Observant

Observant
4/10/2008


OBSERVANT 
May 6- June 25th 
ISE Foundation Gallery, New York, NY 

Curated by Vicki Sher 

Artists: Cynthia Lin, Chris Doyle, Molly Springfield, Paolo Arao, Jenny Dubnau, Mike Bayne, and David Clarkson. 


"The attempt to create beauty as perfectly as possible has led these artists to emphasize craft -- not at the expense of vision, but as its instrument…. superior craft intensifies sight so that it becomes insight…” 
Donald Kuspit., 1999, when describing the New Old Masterism 

“Once upon a time,-but really, ineveryplace and in every time, art was religious” 
James Elkins (from The Stange Place of Religion in Contemporary art”) 

“Religion is Bullshit” 
George Carlin, (and Others) 



The artists participating in OBSERVANT turn masterful technique toward a new source material: the digitalized image. They all possess brilliant technical skills and a steadfast belief that reproducing the seen world faithfully will provide insights into that world. 

It is an act of faith for an artist to reproduce a photograph. Here, looking is done with devotion, done methodically, or even a version of religious seriousness, but the result approaches something very opposite to religion. The artists are "observant" and "extremist" in their meticulousness but, despite the religious fervor that those words possibly bring to mind, they offer a decidedly undogmatic course: fidelity to visual fact, specifically, digitalized visual facts. 

The power of an attentive hand is ages old, but here has a peculiar contemporariness. These images not only represent our world as it looks today, but also reflect our current technological tools for image-gathering and our specific ways of combining old and new. How we see has changed as much as what we see, so even the basic art tools (pencil, oil paint) have new jobs to do to reestablish their validity. 

These artists aim for precision, in a struggle to find a language with which to describe and explain, in all its complicated particularity, the world around them. They take on their subjects with scientific eyes. In all these cases, a technological support underlies the work but, paradoxically, the support is subverted in the end. The computer, the scanner or digital camera speed our fluency with pictures, but these artists take opportunities to slow things down and re-assert the human pace and thus human comfort with slower absorption. In doing so they posit that without full absorption, there is no meaning, or a diminished return from “just looking.” Translating a photo to drawing, Xerox to paint, etc., re-invigorates the image and at the same time demands of the viewer an act of concentration whose reward is a startling intimacy. 


Cynthia Lin’s drawings of skin are based on “unforgivingly revealing computer-scanned images.” Lin credits technology as an enabler for her work, but stresses her involvement as an agent of discovery. For her, re-drawing these images is meant to slow down observation and accentuate the meaning that comes from the experience of looking. Her obsessive effort, drawing every line of hair and pore of skin nears photographic accuracy, but Lin’s hand gives the viewer reason to linger and observe, with new care, this carefully observed piece of the body. 

Like Lin, Molly Springfield, uses scanned images. Springfield makes drawings of texts, specifically those that mark a period of change in our relationship to images, such as books about new photographic technology from the 1830’s or articles about strategies of conceptual art in the 1960’s. Her labor-intensive drawings carefully duplicate the words used to describe pictures, but in the selection of the page, and by including the surrounding grey smudge of the scanner we are left to appreciate the piece formally, with intellectual detachment, and aesthetic priorities. In the end, the viewer is careful to appreciate the pencil line and the artist herself as an attentive and equal participant in the conversation she describes. 

Chris Doyle’s work is about doing things the hard way. Doyle’s images are about looking at looking as he paints images from the videotaping of events. Image-making involves equipment and technique, but is in the end a profoundly human exercise of self-expression and story-telling, and re-making and re-telling and re-expressing, offers a slowed down, clunky insistence that things not be glossed-over, even if experienced in digital. The expert rendering in these watercolors does not detract from the personal narrative being described, which offers a sweet reward in the end. 

Mike Bayne’s photo-realist paintings of the Canadian winter are banking on the transformative power of close observation. Although his selection of subjects conveys an awareness of quiet desolation, his paintings allow the viewer to stray from merely marveling at his technical prowess to the places themselves, and thereby connect to the artist through shared feelings of isolation and a common belief in the artist’s ability to confront the world. 

Paolo Arao’s charcoal drawings acknowledge a pleasure in surfing the internet for a collection of images that reflect personal and intimate narratives. The careful reconstruction of the digital image into a sensuous and velvety charcoal drawing is an argument for the superiority of man over machine. By selecting images with a conspicuous poignancy and drama, Arao rescues them from a sterile medium and changes the passive viewing of found imagery into a significant activity of personal appropriation and self-expression. 

Jenny Dubnau attempts to explore the intersection between photography and the realist tradition in portraiture. Dubnau is interested the way a photograph can freeze an in-between moment in time such as a transitional facial expression, or show true harshness or mortality. Dubnau owes a debt to the centuries-old strain of realist portraiture, but allows photographic references to remain overt in the paintings so as to create a necessary sense of distance in the work.