“People keep coming at me with the question, is it a painting or is it a photograph? Technically it’s a photograph. It’s a photograph because it’s photographic paper. But obviously I think about them as paintings, because they refer to the history of painting, right? I also have to think about them as sculptures, because every part of the process is part of the project. They’re sculptures because they play on the idea of what should be hanging in a gallery. In that sense they’re also kind of ready-mades….They’re uniques.”(Cory Arcangel in conversation with Mary Heilmann: Interview, April 2011, online). In this emphasis on sculpture, in particular in emphasising the building blocks of printing and the photographic process, the Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations finds commonality with Wolfgang Tillmans' acclaimed body of work, the Freischwimmer series. Both executed without a camera or a negative, both a photographic response to abstraction, both a rebuff to photography’s inherent empiricism, these two series stand at the pinnacle of contemporary photography today.
From the legacy of post-war abstraction in America to the conceptual principles of the Dada movement, Arcangel creates deep intellectual and visual underpinnings to the series. These works translate the legacies of Rothko and Newman into pixels, feeding their pictorial inventions into complex systems of computational programming. They stake technology’s power to perfect colour gradation better than any painter could. With their instructive titles – that allow anyone to remake these works – they remind us of Rudolf Stingels now-seminal Instructions from 1989. Entirely reproducible, yet definitively unique, they run the gambit of conceptual art from Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree from 1973 to the instruction-based practice of Sol Lewitt. The DIY nature of the series, though Arcangel is aware that he “like[s] to play it up” (Ibid.), speaks forcefully to democratisation inherent in technology and the power of an open-source culture while raising issues regarding authenticity, ownership and the value of reproduction.
A practice that engages with the spectrum of the Information age, Cory Arcangel’s work unites the ever-changing visual language of technology with intellectual and conceptual structures developed through art history. By uniting these two seemingly disparate forces together, Arcangel forces us to reinterpret our own ideas about the time we live in, and the inevitable link between art, its history and legacy, and the rapidly-changing array of tools available in the age of technological advance. As the curator of his landmark solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2011, Christine Paul noted - “Arcangel’s product demonstrations ultimately do not evaluate technology itself but the human perspective on it – the ways which we play with tools to engage the world” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools, 2011, p. 1). The unexpected similarities that Arcangel fosters –here between the colour field painters and Adobe Photoshop – present an optimistic hope for the future in the wake of an increasing sentiment that technology reduces, limits and deskills traditional art making processes.
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