Ephemeral Exhibition- An Exploration of Ontological Anxiety Surrounding Digital Painting

Ephemeral Exhibition- An Exploration of Ontological Anxiety Surrounding Digital Painting Mark O’Connell@2015 No reproduction without permission

“For the mimetic theory, by its very terms, challenges art to justify itself.”
Susan Sontag, 1966 Against Interpretation

As an artist who works in the new media of digital painting, the latent paradoxes inherent in the medium at times intrigue and at others confound me. The questions of what the true nature of digital painting truly is, is one I explore while I am making the artwork, transforming the art-making into a form of applied research, both in technical mastery of a new medium and into the philosophy of contemporary art as it relates to the ontology of painting. This process of a binary of creative work and research practice is described by Smith and Dean as a bi-directional approach wherein the two forces are “interwoven into an iterative cyclic web” (Smith & Dean 1994: 2). Both areas informing and impacting each other through the creation of a digital painting.

The limitless reproducibility of the digital image is another factor to be considered when exploring the nature of digital painting as it relates to traditional oil painting. In his iconic essay: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin maintains that an original art piece will lose its natural “aura” through reproduction. Although written in 1935 this piece is remarkable for its presience, as it seems to predict the rise of the infinite reproductive capabilities of the internet. Benjamin is commenting on photography and mechanical reproduction, but he could easily have been talking about digital media in relation to traditional artwork when he says: “Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former” (Benjamin 1935: 5). And you would think he is referring directly to the internet when he says: “The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation” (1935: 21). When Benjamin wrote his piece, even analog colour photography was not yet in common use. Technology has created new artforms that Benjamin could not have foreseen: specifically the realms of digital photography and digital painting, and the concept of investing and divesting aura shifts within this new paradigm.

In my own practice I explore both the digital and hand made processes of artmaking. The iterative quality of the internet adds to the exposure of the work, and does it as Benjamin suggest thereby have its aura diminished? Also, if the original art piece is digital and has to be output to become a tactile piece, is it divested of, or invested with, the phenomenon of aura through this process? Added to this, are the questions around where is the location of the actual painting: Is it in the coded information on my hard drive, is it the luminous image glowing on my monitor, is it on my Flickr page which has received over 120,000 views and counting, is it on the outputs I did to proof the piece, or can it be said to exist on the canvas as it hangs on a wall?

The ephemerality of the digital realm is what makes categorization so difficult. Is digital painting outside of the metonymy of painting entirely? Is it in fact an entirely new form that needs a new name since it has hybridized so far beyond the traditional parameters of painting?

One of the other challenges of digital media is that it can look very different on a monitor than it does when output. The luminosity of the screen creates the reaction from the viewer that could be considered comparable to Benjamin’s investment of aura, the difficulty is to find an outputting process which shares the luminous dimensionality of the original.

There is also the pinch/ pull aspect of viewing a digital piece on the I-pad to be considered, which introduces a unique new way of experiencing artwork. As a digital painting must be quite large to produce a satisfactory output that will not be pixilated upon printing, the image contains a great deal of surface detail. Because of this, the viewer can change perspective on the piece going in for micro examination of details, or pulling out for a macro overview of the piece, and easily move back and forth between these viewpoints. In order for a viewer to have a similar experience viewing a traditional painting they would have to be able to levitate and look through walls.

The traditional gallery experience of the viewer is mediated by the curatorial conditions that have been set up for the placement of the piece. A personal experience that attests to the validity of this phenomena, is something I endeavor to do whenever I am in New York. When I visit to the Fricke museum in NYC (Fig. 1),

I always head directly to the portrait of Thomas More by Hans Holbein (Fig. 2).

The technique in the painting is superlative, and it is one of the finest examples of oil painting virtuosity I have seen. As such I get in very close to observe the fine details; from the lustrous sheen of the crimson velvet sleeves to the stubble on More’s chin, Holbein’s skill is breathtaking. Sometimes I am cautioned by a guard not to stand too close and I step back, but like a moth I am repeatedly drawn to that amazing surface. I marvel at how Holbein managed to create that piece and I look for clues to his technique.

Interesting to note in terms of in situ observation is the placement of Thomas Cromwell (Fig. 3),

More Cromwell

Also by Holbein, on the other side of Mr. Fricke’s fireplace. Cromwell damned More by providing false witness during his trial for treason, a trial brought on by More’s refusal to aknowledge the validity of the marriage of Henry the 8th to Anne Boleyn. Perhaps this is conjecture on my part, but the pictorial handling of both seems to favour the personage of Moore, he is represented as thoughtful and bright and with great sensitivity, a man who would die before renouncing his principles, whereas Cromwell is depicted as squinting and seems to be evading the gaze of the viewer. And although the Fricke is now an art gallery that is open to the public, the essential quality of being in someone’s home can still be felt, and one can imagine Mr. Fricke re-enacting debates in his mind between these two old adversaries now hanging on either side of his grand fireplace. The viewing experience is enhanced by the luxurious surroundings of the private museum where the painting is hung, adding to the “aura” of the piece itself.

The opposite manifestation of the phenomena of the contextual investment of aura would have to be the experience of viewing Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre during peak tourist season (Fig. 4).

The relatively small size of the painting compounded by the overwhelming number of visitors jostling for a vantage point, as well as the thick slab of bulletproof glass in front of the piece, strips the artwork of any notion of “aura” that would be invested by in situ viewing (another experience I can personally attest to). In this scenario the accessible and personalizing experience normally provided by a gallery setting would in fact be created by viewing the reproduction on the internet, and not upon observation of the original painting (fig. 5).

Considering all of these ideas around what a digital painting can signify, and what the exhibition of a digital object can entail, I returned to my studio to begin the creative component of the research. I chose to re-work a digital painting I had in the studio: Abraham and Isaac/ from Tiepolo. Although the work had been exhibited before, I was not pleased with how different the output looked compared to what was shown on my monitor. The luminosity and depth were lost in translation from pixel to canvas. Some of the thematic areas I was exploring also did not seem to communicate in the final. I had chosen the Tiepolo as inspiration for three reasons: first, to try and replicate the rich depth and colour that was created solely through painterly illusionistic devices in the original (fig. 6),

secondly the cognitive scope of the Abraham and Isaac legend appeals to me in that is shared by Islam, Christianity and Judaism; the polytheistic universality of the image speaks to cultural commonalities in sects that are more often in opposition to each other (fig. 7),


and thirdly the meaning behind Abraham putting his spiritual beliefs before the welfare of his own child speaks to the schismatic family dynamics that queer youth often face when dealing with dogmatic ignorance within their own families.

In regards to surface treatment, the exhibition possibilities of the painting were limited by how the painting could be lit. When the painting was photographed side lit on a baroque background, it showed well, which was well suited to online Flickr exhibition (Fig. 8),

Abraham and Isaac 10" x 14"

however I wanted to rectify how the high-gloss varnish which normally imparts depth to a painting, instead created a glare and reduced visibility of the brushstrokes (Fig. 9),

Picture 2

To counteract this I worked on the canvas with oil paint and created a semi opaque surface treatment, leaving some of the shine of the original varnish intact (Fig. 10),

Picture 3

I was also able to more clearly render the figures of Abraham and Isaac (Fig. 11),and heighten the dramatic red of the angel’s cloak (Fig. 12).

Picture 4

The final piece showed a much richer depth, and had a stronger narrative focus after working up the figures (Fig. 13).

Picture 5

In conclusion, the research-led art process did lead to several discoveries for me as an artist: both in growth of my painterly skills, and in knowledge around the ontology of digital painting. Benjamin traces the development of contextual aspects of viewing a traditional painting which add to the experience of aura as it evolved from magical cult, through to the renaissance secular cult of beauty, and finally to the discourse around whether photography was in fact an artform. One of the key points regarding photography’s evolution in Benjamin’s thesis, was the failure to register the impact that photography was having on the entire process of art; instead the debate focused around the legitimacy of photography as an artform. This can be extrapolated to the future as anticipating the same changes the digital media is having now, whether or not digital painting is a valid artform or not is less of an issue than the fact that it is changing the process of what an artwork is; in regards to creation, observation, and dissemination. As Nick Peim states in his rereading of the Benjamin article that it “…announces a shift that means a change in the order of things far exceeding the aesthetic sphere. The work of art is resituated within a series of fields- the field of culture, of the political-in anticipation of a movement that sees these fields increasingly as implicated in dynamic relations of exchange” (Peim 2007: 374). Digital painting is an entirely new artform, and the changes it brings with remain to be seen. This research-led exploration has already had an impact on my own art practice, bringing many of my own prejudices against digital painting to the surface. I struggle with the kitsch factor of digital outputs stretched on frames, and with the validity of digital outputs as a distinct art piece. Re-working Abraham and Isaac from Tiepolo forced me to ponder some of the deeper questions I have about digital media. While I was working the surface of the canvas with oil paint, ideas for new research I could undertake in this area came to me, and I kept a notepad handy to jot them down. Further explorations in this will involve going deeper into the discourse around digital painting, and into contemporary philosophical landscape of digital art, as well as more studio exploration of hybrid oil/digital painting hybridization.

Appendix 1. Illustrations:
Fig. 1: The Frick Collection, NYC

Fig. 2: Hans Holbein, Portrait of Thomas More. 1527. Oil on Oak, 29.2” x 23”. The Frick Collection, New York.

Fig. 3: Hans Holbein, Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. 1532. Oil on Oak, 26” x 24”. The Frick Collection, New York http://www.daemonsdomain.com/2016/01/the-maven-daemon-takes-manhattan-part-ii.html. http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-XJG-8y4_LAU/VqSeDBSxsZI/AAAAAAAABK8/dfks8fLRVOY/s1600/More%2BCromwell.png

Fig. 4: Jonathon Jones, Tourists with Mona Lisa. 2009.

Fig. 5: Leonardo DaVinci, La Gioconda. 1503. Oil on Poplar, 30.2” in x 20.9”. La Musee du Louvre, Paris, France.

Fig. 6: Tiepolo, Abraham and Isaac. 1729. Ceiling fresco, 164’ in x 131’. Palazzo Patriarcale, Udine, Italy.

Fig. 7: Riza-i Abbasi, Abraham’s Sacrifice. 16th C. Qisas al-Anbiyya. http://www.tali-virtualmidrash.org.il/ArticleEng.aspx?art=6

Fig. 8: The image that is posted on my Flickr (@markoconnellstudio)

Fig. 9: How the painting appears in my studio, you can see where the gloss varnish has created a glare rather than adding the depth which varnish normally imparts to a canvas.

Fig. 10: The painting in studio: working on the surface with oil paint allows me to create a semi opaque surface treatment, leaving some of the shine of the original varnish intact.

Figs.11-12. The painting in studio: I am able to more clearly render the figures of Abraham and Isaac, and heighten the dramatic red of the angel’s cloak

Fig. 13: The finished piece on Feb. 12, 2015.

Barrett, Estelle, and Barbara Bolt, eds. Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Ib Tauris, 2014.

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Penguin UK, 2008.

Cole, Ardra L., and J. Gary Knowles. “Arts-informed Research.” Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research (2008): 55-70.

Cossentino, Jacqueline. “Importing Artistry: Further Lessons from the Design Studio.” Reflective Practice 3, no. 1 (2002): 39-52.
Finley, Susan. “Arts-Based Research.” Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research (2008): 71-81.

Peim, Nick. “Walter Benjamin in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Aura in Education: A Rereading of ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 41, no. 3 (2007): 363-380.

Ryan, Michael, and Dean Brough. “Reflections around Artefacts: Using a Deliberative Approach to Teaching Reflective Practices in Fashion Studies.” Journal of Learning Design 5.1 (2012): 1-11.
Smith, Hazel, and Roger T. Dean. “Introduction: Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice Towards the Iterative Cyclic Web.” Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Sontag, Susan. Against interpretation: And Other Essays. Macmillan, 1966.

———. “An argument about beauty.” Daedalus (2002): 21-26.

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