Start with a text. Something powerful, something harmful: a law, a lawsuit, a piece of propaganda. Rearrange the letters so they’re alphabetical. Assign them colors. Based on this, write an algorithm, which ultimately creates an image, which a brush dipped in oil paint follows across a canvas.
This is how Seattle artist Ilana Zweschi makes a painting. Looking at her work on a screen makes sense: a network of twisting, intricate lines, like some secret glimpse into a data matrix forged from glow sticks. Zweschi majored in art, minored in math, and eventually merged the two, using that algorithmic process to neutralize the power of the initial documents. It serves as a sort of existential metaphor. “We kind of decide what we put into our lives, but we’re at the mercy of whatever comes out on the other side,” she says. The process also nicely mimics viewing art on Instagram: Input information and the algorithms decide what you see. Indeed, if you encountered her paintings this June, in her exhibition at Linda Hodges Gallery, you likely arrived at them via algorithms and viewed the work only on a screen.
Since this spring, that’s been true of nearly all art you don’t own. Washington’s coronavirus stay-home order meant Pioneer Square’s art galleries did not hold First Thursday openings in April, May, or June. Museums worldwide closed and offered virtual tours. Cameras drifted blandly through vacant spaces. Or, worse, narrated slideshows popped up on YouTube. This summer’s Seattle Art Fair, scheduled for July 23–26, got canceled in April. Then its producer, Vulcan, shut down its entertainment division, making the fair’s return uncertain.
Performance arts have adjusted to streaming video. But visual art is different. In the past decade, we’ve been looking at more art than ever. But we see it, so often, online. That’s changed everything about our relationship to image: How we look, how we buy, and how some artists make.
Before landing in a physical space in Pioneer Square, J. Rinehart Gallery started as a website. Much like an ill-fitting pair of shoes you order online, if the art arrives and you don’t like it, Rinehart says, send it back (she hasn’t had this happen). During the stay-home order, like many other gallery owners, she started holding virtual openings. Is that a comparable experience to an actual opening? No. But she says she had “a lot of engagement,” even sold a painting that way. “I’m thinking, okay, well once we’re back in the world, how do we continue that level of virtual engagement and hopefully reach a wider audience?”
That is, of course, the biggest boon of a very online art world. It can tear down some of the ivory tower’s walls, or at least crack the windows. Because most anyone can toss a painting up on Instagram, young artists and marginalized artists can display their work immediately, without some gatekeeper deeming it worthy. One of Rinehart’s artists, Shaun Kardinal, is also a collector (and a web developer). He buys art through social media frequently. This spring he got an email about the Cornish College of the Arts BFA Exhibition, held online this year. He checked it out, liked one of the pieces, found the artist’s Instagram, messaged him, and had it delivered before the end of the day. “It’s in my living room now,” Kardinal says, “and I wasn’t even aware that it existed yesterday.”
But that also means every time we flip through art on a screen, we aren’t seeing the actual work—we’re seeing an image of it, a flat copy. Some of the most interesting artists in the city are playing with that divide.
Looking at an image of a painting, instead of the actual object, is not new. By 1935 German philosopher Walter Benjamin was already arguing that reproduction techniques like photography withered the uniqueness of a piece, its “quality of presence.” When you approach a work in a gallery or museum, after seeing it online, you carry a preconception, some shadow aesthetic experience.
At a 2019 show at Pioneer Square’s Greg Kucera Gallery, this collision was on full display. Anthony White’s work commanded the front rooms. His “paintings” are rooted in Instagram selfies and still-lifes of consumer detritus, each made with a sort of glue gun that lays down thin lines of wildly colorful plastics. On a screen they look like paintings; in the gallery like massive embroideries, rippling with reflected light. If you headed to the show’s back rooms, you found Joe Rudko’s photo collages—aligned in spirit, if not in appearance. Rudko cuts together archival photographs into small, dazzling works that, on a screen, frequently look photoshopped: a face pixelates (it’s made of many cut up portraits); another person’s head splits open into a mushroom of streaming lines.
I’d seen both their work online first, but as I walked through the shows, the pictures talked to their online copies. Especially since their work is rooted in photos, a strange triangulation cropped up. Online, the original photos go through two layers of mediation: The artists take replicable images, turn them into singular pieces of gallery art, then rephotograph the art. In the gallery, sandwiched between two forms of replication, instead of losing their “quality of presence,” the works are bolstered by all those copies. They’re arguments against the thin, easy beauty of the screen. They make a point: that real people can not only mimic what computers can do, but can assert a soulful authority over it.
Both artists told me they don’t think about this split too frequently while working. Rudko says he used to more consciously, just as he was graduating with a BFA in 2013. He altered his process, he says, “doing things like photographing a piece on my phone while I was working on it, to see what it looked like as this tiny rectangle.” White says he’s attracted to how people can be fooled when looking, how humanity announces itself in the texture and details. “I love being tricked. That illusion is really beautiful,” he says. “You get to experience both the virtual and the real-life thing itself.”
Many artists in their 20s and 30s, who’ve grown up with screens, are now mining computer aesthetics. Locally, you can see Photoshop’s effortless arrangements in Jennifer Zwick’s photographs of precisely composed flowers (all done by hand). Brian Sanchez’s abstract paintings frequently look like he brushed them together in Microsoft Paint. Installation artist Neon Saltwater transforms retro computer graphics into actual rooms. And Kardinal (the collector/developer/artist) has recently been embroidering geometric shapes into pieces of found photography. Online, they look digital, in person handmade. He wasn’t aiming for that, he says, but figures his web-development job, its “precision and geometry,” has seeped in.
I asked Kardinal about other artists working this way and he sent me Zweschi’s paintings, the ones from the algorithms. Quarantined at home, flipping through the images on my phone, I wondered how I’d never seen her work before. Then I realized that, in fact, I had. But what I held in my hand on a four-inch screen and what I’d seen on the gallery walls did not match. As images on screens, many look like they’ve been rendered by the algorithm alone—a view of the mind of the machine, intricate and sterile. But in person these are big canvases, emphatically textured with oil paint. The colors look different. The intricate lines wobble humanly. The paintings exist in a hierarchy. And—sadly for our moment when quarantines may come in waves—you need to see them in person to grasp the final step. Zweschi makes an algorithm. The algorithm makes an image. But, ultimately, Zweschi paints.