“Barry Anderson: Polychrome Rift,” Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art

Fragment [p23.151], 2023, pigment Prints on Dibond, 39.5” x 64”

Artworks created with a new technique or technology have the advantage of being appreciated purely on the grounds of novelty, as if reporting results from a nascent science. The most compelling artworks probe beyond surface qualities, questioning what kinds of worlds the new technique will create. In this vein, Barry Anderson’s show “Polychrome Rift,” on display at Sherry Leedy through March 23, features artworks made by training an artificial intelligence on Anderson’s own images. The show is an inquiry into simulated space that is in the process of emerging, a foray into the motifs of our digital subconscious. 

The result, in Anderson’s show, is a kind of simulation cubism. But whereas the cubists wanted to peer deeper into the truth of space as it appears to human beings, the simulation cubist is trying to crack into a non-human space. The artist using AI must act out the return to space and light in the context of a digital, simulated reality. The simulation cubist peers into the territory that AI lives in, the new prosthetic imagination, where computer intelligence interfaces with human intelligence. 

installation view

Anderson made these works by feeding his own photographs and digital renders through a deep learning network, which then created its own images. As a professional photographer, Anderson takes photos of light installations in art galleries. In the hands of his AI counterpart, light sources are transformed into glowing edges embedded in architecture. Neon is everywhere. A desert landscape supports a synthetic object full of prismatic sheens. Built elements — walls and cuboid structures — mass into abstract forms. As the eye settles in, it will sometimes pick out a room: woods, tiles, concrete, whitewash, glass. But the rooms are never comfortably framed; they quickly transition into less concrete patterns of color. Euclidean space does not last long in these pieces. It fragments and warps. 

Fragment [p23.201], 2023, pigment prints on Dibond, 16” x 96”

After being fed to the AI, the gallery rooms of Anderson’s images become something more akin to vacant corporate lobbies. What does this transformation tell us about the world we are making with AI? Will it be like an art gallery, a space of communal interaction with art even as it is undergirded by transnational capitalism, or will it be more like a corporate lobby, where everything happens elsewhere, on other floors, behind closed doors, until finally a voice says, “the AI will see you now”? Or perhaps, “You may leave, we have decided to go in a different direction with this planet.” This response is why one way to think about AI — to imagine what it means for our species — is as architecture without inhabitants. 

But for now, we — the viewers and especially the artist — are the inhabitants of these simulated worlds. We are not glimpsing a pure machine world, but something intimately bound up with human imagination and material processes of creation. The incorporation of AI into art is necessarily hybrid. It requires a mesh of techniques that go beyond the promptification of the image. The viewer has to be able to glimpse some seams, some record of process. In Anderson’s show, hybridity comes from the use of his own images, both photos and digital images he designed himself, as a learning set for the AI. It is also embodied in the physical assembly of his pieces as pigment prints on Dibond aluminum panels, rather than images on a screen.  

Additionally, many of Anderson’s pieces are actually tiled together from smaller prints—irregular polygons that join together, sometimes overlapping, to create equally irregular tableaux. The overall shapes of the pieces vary, often stretching in elongated shapes across the gallery wall. They are assembling a window onto a new irreality. They are like jagged, pixelated flows through the possibility space of simulation, misshapen as if the space hasn’t fully loaded yet. Because it hasn’t. We do not know yet what kind of world is being created for us, by us, and through us.  

left to right: Fragment [p23.219], 2023, pigment prints on Dibond, 16.5” x 22” and Fragment [p23.218], 2023, pigment prints on Dibond, 16.5” x 22”

The process of feeding images through an AI has its own kind of tangibility: the tangibility of process and accretion and learning. In these pieces, you feel that you are looking at layers of time. You start to think that you can tell what comes directly from the seed artworks that Anderson started with, and what is a glitchy hallucination from the AI’s depths. We want to find traces of the real in this new kind of artifact that is neither copy nor original. But is such a thing possible? There is no time-stamping portions of these pieces because they are generated all at once, they simulate everything, they are about technique even as they erase the distinction between human craft and artificial cognition. 

Other pieces retain little trace of the spatial reality that is their seed. Instead, they look like beveled prisms or jewels. This is light as pure abstraction, AI as a prism that turns our concrete reality into pure surface, light on a screen. Yet material history is always there. Not literally, but somehow — one node back on the algorithm, an implied learning set. The pieces in the show that I find most engaging are those where concrete representations of space morph into abstracted plays of light, treading a middle ground between realism and light show, hewing close to the troubling relationship between artificial intelligence and the physical world. The show as a whole creates this middle ground by including both pieces that are fully abstracted and pieces that look like stills from a science-fiction film. 

installation view, left to right: Fragment [sp23.153], 2023, pigment prints on Dibond, 146” x 75”; Fragment [sp23.233], 2023, pigment prints on Dibond, 16” x 18” and Fragment [sp23.234], 2023, pigment prints on Dibond, 16” x 17”.

There is a virtual heaven that awaits those techno-optimists who think they will someday ‘upload’ their minds to the cloud. I truly believe such a thing is impossible, but the dream haunts our culture. As if nodding to this dream, Anderson’s major work “fragment [p23.153],” which greets visitors as they enter the show, features vast swaths of bathetic, pink sunset clouds — Heaven and the Cloud all at once. In some of the more reactionary —  if also vaguely erudite and avant-garde — corners of the internet, one comes across a warm, ambient, techno-religious aesthetic. A cult-like vibing in the non-time of screen light. In Anderson’s show, one glimpses the inroads to such a mentality, but his work is too process-oriented and material to allow the viewer to feel that these roads are taken seriously. Rather, they are observed like passing wormholes in the non-Euclidean space he helps us travel through.  

Still, there they are, views onto a world made of purely dematerialized abstraction. As the advances of AI intensify, will we allow ourselves to forget our bodies, or the bodies of the slaves laboring in cobalt mines to produce batteries that power our machines? Will we surrender to the collective imagination that tech companies who source those batteries and trawl our psyches have engineered for us? The artist’s newest tool is nothing less than the machine of planetary capitalism itself, in the form of artificial intelligence. There is probably no avoiding it. And, as is evident in Anderson’s show, we are already figuring out how to use it. 

“Barry Anderson: Polychrome Rift” continues at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore Ave., through March 23. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 816.221.2626 or sherryleedy.com. 

Brandan Griffin

Brandan Griffin is a writer who lives in Kansas City. His book of poems Impastoral was published by Omnidawn in 2022.

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