February 3, 2014

Art by Algorithm: Portraits at the John Hartell Gallery

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On January 21, nine iconic portraits were projected in their original form across the walls of the John Hartell Gallery in Sibley Hall and programmed to begin their month-long evolution. Each image in Portraits is generated by an algorithm that causes the pixels of an image to respond to the characteristics of surrounding pixels, having an effect that slowly distorts the original image. This is the first time Portraits has been displayed and it is set to run continuously for one month, with each image changing approximately once every twenty minutes.

The artist, Andrew Lucia, is a visiting lecturer in architecture with expertise in computational design. The concept for Portraits was inspired by the ambiguity of intellectual property, due to which art and its visual representations are subject to digital reproduction and manipulation. Original works of art, or precise representations, are now as accessible to digital artists as any tangible medium. However, the line between allusion and plagiarism is fine. As Lucia puts it, these exhibit forces viewers to question, “When is [art] somebody’s and when is it not?” As Portraits powerfully communicates, allusions to previous works can resonate strong cultural significance, which could be a critical factor in shaping modern art, or, for the time being, the debate that surrounds it.

Lucia first used his algorithm on a triptych of photographs of Damion Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull sculpture, “For the Love of God.” Intrigued by the distortion of such a popular work, Lucia expanded the concept to a larger series of works. From the triptych of Hirst’s work sprung the religious association of three and, thus, a triptych of depictions of Jesus followed by a self-portrait of Rembrandt and Andy Warhol’s painting of Marilyn Monroe.

Lucia says he primarily tried to select images that people would recognize in order to quickly understand that it is dissolving. Pointing to a blotchy red and blue silhouette, Lucia says, “Everyone can walk in and see that’s Michael Jackson,” and though the exhibit is only one quarter of the way over, the blurred and pixelated images are shockingly easy to identify. Varied in style and subject, each portrait stands out to a different group of people depending on their generation or background though, Lucia notes, Michael Jackson is by far the most quickly identified by viewers across the board.

While the images retain some semblance of their original form, the abstract distribution of color is, in itself, intriguing. In particular, the gray scale of a Chuck Close self-portrait and fragments of turquoise background that have begun to carve out Michael Jackson’s silhouette could stand alone as modern works of art. In fact, Lucia had initially intended for Portraits to consist of a series of prints, to apply his algorithm to images and display select stills of the picture as it evolved. Several of the initial prints, including the interpretation of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe accompanying the exhibition’s publicity, are also on display in Sibley Hall.

All of the pictures began as high-resolution images.  As varied as their styles are — ranging in medium from oil to photography and in genre from pop art to realism — the selections are chosen from works of sharp imagery, avoiding styles such as impressionism, to distinctly portray their distortion.

In the weeks leading up to the exhibit, musician and DMA graduate student Taylan Cihan collaborated with Lucia to create a sound installation to complement Portraits. Portraits, as well as several of Lucia and Cihan’s past collaborations have been guided by the correlation between sound and image — Lucia actually created the algorithm used in Portraits while creating a visual work to accompany one of Cihan’s orchestra compositions, which inspired his current exhibition. The sound for the exhibition was guided by the space, with chords stretched to match the bass frequency of the gallery.

Had I had the chance to see all of the portraits in their original form on the first day of Portrait’s display, the exhibit would have without question appeared entirely plagiarized. However, just a week later, their spotty resemblances are hardly criminalizing and Lucia recommends, “You have to come in several times.” Seeing each work at different stages in distortion may be the most direct way to decide when an image has transformed beyond ownership — or to realize how arbitrary the line is between the two. In the fleeting images lies the exhibition’s conceptual strength, in helping to define the boundaries of intellectual property.