New Talent: 5 Painters Inspired by Digital Mediums

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BY SHANTI ESCALANTE-DE MATTEIPlus Icon

September 22, 2021 8:00am

Mike Lee
Mike Lee, Mother and Daughter, 2021MIKE LEE

Whether it’s the crude, flat lines of Microsoft Paint or the clay-like forms made in 3D rendering software programs like Rhino, the digital age has produced a number of fascinating textures, vocabularies, and styles for traditional artists to play with. In 2016, Museum Brandhorst hosted an exhibition on that demonstrated as much titled “Painting 2.0: Expression in the Digital Age.” Curated by Achim Hochdörfer, David Joselit, Manuela Ammer, and Tonio Kröner, the show was a monumental effort to track the productive influence of digital technology on painting, refuting the then-common hypothesis that the Internet had “killed” the medium. Much has changed since then, and a new, very online generation of painters has appropriated the styles of digital softwares to incredible effect. These painters have been a constant witness to digital media’s rapid cycle of creation and obsolescence. And in a sense, their work functions a type of record-keeping, preserving immaterial styles lost to the perpetual updates. 

Gao Hang
Photo : Gao Hang

The Houston-based painter mimics the raw and awkward qualities of 21th century computer game graphics. In his paintings, he recreates the odd flatness of old video games. In its infancy, the medium clumsily tackled the the representation of 3D forms on a 2D surface. In some portraits, airbrushed facial features appear wrapped around crisply geometric forms, and Hang even recreates the glitches that bring digitized characters into odd spatial tensions as his awkward characters stand near each other. In Hang’s hands, these strange figurations bring into stark relief our own awkward and intense relations. “I understand digital graphics as 21st century ‘found objects,’” Hang wrote in an email. “I am interested in objects that are bathing in modern technology’s greatness, while exposing a certain rawness, oddity, or awkwardness.” Hang’s solo show “A Little Bit Wrong” opens at The Waluso Gallery in London on November 2nd.2

Emma Safir

Emma Safir

Photo : Emma Safir

In Emma Safir’s recent series “Raising Glitches” the wavy textures of a screen (one that that often appears when trying to, say, photograph a meme on your desktop with your phone) are printed so up-close it’s almost difficult to recognize what they are, unless viewed a few steps back. The multimedia works also incorporate photographs that are plastered or printed onto, then loosely ruched or pasted on the walls behind the works. Her transfer of images across dimensions and mediums represents the incredible mobility of images in the digital age.3

Mike Lee

Mike Lee

Photo : Mike Lee

Earlier in Lee’s career, his grayscale paintings were populated with rounded figures who recalled the ubiquitous friendly and benign figures of millennial commercial graphic design, sometimes called “Corporate Memphis” and later immortalized by the “Corporate Art Style” meme. But in more recent paintings, the tell-tale signs of incomplete 3D renderings—overly defined lines, shaky, balloon-like forms built on top of each other, impossible lighting—have begun to appear in his still lives of lemons, vases, and other classical subjects and in his paintings of cowboys. His work is a wonderful proof of how digital styles can be incorporated into a painting practice without being pure mimicry. His paintings are on view at the ATM Gallery in New York through October 3rd.4

Maja Djordjevic

Maja Djordjevic 

Microsoft Paint was once the most ubiquitous digital medium out there. Freely available on library computers, its simple interface was kid friendly while also being full of potential as a more sophisticated tool. As it has become less freely available, made nearly obsolete, the markers of its interface provoke strong nostalgia. In Maja Djordjevic’s work she not only mimics the pixelated lines of MS Paint but the childlike style that she and so many others digitally painted in. The Serbian-born artist subverts the innocence of the style to depict naked women taking mirror selfies while drinking a glass of wine, or lying on tables, hills, or the roofs of houses. The women toggle between smiling and O-shaped mouths, either screaming, shocked, or in awe.5

Emma Stern

emma stern

Photo : Almine Rech

Perhaps while pirating a TV show you’ve had to look askance as dirty advertisements pop up in the sidebar. They often depict a 3D rendered woman, or elf-girl, in some compromising position. These women are Emma Stern’s subject: the impossibly large-breasted sexualized objects littered throughout the internet and video games. The Brooklyn-based artist revives this symbolic woman in weird scenes enveloped in bisexual lighting: neon pink, blue, and purple lighting swirl together to create an affect that resembles the bisexual flag. The women are gray forms that look rendered and polished but also unfinished, as they lack color. Despite this blank slate, their overexploited forms are all too familiar.

In Stern’s paintings, we rediscover this digital woman in scenes of real-female vulnerability: waiting for a ride on the edge of a road or drinking too much alone at an empty tavern. By placing her avatars in these fraught scenes, Stern collapses the digital and IRL woman to haunting effect as desires are made embarrassingly clear.

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