Works from The Human Entropy Project by David O’Brien as part of Pixilated Drift tell us quite a bit about the human condition in the era of social networking. I expect O’Brien never lived in a world without the Internet, and in his work he attempts to capture the visceral connection to technology that’s the lived experience of the post-Internet generation.
O’Brien paints with bodies. That may sound a bit strange, but it’s true. From a distance his work could be mistaken for abstract painting: large forms dominate the surface, intersected with scattered multicolored brushstrokes. Walk a few feet closer and it’s apparent that the seemingly solid forms aren’t solid at all. They have a powdery quality, similar to particle effects. Stand closer and the revelation of his work hits you. This isn’t paint; it’s digital manipulation. We’re looking at a cascade of thousands of figures leaping, dancing, wildly gesticulating with arms outstretched, massively multiplied and meticulously, obsessively collaged to form the lines and shapes that make up the distant view. O’Brien says that all the characters are friends or friends-of-friends, photographed by him, and juxtaposed in relation to their corresponding connections and friendships in his own social network.
I like the phantasmagorical qualities of O’Brien’s work. These are pictures gone wrong, a slippage in data flow where the imagery is starting to self-replicate, the pixels leaking out into glitch. In Friendship Drawing #Q, duplicated figures form staggered bands of zigzagging color that amass into a fluid, woven architecture. At certain points this dissipates into a powdery mass of swarming bodies. It’s a stunning effect. In Protein the powdery ground plane (populated with tiny figures) resembles a cosmos. The figures aggregate into radiating chains as if bonding together to form constellations, or social networks. The works are beautiful data visualizations of our new social ecologies.
Walking closer to the works is an odd shift, and ultimately the close-up view disappoints. The personas O’Brien creates are strangely comical. Mostly young hipsters, the colorfully dressed characters are captured in motion, leaping in the air. Influenced by photographer Philippe Halsman’s Jump series, O’Brien says that by photographing his subjects this way he wants to create a suspended moment, capturing a more natural facial and bodily expression. Yet the effect of en-masse wild gesticulation, flailing limbs and open mouths is more like a giant dance-party. I can see how within the social network O’Brien is referencing this might tell us something about online personas as a social performance, but going from work to work the range of characters, gestures and emotions is quite uniform, creating a leveling effect. If a wider cross-section of humanity and emotion was represented the effect might be more compelling. But compared to the complexity enjoyed from further away, the close-up experience somewhat closes the work down.
The show benefits from the juxtaposition of O’Brien with video artist Andrew Benson, whose glitched-out video self-portraits are further expressions of digital identity. Animated shapes and swirls and datamoshing effects constantly compete to overrun his portraits. In one piece his head completely transforms into a mass of brightly colored digital shards. Playful, arresting and at times unsettling, the visual resonance with O’Brien’s work is well orchestrated.
Tamara Albaitis’ sound installation, Threshold, consisting of speakers filling in one of the architectural arches in the gallery, was not a visually compelling work, but the constantly present, subtle repetitive thudding (recorded on site) that emanated from the speakers provided a memorable soundscape.
This is a must-see show.
“Pixilated Drift” featuring David O’Brien, Andrew Benson and Tamara Albaitis @ Johansson Projects through March 16, 2013.
About the author:
Rachel Clarke is an artist, writer, curator and Professor of New Media at California State University, Sacramento.