Updated: Nov 6, 2020
The directive for my first undergraduate painting class was a familiar one: We were to leave our computers and cell phones at home, and learn about painting from the painting itself.
This is how we began to understand works of art; by spending time looking at them in person. With my face mere inches away from specific works, I learnt to trace the physical evolution of paintings: Smooth cotton duck wrapped around hand-built poplar stretcher bars; pigment, turpentine and linseed oil dragged over rabbit skin glue sizing; disobedient brush hairs caught between agitated brushstrokes layered over one another in broken sheets of diminishing opacity. The timeless importance of direct observation was emphasized by artist Frank Stella in his 1959 lecture at Pratt Institute, in which he stressed “how important it is, if you are interested at all in painting, to look and to look a great deal at painting. There is no other way to find out about painting.” Aside from creative makers themselves, those who view art in person are thought to be greatly impacted by the ‘aura’ of the original as described by German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
With myriad eminent voices echoing one another on the impact of viewing works of art directly, what, then, is the value of a brick-and-mortar art museum or gallery when the opportunity to ruminate before works of art in person is no longer a service that they can viably offer?
With the nation-wide closures necessitated by the novel coronavirus, many of South Florida’s art museums and galleries embarked upon a concomitant novel venture: providing safe access to their exhibitions and collections by way of virtual tours, 360° video, and omnidirectional photography. This was a new experience for many institutions and arts administrators - myself included. However, the idea of #MuseumAtHome is in no way specific to 2020, and the value of this alternative viewing experience cannot be attributed to novelty alone since the concept of the virtual exhibition and, in fact, the virtual museum is one that has been comprehensively explored for over thirty years.
In 1995, The Louvre released its first virtual tour via a CD-ROM entitled Le Louvre: The Palace & Its Paintings - complete with high resolution images for 100 masterworks, audio commentary, and an alarmingly crisp zoom functionality. Only four years later, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum commissioned New York architecture firm Asymptote to build a three-dimensional Virtual Museum to house computer-based works of art. High definition virtual tours have long since been a regular feature on the websites of the British Museum in London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Whether applied in virtual tours or presented as works of art in their own right, digital technologies in art institutions have ranged variably from the supplemental gimmick to blockbuster multimedia exhibitions that travel the globe today: Yayoi Kusama’s meditative Infinity Mirror Rooms; immersive worlds by Japanese art collective teamLab; Culturespaces’ spectacular digitally projected Van Gogh exhibitions; and many more. The key element in these digital productions is the same as that of any work in any art institution: the authentic voice, aesthetic, and conceptual integrity of the artist(s), and the transformative experience that this can yield.
Keeping intact the original goals of represented artists is at the forefront of The Frank’s upcoming virtual exhibition Biological Futurism. With digital artist and Director of Interactive Initiative Samuel Lopez De Victoria as co-curator, The Frank has deployed animation, 3D renderings and 360° photography to create simulations based upon each artists’ drawings, paintings, models and sculptures. The resultant works have no identical physical equivalent. We envision ways in which virtual technologies can provide an additional avenue of expression for our featured artists - not by way of replicating or replacing an original art object, but by digitally generating immaterial originals that further the thesis of each maker.
In our virtual space, artists are no longer restricted by constraints such as studio size, material limitations, lack of time, or oppressive production costs. Judith Berk King’s imagined organisms are set free from the boundaries of the picture plane; they now ‘live’ within a habitat comprised of monumental cellular forms designed by London-based computational artist and mathematician, Andy Lomas. We push the urgent, confrontational nature of Gretchen Scharnagl’s paintings by converting them to 3D rooms; viewers will find themselves literally enveloped by her illustrative symbols that address topics of climate change and extinction. San Francisco artist Lisa McCutcheon’s feathery collages become layered components appliquéd together in expansive murals. Via subtle optical illusion, we activate the tension between Georgeta Fondos’ rolling strands of back-lit, singed textiles. Independent of gallery walls, Lisa Haque’s delicate, hand-made paper forms are transfigured into their own supports as coral-like structures.
Do these virtual works of art function as representational reactions - effective digital responses to the artists’ intentions, virtual solutions for that which their work has not yet achieved in its current physical state? I welcome you to be the judge. Our overarching hope is that this exhibition succeeds, not because of faux novelty associated with its virtual construction, but by achieving the same goal as that of a traditional exhibition: the goal of instigating an earnest dialogue and offering our viewers a transformative experience through access to extraordinary works of art. By reorienting digital and virtual technologies as medium rather than subject matter, virtual exhibitions are well poised to deliver content-rich, artist-driven experiences to an exceptionally broad public.
The Frank C. Ortis Art Gallery and The City of Pembroke Pines present ‘Biological Futurism,’ a virtual exhibition that debuts on November 5, 2020, at The Frank (The Frank C. Ortis Art Gallery - The City of Pembroke Pines)
Curated by Taryn Möller Nicoll, Chief Curator of The Frank, and Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Director of Interactive Initiative.