On Digital Art

From an interview published on the Hundred In The Hand blog
—September 14, 2011

A commenter online recently wrote that I am more of a, “con artist than a real artisan”; this was in response to a particular series of digital works I produced called Nocturne. That person, I think, had such an aversion to the digital medium that s/he felt ‘lied-to’ and, even worse, ‘robbed’ of something deeply valuable and personal when s/he viewed some of my digital work. I think that statement was meant to be scathing and demeaning, but I find it quite apropos and honest. Digital manipulation is all around us: in advertisements, where models are brushed to perfection; in the movie theater, where impossible action comes to ‘life’; in the increasing distrust people have for digital photography, through which anyone can alter anything and present it like a reflection of reality. No wonder folks feel lied-to.

Nocturne 101 (c-print, 2011), view the full series

Despite these perils, I think computers have a profound place in the visual arts (e.g. graphic design has never been richer than it is at this moment). I think some viewers—like the angry soul mentioned above—will miss the ironic or subversive use of digital manipulation in art like mine. I'm both using it to serve my concept (which is, at its core, a critique of reproduction, a critique of digitalism) and I'm also using the digital medium because I cherish it (I gravitate to the freedom of expression it provides). One can do so much with computers, even mimic painting techniques to the point that you'll be called a “con artist” because the viewer feels tricked. The works from my Nocturne series, for example, are meant to question tradition, to question the literal objectness of artwork (why we collect it, why we hang it, why we admire it for its decorative and aesthetic qualities), to question art historical motifs (through the juxtaposition of realism and illusion, or trompe l'oeil), and to question the concept of the “original” versus the reproduction.

With the Nocturne images I've appropriated a digital reproduction that imitates the original painting, and I've digitally deconstructed it through imitations of decay and overpainting. Have I offended the original? Or have I offended the lie of the reproduction? At what point does the image become a “con”? Shouldn’t we consider the moment its reproduction is created and used in its place? Or maybe the “con” begins with the first artist as he attempts to capture the likeness of his or her sitter onto a canvas? And because my work is digital in derivation, where is its original? Is it the computer file? The Nocturne works feature the digital simulation of dripping paint and I've spent years observing how paint drips down a canvas; are those long-gone drips the originals? Or is the intangible concept of the artwork the “original” content? If so, does that concept exist in my (the artist’s) mind, or the viewer’s mind? Is it important to have definitive answers to questions like these?

—Chad Wys