On the “Pixelations” (and Not Knowing)

The Arts Science and Tech


I believe that, within my lifetime, we will have utilized (or been used by) rapidly accelerating technology to become something else. At present, we are probably still human. But if you asked me to describe what it means to be human, I wouldn't know how. Defining our post-human existence is even further beyond the realm of possibility than simply explaining what we are today—yet I am preoccupied with that, among other unanswerable questions. My art-making is perhaps a method for me to face certain fundamental aspects of our existence and weigh-in. Is it true? Is it speculation? Can we define it ourselves?


I grew up after the death of painting. During my childhood, I was exposed to music, television, film, photography, and literature. We did paint in school, but the only accomplished paintings I remember seeing were printed reproductions. The only contemporary art I remember exposure to are a book of David Hockney's “combines” (photographic collages) and a magazine picture of Christo's “Surrounded Islands” (floating pink cloth encircling islands). While both Hockney and Christo have been enduring heroes of mine, for perhaps a decade I didn't know that Hockney was a painter or that Christo made drawings.


In my current life, some of my good friends are dedicated painters, and I occasionally hear that painting is “making a comeback” or I read the odd Roberta Smith article proving that painting is as virile than it ever was; but it's very hard for me to see the impact of painting on anyone outside the relatively small, often hidden world of art-lovers and arts professionals. As I paint, I am always seeking to answer the question, “How can I paint in the 21st century?”


We are currently witnessing the death-throes of the age of the pixel. I remember watching very grainy television, learning that newspaper pictures were composed of countless tiny little dots, and reading about the difference between dot-matrix and daisy-wheel printers (the former of which would produce jagged, pixelated text). I remember waiting for high-resolution images to make their way through a dial-up modem onto my bulky cathode-ray monitor. Today, in my practice, I am constantly forced to decide at which resolution in which to work, be they still images or video. This year I have become increasingly aware that pixelation is effectively disappearing—rather, the more I worked on this series of “pixelated” works, the fewer instances of pixelation I was able to observe outside of my own studio. What began as a celebration and perhaps examination of the way we see paintings today gradually transformed into a eulogy for a temporal hiccup in display technology. As I type this, I see smooth curves on my laptop screen. Images on my “phone” (which lets me access e-mail, watch online videos, navigate while driving, and take pictures which I can immediately post to my blog) look equally sharp. What my new pixelated pieces really show is not how we access paintings today, but how we looked at paintings five or ten years ago. They may evoke recollections of a lower-resolution era.


But I'm still thinking about where we're headed, what we're going to become, how we're going to define ourselves, and how art might evolve. Right now painting still happens. Will anyone at all want to paint in 2035?


I believe that color is evolving faster and faster. In Vermeer's day, blue came from precious lapis lazuli stones ground into powder. Imagine telling a painter today they couldn't use blue in too many paintings because it is too expensive. Now we have fluorescent neon colors which didn't even exist a century ago. We know that the visible spectrum shows us only a fraction of the energy surrounding us. Perhaps we will begin to fill in those gaps. I think it's likely post-humans will possess infrared vision and other ways of seeing I can't comprehend yet. Seen through fresh eyes, won't our most vivid richly-colored paintings look dull? Will the first people with these new capabilities see pixelated infrared at first? Will their minds expand to handle the larger amounts of sensory input?


We are all growing. For me, time is linear. Since nothing that we know about in this universe is static, even to stay still is to be changing. Moving subatomic particles, we are taught, are at the core of all things. Every experience we have and every facet of this universe is a product of some kind of flux. That cast-off and maligned idea (or ideal) of progress still motivates and fascinates me. I want to participate in our evolution.


A Pixelated View from the Third Floor of the Mall at Columbus Circle (Erik Sanner, 2011).*


At present I integrate computer processing and projected video into a painterly practice, creating installations conceived as “moving paintings.” With each new work and each successive series of works I keep trying to face these same questions, over and over, doubting that there are answers to be found, but confident that the only way to define ourselves is to keep asking. Each of these works is a discrete proof that I want to participate in figuring out what we are becoming. Will anything made today grab and move and inspire our post-human selves? Will we be fond of the culture we grow out of?


There is very little consensus among the billions of people alive today on what it means to live, never mind why art is important. Even more surprising to me than the variety of opinions is how hard it can be to start those conversations. So, I offer you these “pixelated” “paintings,” which are neither truly pixelated nor truly paintings. If they are confusing, then they are true reflections of me, because I am confused most of the time. If they seem to have little or nothing to do with what is written here, then they fit very comfortably within my own appreciation of art.


I love going to museums and galleries and I usually can't stand knowing anything about the artist's intent, or the curatorial concept, or the historical context of the work. My approach to art is to simply experience it directly. That applies to my art-viewing as well as my art-making.


All of these things that I'm thinking about and I'm writing about inspire me or move me to act. But is my work really “about” these things? I can't answer that. I don't think anyone knows where ideas come from. I don't think most of us know why we want to do the things we really want to do.


Painting is dead, and we are a few decades away from biological transcendence, and art is as unknowable as it ever was. Yet it is 2011 and I want to keep painting. I don't know what that means.


A Pixelated View from the Third Floor of the Mall at Columbus Circle (Erik Sanner, 2011). Original software and video projection onto oil painting on canvas, 36" X 60".