Something Old, Something New

As visual art is increasingly pulled into service by commercial industries who want to advertise their sneakers, cars and living wills in more sophisticated ways (ways that elicit emotion-based responses from consumers, rather than reactions based in rational thought), artists are faced with a dilemma. It's a problem that Dinnerware Contemporary Arts Gallery's latest press release describes as "how to deal with technology and still make original art."

Software that allows anyone to create interesting (or at least colorful) graphics is loaded onto most every computer, and just the other week--as I wasted two days of my life in what I'm sure was the most useless Photoshop class inflicted on anyone, anywhere--I churned out a pretty picture of Godzilla stuffing cherry blossoms into his mouth while a red typewriter lurked in his transparent belly.

Was it art? It was a heck of a lot more fun to look at than what the people around me came up with (lots of puppies, clouds and glass vases), but it certainly wasn't original. After all, Godzilla, the cherry blossoms and typewriter all existed long before I miraculously imported them (miraculous, since the teacher talked more about comfortable high-heeled shoes than anything else), so did I create, or simply copy? Does altering images make them yours? Is a pencil "tool" different, in any important way, from an actual pencil?

These are the kinds of questions addressed by Tucson's Breakthrough Digital Artists, an art event staged conjointly by DCA and Platform Gallery, which are each featuring two digital artists in separately titled exhibits, Jan. 4 through 29. DCA's Shift is the work of Tom Baumgartner and Blake Shell; Platform's Examined Relations features Scott Ellegood and Kenneth Shorr.

The crusty, dusty desert town of Tucson is also a hotbed of space, optics and information technology. "It isn't a surprise," reads DCA's release, "that Tucson's artist community reflects the cultural influence of the city, and is creating work on the same cutting edge."

As art director for the Tucson public relations firm Ridgewood Associations, Tom Baumgartner describes himself as "between two worlds," yearning for the perfection of "man's lines and grids," though he "can't help that I exist as an infinite construct of muscle, veins and nerve tissue that relates with nature at a base level." Baumgartner--a graduate of The Art Institute of Chicago and a painter for the past 18 years--begins with photographs of natural subjects and then distorts them digitally, creating a juxtaposition of computer aesthetic with "raw, natural realism." The results of that process are then rendered in oil paint on wood panels, the pixels thus falling under organic brushstrokes.

Blake Shell turns the Internet back on itself, creating new works by sampling and combining existing images (often taken from fetish sites). Shell--who works primarily in the digital medium--incorporates both text and imagery in her work, and confesses to an outright "fascination" with the Internet. "We take pieces from others and combine them to make our own world," she says. "In my work, this process comes full circle ..."

UA professor Kenneth Shorr has an impressive exhibition history, including the New Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For Platform's latest exhibition, Shorr brings out his digital photographic collage work. Beginning with vintage photographs, Shorr combines the images digitally and makes a single print from each composite image. The results--one-of-a-kind digital prints--buck the make-a-million-for-29-cents excitement of digital photography.

Though fiber art sounds like the antithesis of all things digital, Scott Ellegood--who refers to cloth as "a repository of memory"--picks up with one where the other leaves off, creating "an anonymous face emerging from the shadows." Images--"rarely of anyone specific," says Ellegood--are digitally manipulated; the portraits are then embroidered onto a cotton and silk background. The images, which look wholly different when 2 feet away than they do at 15 or 20, "will reveal what they want, when they want to. ..." says Ellegood. "They need to be approached as one would approach a person."

The two galleries will hold a joint opening reception from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 8. DCA's regular hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; Platform is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 792-4503 or 882-3886, respectively.