In Brilliant Color:
Some Thoughts on the Pedagogical Relationship Between Screen Time and Self Love
by Brooks Turner
In 1968, the Dutch government launched the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) with the stated goal of developing the definitive archive of information about this artist and his works. As a consequence of this project, dozens of paintings previously attributed to Rembrandt (and bearing his signature) were re-attributed to his students, some unknown. Charles Ray once remarked that it was ridiculous to carry out such a revision of history: Rembrandt’s students worked as tools in his studio, and it was Rembrandt’s quality control rather than his hand that produced the work of art. However, many of Rembrandt’s students became masters in their own right, independently contributing to what is now considered the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. It strikes me that neither the RRP’s nor Ray’s interpretation of the master-student relationship are true for their insistence on individuated singularity. What seems more true is that the relationship between master and student is a slippery mess of exchanged ideas, more an event in space-time, a network of people, places, and things that collectively produces objects. I do not intend to rupture the notion of authorship (if so, it would be disingenuous to sign my name at the top of this essay). Rather, I introduce these ideas as a preface for interpreting the works by Mathew Zefeldt and his student, Breck Hickman, in their concurrent exhibitions Screen Timeand Self Love. Zefeldt is not the master of the atelier tradition instructing Hickman in visual technique and style. Rather, their pedagogical relationship is felt in the overlapping strategies and structures of each exhibition.
Grids abound in the front room of Screen Time; each work is composed of either 9 or 16 repeated CGI screenshots painted nearly identically. The grids themselves become abstractions as the repeated images blur into each other. This occurs most strikingly in Fatality, where a right hand extending diagonally across each frame connects to the one above it, drawing fraying purple lines from bottom left to top right, across the painting. Like a fractal, the macro abstraction of the painting as a whole is formed of 16 representational parts, each of which devolve into their own pixelated abstraction of brush stroke after brush stroke.
Even though the imagery presented is computer generated, I cannot help but imagine Zefeldt painting. Each image in each of the 4X4 grid paintings is 9 inches by 12 inches, roughly the size of standard printer paper. Whether true or not, I imagine Zefeldt digitally composing the image, printing it out, gridding it, and then slowly translating it into paint on the surface of a canvas. The digital enters our world through the printer, but that digital reality is again transformed into a phenomenological vision wherein each painted image varies subtly, revealing the imperfection of the human hand, the ghost in the machine. Fittingly, the only work that breaks the gridded rubric is Info Wars, a painting of a digitized human hand repeating over and over to form a squiggle on a green canvas.
Hickman’s Self Lovepresents collaged narratives stemming from intimate moments of her life as a transwoman. The selfie has been criticized as a narcissistic distraction from living in the moment. But it is also a means of affirmation, of coming to terms with and celebrating the self. The beauty in Hickman’s paintings is how mundane they feel: a quick selfie in a bathroom, outlets plugged into a wall, a latch on a door, even the act of masturbating. These images are collaged and repeated both within individual paintings and across the greater body of work as a whole. Disembodied and enlarged rows of teeth arch across almost every canvas. Colors are heightened, contributing to what I can only describe as a jewelification of fragments of her life.
Even while the narratives present in Hickman’s paintings are deeply personal and individual, they reflect more generally on lived experience in a digitized world. Fragments of our lives constantly repeat as we review and curate our social media pages, look back on hundreds if not thousands of pictures stored in our pocket, or visit, both virtually and physically, the same places over and over. Memory is inherently fragmentary and arbitrary; we fixate on strange and mundane moments in our lives that seem meaningless but then fail to remember critical experiences. This is drawn out in I Love Myself Parts 1 and 2: rectangular fragments of moments in time and space, collaged in varying degrees of opacity, scale, and readability, build an open network of relations within one person’s life. What are any of us but a collection of fragments stitched together in brilliant color?
The strategy of using digital collage to collect and transform fragments of a world presents in both Screen Timeand Self Love, but Zefeldt is clearly the teacher here. Zefeldt’s application of this strategy is airtight in its poetic meanderings between digital experience, pixel, image, brushstroke, and abstraction—we play games or watch movies over and over again, the same pixels repeat on a screen, but our experience of them subtly shifts each time, becoming mental abstractions in the 5th dimensional field of the imagination. Hickman’s application of this strategy presents habitual and accidental repetitions of personal and private actions read as self-narrative that opens onto universal experiences of identity, sexuality, and digital culture. Here, Hickman embodies the exciting potential of being a student, the freedom to absorb from your teachers while simultaneously exerting your own individuality. As a teacher myself, I’ve come to believe that Socrates got it right: the role of the teacher is to ask questions, never to impose an answer. Questions lead to more questions as students first propose answers then begin to ask their own questions, forming something like a feedback loop. It was Hickman’s use of color that caused me to notice Zefeldt’s. Initially, I took his saturated tones to be representative of the CGI stylizations present in the original source material, but I began to question this assumption: was Zefeldt copying the color range, heightening the saturation, or inventing an entirely unique color palette? Are there other alterations Zefeldt has made between the screenshot and the finished painting? These minor questions remain unanswered for me, but the questioning is what matters.
—Brooks Turneris an artist, writer, and educator concerned primarily with our existential condition. His work has been exhibited nationally, including recent exhibitions at St. Mary’s University, Steve Turner Contemporary, and College of the Redwoods. He received his MFA in sculpture from UCLA in 2015 and currently adjuncts at St. Cloud State University.
by Christina Schmid
Reptilian green thumbs gouge empty eye sockets: not once, for some elusive-nostalgic shock value, but again and again, in a grid that repeats the gruesome scene in tile after carefully rendered tile. Mathew Zefeldt, the artist behind the paintings in “Screen Time,” has long combined an interest in the history of painting–think of skulls as ominous reminders of human mortality in vanitas paintings of old–with a taste for the imagery of video games. Add a dash of pop-art portraiture in the style of Andy Warhol’s screen-printed serial icons and you have arrived in “Screen Time:” a title that suggests both a cultural moment dubbed the Age of Screens and the time slated to be spent glued to glowing monitors, hooked on vicarious heroics and adventures by virtue of avatars.
The logic of screens plays a similarly prominent role in Breck Hickman’s paintings, collectively titled “Self Love.” Rather than fashioning a virtual alter ego through gaming, the emphasis here lies on loving an actual self, a body under constant careful construction and self-surveillance: plucked and shaved, prodded and aroused, this body-turned-image circulates via social media, in endless selfie streams curated for optimal angles and effects. The paintings condense and arrest the churn of online imagery into a multilayered frenzy that covers most of Hickman’s canvases. Much more disorienting than a cluttered desktop, the painterly collages are made up of fragments that cut and bleed into each other as if fighting for space, both mental and physical. Part suture, part threat, garlands of colorful teeth snake through the visual cacophony, as if the paintings were grappling with the latent violence of such image-making and consumption: to devour or be devoured is the question in the face of an ever-ravenous social media maw.
Both artists find ways to interrupt the seamless proliferation of digital imagery: Zefeldt’s portraits of the Terminator in Rise of the Machines (2017), Robocop in From Director Michael Bay (2017), or moments of pure game-gore (as in Eye Gougeand Eye Gouge II, both 2017), stop the plot and grid images into a controlled simultaneity. Only one painting,Info Wars(2017) suggests duration: multiples of a whitish-pink fist, its index finger accusingly extended to the upward left in a gesture familiar from certain political rallies, are staggered like dominos into a line that meanders across a green canvas. The shade is reminiscent of a green screen, a substrate for projection and manipulation, malleable, meme-ready. But like some alien tentacle, the fist-cum-finger-line splits and merges as it curves: whatever timeline it suggests is not linear.
Painting’s temporality has long been a source of fascination. Speaking on abstraction, Jan Verwoert has proposed that painting unfolds in “loopy” time: only a painting’s completion will explain its inception, which only then can be grasped truly for the first time. But the loopy non-linear time in Zefeldt’s “Screen Time” is of a different order, more indebted to gamer logic than hermeneutic circles. Levels repeat, time loops, until one variable, one weapon, one critical move, is adjusted in just the right way. And on we go to another level, steeped in the same logic of repetition until trial and error (or your friendly online gamer forum) yield a route onward and out. This is the temporality Hito Steyerl considers in Duty Free Art: the game loop as metaphor for stasis reconfigured as a state of permanent, manufactured crisis, more apt than ever to describe the times we live in. Zefeldt’s posthuman portraits, then, are a far cry from pop art’s logic of serial portraits-as-tribute, and an even farther cry from the democratic availability that Walter Benjamin tried hard to celebrate in the mechanically reproducible but aura-less image. The multiples pictured in “Screen Time” log repeat encounters, obsessive loops condensed into pure pattern void of progression and expression.
The artist himself plays at becoming machine-like: the painter as a human copy machine that mindlessly executes portrait after portrait in a quixotic pursuit of perfect similitude. But the body is an imperfect machine: It tires. Fingers cramp. Eyes grow bleary. So it comes as no surprise, perhaps, that “Screen Time” seems obsessed with vision: Sight is brutally obliterated in Eye Gouge(though painted in the Mortal Kombat’s X-Ray vision mode for a transparency that exceeds the naked eye’s capacity). Elsewhere, piercing red and icy blue pupils glow in robotic faces. Jet and Mountain (2018) suggests superior drone vision from up high. How curious, then, that rather than tempt us with the possibilities of posthuman vision, Zefeldt’s repetitions also read as a visual stutter, as if the painting were brought to you courtesy of a malfunctioning graphics card.
“Self Love” engages the temporality of digital visuality differently. Most of Hickman’s paintings feature a seemingly filter-less onslaught of visual information, quasi-schizophrenic in its all-at-once abundance. Dynamic multi-layered compositions seem to translate to canvas the gestures human bodies acquired to interact with screens: scrolling, swiping, surfing. Only two paintings focus on a single image: Mirror Selfie in the Hair & Nails bathroom (2018)situates the artist’s body in the gallery’s restroom, iphone at the ready, in hues of hot pink. The other, a small close-up view of four pills in the palm of a hand, is titled If you can’t make your own, store bought is fine (2019), an ode to the power of hormones. Together, the two paintings pause the flood of images long enough to insert an actual body as object and subject of “Self Love:” a queerly gendered body occasionally ill at ease in public bathrooms, as the narrative title North woods gas station bathrooms can be stressful after a weekend of camping (2018) makes clear. Thus real-life bathrooms as potential battlegrounds for the gender-queer and non-conforming stand in sharp contrast to the putative freedoms of the digital realm.
Yet what does freedom look like in the incessant stream social media? Aside from the detrimental effects on mental health shown to result from immersion in social media–the freedom to feel miserable?–screen logic insists on maintaining a body whose image is suitable for online circulation and consumption: a regimen of appearances must be maintained. And how easily the freedom to reveal all (or strategically withhold certain parts) morphs into the obligation to present forever curated, camera-ready lives! Is there freedom still in the borderline obsessive habit of documenting details of formerly private personal lives? Freedom in the discipline required in maintaining a properly calculated digital alter ego? “Self Love” brushes up against these questions: My Cat has no respect for privacy (2018) humorously negotiates failed bathroom solitude IRL, while the digital body-as-image eschews privacy altogether. “Self Love” ostensibly celebrates autoerotic pleasure, digitally recorded and transferred to paint. But the vaguely pornographic performance of arousal is more demonstrative than sensual. And don’t forget the teeth: like candy-colored dental records they hover in pink and blue and green, as if awaiting the perfect moment to sink into the alien flesh of painting.
“Screen Time” and “Self Love” make for a provocative pairing: both bodies of work hint at a violence domesticated, deferred, gamified, implied, or masked as wholesome hygiene. Both engage the curious and questionable democracy of the digital: endless substitution and complete replace-ability. Any one image really is as good as any other. The online image-flood claims the trite and transgressive alike. Thanks to Penelope Umbrico, we know we all love sunsets, posting sunsets online, and taking selfies in front of Flickr-sourced grids of sunsets. Some artists, like Hassan Elahi, have amplified the flood in order to weaponize it: more images can produce greater invisibility, which may mean more safety, normalization, assimilation: Just look at how profoundly boring I am. In “Self Love,” a body is a body is a body, genderqueer or not.
Zefeldt’s paintings rely on a similar demystification by repetition: the paintings show the face of the monster or the gruesome eye gouge over and over thus numbing the possible (though unlikely) shock value of an initial viewing. They also effectively undercut the classical horror film’s climactic moment of reveal that only ever follows the anticipatory suspense of the not-yet-seen but already sensed. Only one painting, Sandbags on Pallet (2018), conjures an ominous sense of the not-yet: the sandbags sit at the foot of some stairs, not yet arranged to brace against the rising water. There is no fighter jet here, no posthuman antagonist, no X-Ray vision eye gouge: just a pile of sandbags. And really, we should all be very scared of the coming flood.
It is these moments of slippage between virtual and actual that make “Screen Time” and “Self Love” exciting, taken together or viewed separately. Though Zefeldt’s compositions rely so heavily on the grid, the paintings gesture off the grid: when a screenshot of a video-game landscape evokes meanings in excess of what is pictured; when the body-as-painting-machine becomes as posthuman as the cyborgs and robots pictured. And how is the experience of an actual flesh and blood body altered by being extended into the cloud? The self to be loved is in excess of its physical container, constantly connected to servers and satellites, LCD displays and motherboards, never completely confined to the digital. The space in-between opens a dialogue on discipline and transgression, the multiple ways the posthuman body is already intimate with clouds and machines: screen love, screen logic.
—Christina Schmid thinks with art and writes as critical practice. Her essays and reviews have been published both online and in print, in anthologies, journals, artist books, exhibition catalogs, and digital platforms. She works at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Art in Minneapolis as an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Art and Social Practice.
BERLIN TOP TEN, 2018
by Sean Smuda
Meg Stuart, read the review in H+N #13!
The week after I saw that show, I took Movement Research with Jan Burkhardt at Tanzfabrik. It was amazing as he narrated, guided, prodded and pushed us through BMC, CI, Yoga, and other movements that define the body, brain, and spirit. Afterwards I thanked him and told him how excited I was about dance here and Stuart’s piece. He replied that his partner was in it and suggested that I send the review to the company. I did and they liked it! Since he splits teaching with her, Segal, Life into Art into Life has manifested full circle. She said my dancing was beautiful, now I can die.
Hamburger Banhoff Museum
28.04 – 26.08, 2018
This was exactly what I needed while I was in the Saas-Fee Institute this July. The Banhoff’s reckoning with colonial and political attitudes in its collection provided deep background against the SFI’s hyper-narrative of “Art and Poetic Praxis in Cognitive Capitalism”. In the back of the H.B.’s vast Agora was an old-school Duane Hanson, “Policeman and Rioter” (1967). Prescient of the Eighties’ CIA-engineered Crack wars, the sculpture’s Black protestor being beaten by a Black cop was a universally depressing un-mixed-metaphor of all violence being against one’s own. The work was an exclamation point to Alfredo Jaar’s neon of refugee migratory patterns and Siah Armjani’s two-story precarity housing. Despite having thirty students from all over the planet, the SFI rarely talked politics, which we groused about as Brazil’s elections ground to a head. In the Banhoff, art, theory, and politics intermingled: recordings of Benjamin Britten playing Gamelan on piano, Artaud on the inseparability of Art and Life, and the paintings of I. Made Budi. One of his works wielded the dense patterns of Indonesian tradition and had the jungle swallow a Dutch war plane in 1946 as Puputan (suicidal honor war) was fought against them. This fed directly into a close-reading of a Margaret Mead text on Bali lead by Tino Sehgal at the SFI. Our discussion of tradition and expression called to mind the Dakota and Sam Durant’s Scaffold. At what point(s) do we honor and break with tradition? This was answered in a later SFI lecture in which philosopher Yuk Hui spoke on Heidegger’s “End of Philosophy” and its giving way to Techné (making) as a living global philosophy.
Shout out to Hannah Black’s show Aeter, 26.01.18 – 02.02.19, at Isabella Bortolozzi’s EDEN EDEN project space. Best party of last year, with Black’s work energizing from the basement up in a pagan-soap-opera-shrine-way (minus points for a zero-bass sound system).
Doro Aaltenberg (the Warhol of Schöneberg)’s sweet little collection (full disclosure – which I helped hang). It features Rosemarie Tröckel and the wryly multi-pronged Jürgens Stollhans. His work comically mashes new and old such as: a rocket car in a coliseum, a flaming paper Polish tank, and a glow-in-the-dark ghost. Jürgen’s concepted and mortared laughs explode frontiers of the ingrained.
Had a non-stop sneezing reaction to Jörg Herold’s “Absolutes Numinosum” (an industrial/religious installation at Eigen+Art) and had to go sit by the window. There, I paged through more Neo Rauch catalogs than I knew existed and deepened my appreciation for the painter’s stage craft and mass-produced ideo-mythological Schmoos. I wistfully remembered seeing them in Berlin when there weren’t several zeros added to their then impressive $25K a pop. Finally, the Leipziger gallerist came up to me and said that they still talk.
Daniel Seiple’s “Making Waves” is a project that invites refugees to build a motor yacht from scratch. Berlin has more waterways to the kilometer than Amsterdam and this hits right at its heart. I visited the workshop of Syrian refugees working on the twenty-seven-foot boat and felt a bond as we talked about being displaced and learning German. They sell hand-crafted model replicas to advance its cause, such as the Italian WW2 dynamite-filled suicide speedboat with last-minute ejector seat. En garde Venice Biennale!
Wild, Wild, Country (Netflix documentary). There is a huge connection between Germany and Oregon, and it is about Free Love and sticking it to the Man. Suspiria-liciously, most of my family moved to Oregon years ago.
Stu Mead is a living treasure and has been in Berlin for over fifteen years, even though he sells better to the French! The artist’s sci-fi-50’s-porn-romance from a post-Catholic demented dimension is as prickly piquant as ever. Lookout for his solo show in NYC at the Fortnight Institute, March 28 – April 26, 2019.
Lee Bul, Crash, November 13, 2018 – January 15, 2019 at Martin Gropius Bau dissipates a bit over its massive scale but has a crucial foundation. Growing up in an activist family that was consigned to continually relocate on the outskirts of Seoul by the government, she developed a sci-fi feminist strategy and had her first performances on sidewalks in alien costumes. ‘Nuff said!
Teufelsberg. The only Berliner that I knew before coming here ended up having his studio upstairs from mine. Sebastian also runs the Autonomous Systems Laboratory in the former American spy-station built on a 300-meter-deep pile of WW2 rubble, under which are the ruins of Hitler’s Weapons University. Ghost emails and exorcisms abound.
Adéla Součková at the National Gallery in Prague for the Jindřich Chalupecký Award. “I can hardly lift this thing it’s so damn heavy, and I can barely see out of this mask, let’s set it down again! Not here, the urine’s too much! This thing looks like a Chernobyl core. That homeless guy just saw us and crossed himself. I thought we weren’t including the church!” The first part of Adela’s performance score was for the performers and the public was not invited. One hundred fifty-five pounds of clay from the river Vitava was carried in the dark, through underpasses, to the Gallery. It lay on a human-sized stretcher and burdened four performers who didn’t know each other. We wore masks that signaled body organs, and in the end made it into a yurt where we sculpted sculptors sculpted.
—Sean Smuda’s new book Universal Capital is available through www.thisisbeyondrepair.com. Ask to peruse KVL’s copy!