Two exhibitions at PLUG Projects, Jonah Criswell’s “Fallen Pictures” and the group exhibition “trans_late,” explore themes of reproduction and image-making. Both shows contain pictures of pictures and an attitude of bleak imperfection conveyed through digital glitches and hazy reproductions. While some of the artists engage in criticism, others wallow in the oversaturation of images, finding tragic beauty. But where aesthetics end and criticism begins is difficult to tell.
Surprisingly, “trans_late,” a show about image reproduction, does not contain a single TV, computer screen or any other digital device. While many of the artworks utilized digital technology in their making, in their final forms they are all very material.
John Paul Morabito and Laura Letinsky’s ta’ilsandthemuptosapaidar is a tangled wool tapestry created from a digitally manipulated image of trampled flowers. Morabito’s Frottage, another tangled wool tapestry, digitally translates the artist’s touch into the gray woven cotton.
Melaney Ann Mitchell’s meticulous and tiny graphite drawings depict photos taken from social media, complete with drawings of the digital user interface of photo-editing software and sometimes even incorporating the barely visible distorting lines of a computer monitor.
Midori Harima’s Roadside Picnic is an installation of plaster-cast duplicates of trash found along a roadside, including batteries, plastic containers, water bottles, coffee cups, cigarette butts, pint bottles of liquor and other litter. The duplicated trash objects are suspended by wire and metal rods like some kind of children’s mobile, dangling above sheets of reflective aluminum leaf.
Nick Marshall has two prints in the exhibition. Both titled Escape, the images are photographs of digitally manipulated photographs of seaside vacation scenes, set against solid blue and teal backgrounds. More of these manipulated photographs of photographs are inside an old children’s stereoscopic toy called the View-Master.
Zach Nader also showss two digital prints, watermelon absolution and clap along. Both are sliced and diced digital images of many different photographs recombined. Cut into such small fragments, the images are hard to discern. As you search into the distortions, looking at what you think might be a tree or parrot, the patterns begin to vibrate, turning the images into pure abstract texture. Jared Sprecher’s painting Endlessly Rocking uses a similar technique of cutting and slicing, creating a painting meant to simulate a digital collage.
Jonah Criswell’s solo exhibition, “Fallen Pictures,” is in the second gallery space behind the group show, but the themes are so well matched, they might as well be two parts of the same exhibition.
Criswell’s drawings are graphite reproductions of his older paintings. Whereas those older works were paintings of people and places, these new works are drawings of the texture, stroke and brushwork of those old paintings. The drawings are not photorealistic, but rather drawn in a style like geographical maps. Similar to the graphite drawings are a number of oil paintings, all hazy indistinct pictures of older paintings depicted leaning in stacks and obscured by shadows.
When seen from a distance, a drawing like Criswell’s Fallen Picture is gray and hazy, but up close it reveals highly detailed layers of pencil marks. Somewhere in between those two views, you can make out subtle outlines that suggest the image of two people standing on a beach or along a river.
There is no denying that both “Fallen Pictures” and “trans_late” are very “meta” exhibitions — that is, they are images about the duplication of images– a theme that has appeared in art for centuries.
The first Iconoclasts opposed the representation of God in paintings and sculptures because they feared that hollow statues and empty pictures would be venerated in place of God. So they went about destroying paintings and sculptures which offended their belief. Today it is as if our society, with its oversaturation of images, has accomplished the kind of substitution that the iconoclasts feared : by over-representing the world, we no longer look towards reality, but turn towards its representation on screens. In this light, “trans_late” and “Fallen Pictures” are exhibits of iconoclasm in defeat.
Neither exhibition could be described as joyous or happy. Instead, Criswell and Mitchell’s ghostly drawings and Harima’s plaster-cast cigarette butts are full of despair and distance. Throughout the artwork titles and exhibition texts, you can see a current of ominous words like “escape,” “death,” “fallen,” “shadows,” “night,” “haunt,” “aging,” “endlessly,” “incomplete,” “imperfect” and “decontextualize.” This use of darkness metaphors is interesting, because, overwhelmingly, the color palette of the exhibition is white, gray and blue. It seems our world is not that of spiritual darkness like the iconoclasts of old feared, but a world of the blinding blue-white light of computer screens and the gray haze of endless text.
That the artworks of “trans_late” and “Fallen Pictures” feel sad is no wonder. If our society’s “problem” is the oversaturation of media, then artists are partly to blame, as they help create that over-representation. Some of the artists in this exhibition position themselves as critical of these problems, while others seem fascinated, maybe even resigned, or find a tragic beauty in all this despair. In the end, it is an impossible problem for an artist. It seems unlikely that the creation of more images will solve the problem of having too many.
“Jonah Criswell: Fallen Pictures” and “trans_late” continue at Plug Projects through Aug. 6. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 645.535.7584 or www.plugprojects.com.