“Digital Combines,” new terminology for a hybrid of Paintings and NFTs at Honor Fraser Gallery
Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles
through April 2, 2022
Written by Ashley Ouderkirk
When NFTs are discussed in art conversations, it’s usually greeted with confusion (what exactly is an NFT anyway?), or enthusiastic comments on the hot market (Beeble’s historic $69 million NFT sale). While some see the potential of these non-fungible tokens as a force for good to usher in the new democratization of the art market, others see them as “a fad,” “not real art,” or our next “tulip mania.” If art history serves as any indicator, one may recall similar comments made about art printmaking in the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press circa early 16th century, or again when photography debuted in the late 19th century. The point most critics, or even some enthusiasts, seem to miss is that NFTs have become a new medium for artists with a great deal of potential and possibilities to exploit. Perhaps this is why the current group show at Honor Fraser, Digital Combines, is so clever and intriguing.
Organized by digital artist Claudia Hart, eighteen paintings are displayed throughout the gallery with their accompanying digital counterparts — animations, poetic spoken word, audio, hi-resolution files, and even augmented reality (AR)— represented as a QR code hung by their side. In this show, Hart invited and prompted her artist friends — Nancy Baker Cahill, Jakob Dwight, Tim Kent, Gretta Louw, LoVid, Sara Ludy, Daniel Temkin, and Saya Woolfalk — to craft an art object that binds both physical work and digital work into a sole artwork, a “Digital Combine.”
Walking through each gallery room, the viewer cannot rely solely on their eyes, but must also employ the camera “eye” of our phone to experience the work in full. The QR codes, filled with digital data, are only visible and understood by our phones. At first, it feels a bit confusing as to why the artists chose not to display their digital component on a screen next to the painting, as we’ve all grown accustomed to experiencing. However, upon reflection that would be antithetical to the work, which lives both in the digital realm and our physical existence. By viewing it on our personal devices— the home of our digital lives — both pieces are neatly bridged together.
The term “Digital Combine” was appropriated by Hart from Robert Rauschenberg’s medium bending artworks from the 1960s called “Combines,” which utilized everyday found-objects combined with traditional media of painting, drawing, collage, and sculpture. In his practice, all of these elements were equally important in creating the finished artwork. This concept also rings true for the works on view here.
In Daniel Temkin’s Right-Triangular Dither 1, 15% Teal, we see a large acrylic painting of a vibrant red-orange background with a sea of hundreds of teal-colored right triangles dancing over the canvas, paired with a thirty-second loop GIF animation of these same triangles frantically moving (dithering?) in a type of calculated chaos with teal becoming the dominant hue. When viewed side-by-side, the animation seems to provide the context that leads to the completed —or almost finished— triangle arrangement in the painting. A step closer to stillness or perhaps a pause during the process?
Yet the most complex ensemble was from Claudia Hart with her large work Digital Combines 1.0 that joins a print, AR, three small paintings, and three PNG files. The background print appears inspired by one of Henri Matisse’s cutouts, The Sheaf (1953) and contains a repeating pattern of the coral-shaped leaves throughout the print set against a kelly-green background. The three small paintings, layered on top of the print, also appear to reference versions of classic still-life works from the twentieth century. To toe the digital-meets-physical-artwork line even further, Hart “painted” these works using simulation technologies on her computer and had these original “simulated paintings” printed onto panels. Still painted by the artist’s hand, but without brushes. In addition to using our phone to scan the QR codes to view the trio of small paintings as digital NFT constructs, Hart’s work requires the viewer to also download an app called Ruins (see image below) to experience several augmented-reality images concealed from our plain sight.
Overall, Digital Combines 1.0 is perhaps a nod to Rauschenberg’s Short Circuit (1955) where he hid two small paintings, a landscape by Susan Weil and the other (originally) a U.S. flag by Jasper Johns, behind two hinged doors which he labeled “open” with arrows pointing to them. Both are an essential component of the work, but require some active participation on the viewer to experience it in its entirety.
As a whole, the exhibition and artworks have an exploratory, almost experimental feel that is completely grounded in art historical references. This group of artists have laid the artistic groundwork for how to use NFTs as a medium incorporated with physical work, that —to borrow language from the official contract states— “are two halves of a singular whole.”
Will the term “Digital Combines” become a part of our ever-evolving art lexicon? Only time and NFT “smart” contracts will tell, but it’s certainly Rauchenberg-level clever.
Ashley Ouderkirk is an independent curator and emerging artist consultant who splits her time between New York City and Los Angeles.