Pixelated: The Art of Digital Illustration
Ends Dec. 9, New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington Street, New Britain, (860) 229-0257, nbmaa.org
Old-school artists are likely to approach Pixelated: The Art of Digital Illustration, a hip and trendy exhibition of digital illustration on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art until Dec. 9, with a certain amount of trepidation, if not outright disdain. After all, the old guard — you know, the artists who put real pencils, real brushes, real hands on canvases, clay and paper — could justifiably be looking at the media that are putting them out of a job, if not an entire way of life.
One older, disabled visitor to Pixelated, in fact, was making cogent, acerbic and loud comments at each image on view in the Sanford B.D. Low Illustration Gallery as he was pushed in a wheelchair through the exhibition. Not all of his commentary was appreciated by other visitors, though his health aide was nodding obligingly at every word. This would-be Ignatius Reilly was not completely won over by the assemblage of the 26 illustrators whose work was on view. Nor was he completely appalled by the work, either. In some of the works he admired the mix and arrangement of colors, in others the audacity of the images and even the detailed line work, though he was not entirely convinced that the more meticulously rendered were totally done by hand ("That graphic work is too good to be fully human…even masterpieces of graphic art contain flaws and these do not").
All in all, this wizened crank, perhaps himself an artist, seemed to embody both sides of the debate that digital illustration inspires. It's the same debate that mathematicians no doubt had when calculators appeared, music fans had when CDs replaced vinyl, radio heads had when TV appeared, or everyone had when the Internet replaced everything all at once. Perhaps, then, the line of demarcation of whether you totally dig this show or find it too coldly brave-new-worldly has a lot to do with your chronological age. If you grew up entirely in the digital/Internet age, as some of the youngest of the artists on view here did, then this exhibition is the nazz. If not, then you will hope that it is, to complete Mott the Hoople's lyric, "just a buzz, some kind of temporary."
To his credit, guest curator Scott Bakal, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, does not try to obscure what's going on in Pixelated. No, he is elated by all these pixels. At the start of the exhibition, in fact, he lists the various digital tools used by the illustrators featured in the exhibition, including Adobe Creative Suite, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Corel Painter and Cintiq, which are, he notes, "technologies that artists could not have dreamt of even 30 years ago." Bakal curated the show, he says, "with the objective of not only presenting the most influential illustrators of our day and their ideas about our culture, but also choosing artists who rely on cutting-edge digital media to create their work in whole or in part."
Almost all of the illustrations included here were done on assignment for magazines, the sort of slick publications where such work ideally fits.
Among the most shining examples of the possibilities of digital illustration are Melinda Beck's wacky "Fine Dining With Your Dog," which seems to channel 1950s album cover art into an eye-catching whole; Richard Borge's "Sleep Cycle," a collage/montage done for Playboy magazine that evokes images from artists in Weimar Germany; Mark Bender's "Bound and Determined," with its obvious influence of Russian Constructivism; Tomer Hanuka's "Marquis de Sade," whose colors and arrangements suggest Lautrec, with a leeringly convincing image of the marquis on a sofa, his hand buried deep inside a woman's full set of flowing skirts; William Low's "New Concourse," which emulates the classic techniques of oil painting, right down to the suggestions of actual brush strokes on canvas; Nancy Stahl's "Snowy Egret" (commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service) and Harry Campbell's "Serpent," both of which recall the public service posters created by FSA artists of the 1930s; Brian Stauffer's "Barber of Seville" poster for the Vancouver Opera, with its Monty Python-style humor and use of the whole frame, or Dale Stephanos' "We the People," an image worthy of George Grosz, of a fat man wiping his mouth with a napkin on which is inscribed the Preamble to the United States Constitution; and Edel Ridriguez's ICON poster, which combines paint, pastel, drawing, and printmaking to capture the busy-ness and excitement of the New York City subway setting.
All of this is the sort of work that, for those on the fence about digital illustration, might offer some hope for the future. The key seems to be that, in all of these illustrators' work, the gap between the old school and the new media is bridged by a real sense that the artists know they are part of a creative lineage that predates their birth dates.
There are a few clunkers in the show — sight gags, "neocomic" art, too-cute irony — but they are not worth singling out because they are far outweighed by well-crafted work like the above. Many of the artists' statements also leave a bit to be desired. Two plucked at random are "One day maybe I will say things that are truly worth listening to. I will say things that belong to me only and there will be no other way to listen to them EXCEPT looking" and "I sketch very little but spend a good deal of time thinking about different ideas."
Perhaps the one artist's statement that clearly exposes the gap between old school and artists now in their 20s, who have never actually known a time when there wasn't some form of digital media, is this one: "Digital media is the only way to illustrate what's inside my head."
For some reason, that seems incredibly sad to me. But then, I'm old school.