By ANTHONY HADEN GUEST March, 2020
One of the first times an artist confronted a new technology with visual capabilities was when Paul Delaroche, one of the most prominent French history painters of his time, saw daguerrotypes in the early 1840s. “From today painting is dead” he famously declared. Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Kluver, an engineer, took a more up approach when they set up Experiments in Art and Technology, aka EAT, in New York in 1967. Eduardo Paolozzi, a core figure in Brit Pop, had already been looking into robotics, influenced by sci-fi and Japanese manga and getting into hard research. In our time of ubiquitous laptops, and looming AI, many artists are tunnneling into tech, often with underwhelming results, like hotel-lobby-ready abstractions, but several, David Hockney being the most in the art world eye, are contriving to make digital toolkits an effective part of what they do. Benjamin Adelmann, a 34 year old Los Angeles-based painter, is of their number.
Adelmann began making drawings as a child of three in Los Angeles, always on computer paper given him by his father, an engineer, and so compulsively that he remembers a cabinet choc-a-bloc with them. “My dad had a little lab in the house and we had multiple computers. I was using CAD when I was ten,” he says. Meaning Computer-Aided Design. He went on to four years at Cal State, Northridge, where he studied philosophy, focusing on epistemology – “which is about what we know. Or think we know” he says – but he continued to paint, and has been making art 24/7 ever since.
Adelmann is Old School in that he makes oil paintings on canvas but the art/tech interplay of his childhood is engrained, and remains a visceral part of his procedure. “Technology is such a part of reality, the way we see everything, the way everything works,” he says. “I think it’s part of nature. So incorporating it is kind of natural.” Warped, his current series of canvases, exemplifies this. It begins with him choosing a painting he has already made, an abstracted landscape, say, which he photographs, then puts through software on his MacBook. “I’m using a specific function in Photoshop,” he says. “It shifts the co-ordinates and brings the center regions either to the top or the bottom of the image. So it distorts the imagery but it doesn’t do something that I would consider very synthetic, like Glitch art.” This being a somewhat modish practice involving the deliberate use of tech functions and malfunctions to produce bizarre or comical effects.
“It’s not that,” he says. “It’s just shifting the co-ordinates of the entire image around a little bit. And it creates a distortion that’s a little inhuman. It’s an unbiased action that I’m putting the image through. It’s a machine that’s doing it, not a human mind. It’s kind of opposite the human mind and the thinking process.”
Adelmann then uses that distorted image to paint another painting. Which becomes Warped, number one. He then photographs this, and repeats the process. “I then paint another, a third derivative,” he says. “And down the line. And I really like the idea of delving into my work that way. It’s not a dead end, it’s been continuing and I’m welcoming what’s next. The way the painting evolves. Where it can go. What I decide to do. And what the computer forces me to change it into.”
How many radical changes does he put an image through
“It can go through fifty. I don’t want it to eventually turn into a blur. Or something that looks like Op art. And I also don’t want it to be many, many levels further away from what it originally was.”
Computer distortions can be complex. How close can he get to replicating them?
“It’s challenging,” he said. “A lot of times I decide not to perfect it. I don’t want to make something that is controlled fully by this aesthetic that comes from software. I want it to change the way I see painting and I see paint.”
What does a Adelmann do if he makes what he considers a mistake? Or maybe he doesn’t think there are any mistakes?
“Right! Both. Most of the time the errors of the hand and the mistakes of the eye in the process are accepted. I enjoy that. I enjoy seeing a painting that has the flecks of paint doing what they want to do. Something that isn’t referenced at all, that is very free.”
When a painting is done, how much is Benjamin Adelmann and how much is digital?
“The only part that is digital is the lines of the painting, the general structure, the curves. That is the digital distortion. The colors and the thickness of the paint and everything else is the legacy of my original painting coming through as I continue to paint. So the colors change quite a bit. But I’m the master of that, I decide that.”
I threw Adelmann’s earlier words back at him. He had spoken of the computer “forcing” him to make changes. So these machines can be really pushy? This was time travel, plunging me back into a moment when the Brit art world and sci-fi had been close in the 60s, when I had been involved with Paolozzi’s robot project, but with the relevant issues off the page and in our faces. Does Adelmann believe that AI is truly a potential force in the art world? Or that, however “different” its capacities, its powers could be channeled as input into the art-making process
Adelmann squashed that PDQ. “Computers do not have their own intelligence,” he said. “We are far from that I my opinion. What they are is tools that have changed the way we think. But I can contrast my own work with this other controlled method of thinking about my work.”
So a computer does have a mind of its own? Of a sort anyway?
“Yeah. It’s an interesting back and forth. It definitely tries to force me to do things. And sometimes I bend to it. And it kind of relates symbolically to the way it’s being changed. Because it’s being distorted in certain ways. And it’s stretching the painting around, it’s pulling it. And I feel that when I’m painting it. Sometimes I want to get my brush off in certain directions but it’s forcing me to bring the lines down into this certain pattern. On the one hand it will push me one way. On the other hand I push back. So it’s an interesting relationship.
“But I do like how it relates to today. Because people are having this awkward imbalanced life with digital things. It’s new territory for everybody. And it also makes me think about how our minds are being changed today. We might think we’re seeing the world more clearly, that the tools we have these days give us short cuts. Maybe. But maybe that’s a bubble.” WM
Warped, on view now though March 29th at Roma Projects. More info available at https://roma.sh.
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British-American writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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