In two complementary exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, works by James Hoff and Jacqueline Humphries incorporated the language of computer programming and other digital technologies while remaining loyal to the tradition of painterly abstraction.
Humphries’s enormous expressionistic canvases are rendered with an irresistible degree of intelligence and intensity. On the ground floor, seven of her “silver paintings” were hung low enough to engulf one’s entire field of vision in the layers and textures of their complex surfaces. As engrossing as each painting’s surface was, however, its scintillating silver sheen also compelled viewers to move about in order to fully activate its motion-picture sensibility. This impulse was further driven by the close proximity needed to view its intimate details, in contrast with the relative distance required to view it in its entirety. Rows upon rows of : ) : ) : ) : ) and other marks and variously sized dots blended together from a distance to form a pictographic mesh. While Humphries’s work is clearly inspired by the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, it departs from this tradition in a commendable effort to usher abstract painting into the 21st century.
The Humphries exhibition continued on the second floor in a black-lit gallery with four more large-scale canvases, an oversized book, and two smaller canvases, all rendered in Day-Glo paint. Neon orange, turquoise, green, and yellow unabashedly invoked 1960s psychedelia and bathed the entire gallery in a neon luminescence.
On passing through the curtains from black light back into daylight, one was met with James Hoff’s exhibition, “B=R=I=C=K=I=N=G” in the adjacent gallery. In addition to the eight paintings on aluminum and the sound composition that played continuously, squares and rectangles had also been cut into the walls, revealing the wooden beams and negative space behind. Hoff produced all of these components with the same distinctive process of using Hex Editor software to translate digital images of monochromatic surfaces into code, infecting it with malware, and converting it back into its original, albeit altered, form. According to the gallery brochure, infecting a device with malware can induce a state of “bricking,” a term that describes “the overload of an operating system when infected with malware, which renders it useless, at least, for its originally intended purposes.” It’s an exciting idea with revolutionary, or at least counter-hegemonic, prospects. Hoff makes his work overtly political by using the Skywiper virus, which, the brochure says, “is commonly believed to have begun as a joint U.S.-Israeli cyberweapon, designed to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program.”
But for what purpose and to what end does Hoff deploy what could be used as a cyberweapon to instead make paintings? What really distinguishes his work from “glitch art”?
In an interview published in the Fall 2014 issue of BOMB magazine, he says that borrowing from the historical vernacular of abstraction allows him to talk about viruses using the language of painting rather than the technical jargon of computer programming or the hyperbole of mass media. If it were clear what he was trying to say about viruses, perhaps borrowing from the historical vernacular of abstraction would be an effective strategy. But this alleged referent is not at all apparent, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. In exhibition material, CAC curator Andrea Andersson makes an astute connection to William S. Burroughs’s cut-up method of textual montage, situating Hoff’s work in relation to post-modernism. The aptness of this analogy is made even greater by the recognition that code also functions linguistically. Burroughs’s texts and Hoff’s works all operate in a Deleuzian sense, to disrupt a linear structure only to produce an alternative unifying structure. Without this key information, viewers could easily mistake the paintings for computer-generated graphics printed out with an inkjet printer.
The resultant images could ultimately be interpreted as visualizations of cyber warfare’s underlying mechanisms. Skywiper’s deployment as an invisible yet inextricable component in the realization of Hoff’s virus paintings emphasizes the militaristic associations with espionage in Humphries’s black-light paintings. Both exhibitions indicated, unsurprisingly, that the rhetoric of cyber militancy and espionage has infiltrated the arts. But there was a disconnect between the sense of urgency and borderline paranoia, expressed in part by the exhibitions’ didactic material, and the artists’ treatment of these fraught subjects. Both artists’ strengths were in the formal qualities of their work, in their aesthetic innovations, and in their investigations of the creative potential of digital and networked systems.
Hannah Spears is a writer and curator from Oxford, Mississippi. Since receiving her BA in Art History from Vassar College in 2014, she has been working as a gallery assistant and assistant curator at Southside Gallery in Oxford. She is a participant in Cycle 3 of BURNAWAY’s Art Writers Mentorship Program.