Andy Bauch: Crypto-Formalism

Andy Bauch, Bitcoin Initially Valued at $30, 2,217 LEGO pieces, 15x15 inches, 2016

January 2018

Nothing has more captivated the zeitgeist than the promises and perils of evolving interfaces between humanity and technology. In movies, fashion, food, hardware, comms, and even our bodies lie endless uncharted territories. In the world of visual art alone, we see regular incursions of digital equipment, software, AR, VR, app- and internet-based, and other mechanisms into traditional mediums. Apart from that, we see the evidentiary effects of tech on the way we experience and quantify even analog perception. And the social, economic, and cultural dynamics precipitated by all of this constitutes endless source material for narratives of the modern era, executed across all mediums and styles.

In the studio of artist Andy Bauch, all these paths converge in his unique practice. Tempting to describe as paintings, Bauch’s works are in fact made of thousands (roughly 2,000 per 15 square inches) of tiny lego bricks, which he deploys as though they were pixels or single-color brushstrokes to compose figurative and abstract images that express in both form and content a depiction of the messy, evolving, hybrid state of affairs in which we find ourselves as a culture and a species. In both his abstract and figurative works, Bauch practices a kind of Pointillism by another means, embedding Seurat’s way of seeing into his chosen medium.

Andy Bauch, Bitcoin Initially Valued at $40, 2,304 LEGO pieces, 15x15 inches, 2016 

Andy Bauch, Bitcoin Initially Valued at $50, 1,717 LEGO pieces, 15x15 inches, 2016

And in fact Seurat specifically and Impressionism generally was itself more than a little bit about technology. It was a self-consciously proto-Modernist response to the rise of technology and its effects on society -- specifically the invention of photography. Both in terms of positing a new way of seeing, perceiving, and organizing the world, as well as responding to the practice of painting being liberated from the need for realism -- these artists felt free to experiment with the mechanics of sight in other ways. In fact, they felt specifically compelled to respond to a changing world with a new form of art to reflect it.

Bauch’s portrait series called the Museum of Human Obsolescence features images of dissolving portraits -- not necessarily of individuals, but of workers representing disappearing employment sectors. “AI as the new Industrial Revolution,” says Bauch. And that’s both thrilling and terrifying -- like the unknown always is. And speaking of the unknown… Bauch’s newest works are Bitcoin. That is, they are not only about the cryptocurrency phenomenon (of which he was an early adopter), but the abstract patterns they render are actually Bitcoin wallet codes. These two series are related in that they are both about how the world is changing. And in fact, the Best Buy triptych “Cog” contains a Bitcoin wallet code worth $13.07 embedded in the picture, referring to the average to retail wage. It dissolves into the ether along with the figure.

Andy Bauch, COG, 30,981 LEGO pieces, 141 3/4 x 36 inches (triptych), 2017

Each one of these robo-abstractions is extrapolated from usable cryptocurrency codes based on individual online wallets, each containing an initial investment that corresponds to the amount of its title -- $20, $30, $40, etc. Since they are all worth more than their initial investments, each has a different relationship to the price of the artwork, which is uniform across the series. This in turn offers a perfect teachable moment on the discourse of value in the art world. How and by whom is it assessed, by what metric? If decoded, some of these Bitcoin abstractions would be worth more -- and some much less -- than the list price. The analogies to the worth of art are endless, and, much like the algorithm governing Bitcoin itself, self-updating and arbitrary.

Despite the materials, Bauch’s work is not Pop in the least. The patterns have no “meaning” and the palettes are more or less arbitrary; he chooses from among sets of computer-generated variations. So the process also addresses how factors like choice, control, and agency are redefined through the prism of a collaborative relationship -- perhaps tending toward dependency -- with the tech. Or, in the spirit of the painters from art history that are in some ways his aesthetic ancestors, is all this just another studio tool like any painter’s? Rather to that point, Bauch’s portrait of Chuck Close is the most perfectly meta thing that has ever happened, as it uses a tiling technique that owes more to Close than perhaps to any single other artist, with the possible exception of Seurat. But not content to simply render the reflexivity, Bauch had this piece crowd-source assembled by strangers, according to the patterns prescribed by the robot overlords -- er, computer software.

Andy Bauch, Bitcoin Initially Valued at $80, 2,304 LEGO pieces, 15x15 inches, 2016

In this and indeed in the full series 8-bit Art History, Bauch explicitly uses previous moments in culture to contextualize an approach to art-making that is both nostalgic in medium, and futuristic in its implications; questioning the notion of value, the meaning of creativity, the source of inspiration, the function of art in society, and the changing way we see the evolving world. Not exactly child’s play. WM

Andy Bauch, Chuck Close, 17,100 LEGO pieces, 49 x 38 inches, 2016


Shana Nys Dambrot

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.

She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.


Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff


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