Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review of Russell Croop's "Painting through a Keyhole: The iPhone as Canvas" at The Dairy Center for the Arts

The most intriguing aspect of Russell Croop's "Painting through a Keyhole: The iPhone as Canvas" exhibition is that at first glance one perceives them to be paintings on canvas. Then we might think they are photographs. Upon a closer inspection, however, we soon realize that we have no idea what they are- but yes these are digital somethings. It is truly unknown until you read to see how they were made.

Russell Croop is a photographer. These are not photographs captured with a camera, but they are made up of pixels. They are not paintings painted with a brush, but they are printed on canvas. No paint is used. The compositions feel like photographs. There is no lens. Confused? Good. So are we.

The easy answer is that Croop paints with his finger on his iPhone using applications (software) such as NetSketch and Brushes. These images are not photographic in any way, but Croop is a photographer. He then outputs (prints) them onto canvas. For display purposes they are stretched on stretcher bars much like a traditional painting.

The reality is a bit more complex. One of his pieces, My Living Room, has 40,090 "brushstrokes." A brushstroke in this case would more accurately be described as a finger stroke. It is what one would normally call a virtual painting, but now that the final piece is printed onto canvas it is no longer virtual, it is.

The big question that this brings up, the elephant in the room, is what form of art is it? I believe most viewers would say that it is a closer relative to a painting than a photograph. So, how could anyone say that they are photographic? Well, all of the technology used in the creation and output of these art works are technologies coming out of current digital photographic tools and more importantly- they feel photographic. The compositions themselves are photographic in nature. In fact, Croop makes most of his images by bringing up photographs onto his computer screen and then sketches them out on his iPhone. That is, his source material is not found in nature, but is in fact a representation of nature he previously captured with his camera. Notice that for a lack of a distinct art form to pigeon hole this work into- we are saying it is a bit like photography and a bit like painting. It has brushstrokes, but it also has pixels.

The interesting thing here is that there is a new technology that allows for a new art that does not fit into any classical art form tradition. It most assuredly shares a lot of mark making that we attribute to painting, but it still feel like a digital photograph. Things that feel digital in this way are more typical of Photoshop filters than brushstrokes. Technically the reason they feel digital is the lack of blending that you would typically get from an actual painting. These pieces are reminiscent of a paint-by-numbers, if they were to be judged as paintings. If you recall paint by numbers images that you made when you were 12 years old, they had a distinct look because each color did not blend in to its neighbor. Each painted section was a pure color that sat next to another small section of a different pure color. These dots and swaths of distinct and separate color is what makes these Croop pieces feel digital.

More importantly, it is the mind of the image maker that makes them feel photographic. What I mean by the mind of the image maker, is that Croop is a trained photographer. He has a peculiar way of seeing that is though a lens. As such, even when he is not using a lens to capture an image- they feel like photographs. The compositions come at us in such a way that they feel posed and composed. You take the camera away from the photographer, but you can't take the mindset of a photographer away from his art.

The fun part of this is that it is new! So, we are drawing on our collective past for words and parallels to describe it. In the end, the images feel like photographs in composition, expression and technical nuance. And, what better way to judge art, but to express how they feel. Given this and the fact that there is no other art term for them, why not call them photographs?