbow’s spectrum. The exhibited artists share the collective visual database of computer games, cartoons, comics, and other anonymous, digital imagery. The activities of this latest generation are well documented on Instagram, as this is the crucial platform – apart from the incredibly significant artist-run exhibition spaces and magazines – where the processes of canonization primarily take place. The group of artist exhibited at The Hole Gallery in New York are central to this discourse as are the group shows held there, including Post-Analog Painting I. (2015), Post-Analog Painting II. (2017) and Second Smile ( 2020). The last-mentioned exhibition dealt with the intersection of the post-digital trend and the surrealist pictorial tradition, combining the classic pieces of Salvador Dalí, René Magritte with works by Louisa Gagliardi, Aaron Elvis Jupin and Botond Keresztesi as the only Hungarian exhibitor. One is obliged to mention here the neo-surrealist movement in New York – which began in the 1980s, and which according to the painter Stephen Westfall was inspired by the aesthetics of kitsch, camp, animation films, biomorphic abstraction and the visuality of graffiti – when discussing the immediate antecedents of surrealism-influenced contemporary fine art.
Looking at the bigger picture, I am tempted to draw a connection here with the artists invested in reimagining the human body through the exploitation of the various distortion methods that graphic programs offer. The artists Sarah Slappey, Kristina Schuldt, Julie Curtiss and Ákos Ezer think about the human body as a digital object that is transformable – it can be mirrored, stretched, kneaded, creased and twisted to the extreme. These artists are often looking for radical results with their monstrous, absurd, pointed, bulbous pictorial motifs which transform body parts into something entirely alien. Although a kind of romantic longing towards the past of the medium characterizes the unique aesthetics of post-digital painting, it is also stirred up by an attitude that spectacularly rejects old school notions of good taste.
Translated by Patrick Nicholas Tayler.
●Aycock, John: Painting the Internet. In. Leonardo. Vol. 41. No. 2. 2008.
●Cramer, Florian: What is Post-Digital?. In. APRJA. Volume 3. Issue 1. 2014
●Hodgson, Justin: Post-Digital Rhetoric and the New Aesthetic.The Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 2019.
●McHugh, Gene:Post Internet, Link Editions, Brescia, 2011.
●Nappi, Maureen: Drawing w/Digits_Painting w/Pixels: Selected Artworks of the Gesture over 50 Years. In. Leonardo. Vol. 46. No. 2.2013.
●Negroponte, Nicholas: Being Digital.Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1995.
●Német, Szilvi: OK computer. A nagy poszt-internet art összefoglaló. In. Artmagazin online. 2015.
●Rieder, Gábor: A posztinternet művészetről. In. Artlocator Magazine. 2015.
●Smythe, Luke: Pigment Vs. Pixel: Painting in an Era of Light-Based Images. In. Art Journal. Vol. 71. No. 4. Winter. 2012.
●Vierkant, Artie:The Image Object Post-Internet. 2010.
●Westfall, Stephen: Surrealist Modes among Contemporary New York Painters. In. Art Journal. Vol 45. No. 4. The Visionary Impulse: An American Tendency.Winter. 1985.
 Cramer, Florian: What is Post-Digital? In. APRJA. Volume 3. Issue 1. 2014. pp. 11-13.
 Smythe, Luke: Pigment Vs. Pixel: Painting in an Era of Light-Based Images. In. Art Journal. Vol. 71. No. 4. Winter. 2012. pp. 105-110.
 Two Hungarian-language articles were published concerning post-internet art in September 2015:
Német, Szilvi: OK computer. A nagy poszt-internet art összefoglaló. In. Artmagazin online. 2015.
Rieder, Gábor: A posztinternet művészetről. In. Artlocator Magazine. 2015.
 McHugh, Gene: Post Internet, Link Editions, Brescia, 2011. pp. 5-6.
(conf.): Aycock, John: Painting the Internet. In. Leonardo. Vol. 41. No. 2. 2008.
 Vierkant, Artie: The Image Object Post-Internet. 2010.
 Negroponte, Nicholas: Being Digital. Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1995. p. 90.
 Nappi, Maureen: Drawing w/Digits_Painting w/Pixels: Selected Artworks of the Gesture over 50 Years. In. Leonardo. Vol. 46. No. 2. 2013. p. 164.
 Smythe, 2012. ibid. p.111.
 Cramer, 2014. ibid. pp. 19-22.
 Hodgson, Justin: Post-Digital Rhetoric and the New Aesthetic. The Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 2019. pp. 128-131.
 Westfall, Stephen: Surrealist Modes among Contemporary New York Painters. In. Art Journal. Vol 45. No. 4. The Visionary Impulse: An American Tendency. Winter. 1985. p. 315.