Mathew J Zefeldt
Through my painting practice, I utilize traditional strategies in the history of painting to capture and question the contemporary emergence of screen culture. The solvency of digital media and technology in our everyday navigation and interpretation of the world has opened up a new set of aesthetic principles and possibilities. Gridded desktop layouts, multiple open windows, 8-bit forms, low-resolution photographs, video game architecture, and big-budget CGI graphics are my reference materials, while software operations such as rotate, zoom in, zoom out, copy, cut, paste, stretch, skew, transform, tile, and multiplication are parts of my gestural tool kit. Through paintings on canvas and immersive painted installations, I explore the new vistas technology has opened up for painting. Since 2012, I have been invested in the relationship between still life and the digital space of a computer’s desktop. Organizing objects on a table to create a still life is analogous to the act of dragging icons and windows around the two-dimensional plane of a digital screen and dropping them into place. Several groups of my paintings over the last six years employ this “drag-and-drop” aesthetic to create still lifes of windows and icons, sometimes organized, sometimes gridded, sometimes overflowing and chaotic. In my 2016 exhibition Desktop at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, I made painted sculptural representations of flat background objects from video games. A barrel and a column were taken from the virtual space of a video game and brought into physical space as pixelated “prop” paintings on freestanding wood structures. The exhibition also included trompe l’oeil paintings of doors from video games, in which the image of a door inhabits the entire picture plane, denying the idea of painting-as-window and emphasizing instead the objectness of paint on stretched canvas. Here, virtual items became objects rather than illusions. The same year at Circuit 12 Contemporary in Dallas, I exhibited a series of paintings containing the image of a Marble Head from a Herm in various forms. I filled one wall with a mural of the Roman bust, then reflected, stretched, and pixelated the image onto the floor through the arrangement of different tonal values of floor tiles. The subject of the exhibition become the ground on which the viewer must stand in order to see the easel paintings. More recently, I have turned my attention to computer generated imagery and virtual plein air painting. I begin by taking screenshots while watching CGI scenes in movies and playing open world video games. A single image is selected and repeatedly painted in a grid on a canvas, sometimes twice and sometimes as much as 25 times. Each representation appears identical, but up close the brushstrokes give way to subtle variation and a warmth of painterly gesture. Conversely, to relax your eye at a distance, the grid of images reference stereograms, where the representations collapse at their boundaries into kaleidoscopic, patterned abstractions. In two recent exhibitions—Hunter/Killer at Big Pictures LA in Los Angeles and Customizable Realities at The Hole in New York—I covered the walls and floor of each gallery in paintings and murals, creating an immersive space that addressed the slippery duality of living between virtual and physical realities. Like Monet in 1877 painting train stations—the new technology changing his culture—for Hunter/Killer, I painted both the new technology of CGI through repeated portraits of the CGI terminator from Terminator: Genisys (2015), and more broadly, our current fear of the proliferation of artificial intelligence. For Customizable Realities, I gathered my source images while playing Grand Theft Auto V (2013), seeking out and screenshotting moments that appealed to me, similar to the motivation of a painter who seeks out a spot in a landscape to paint. The content of these paintings is as varied as the experiences your avatar can participate in. I am focused on the simulation, or parallel reality of the open world video game through painting. Our aesthetic sensibilities as a culture are shaped by the worlds we inhabit. The digital world is changing the way we see and think as we engage more and more with computers, smart phones, social media, video games, augmented reality, and virtual reality. Repetition is a critical aspect of the aesthetics of digital culture: we play the same games, watch the same movies, use the same emojis, click the same icons. But even in these repetitions, our experiences shift subtly each time, becoming new memories and sensations. My aim is to capture the aesthetics of screen culture while questioning the ontology of images and the painted object within an increasingly virtual world.