by Janine Stankus
From children who gaze at the sky, clouds elicit wonder and awe. These days, contemplating “The Cloud” in connection with our technological futures provokes a certain metaphysical anxiety. IN THE CLOUD, a group exhibit opening at NYC’s Ethan Cohen Fine Arts today explores converging notions of the cloud as both a mythical entity connected to the gods and a digital trove that’s equally omnipresent yet intangible.
For curator Alexandra Loulias, the cloud concept encompasses two artistic movements that she’s observed: “process art,” rooted in organic materials with emphasis on traditional practices, and art that attempts to digest the digital. The 22 artists featured in this show represent the convergence of these two movements. Paintings, sculptures, plants and manipulated canvases mingle amidst the glow of monitors, neon texts, and a cloud machine—forming a nebula of super-charged works. We spoke with Loulias and several artists involved in the striking show.
At the center of the gallery, a congregation of salt sculptures poised on slabs of salvaged marble form a sort of temple to materiality. Artist Mollie McKinley uses hammers and chisels, pressurized water and storm rain to erode the 50-pound livestock licks into marrow-like monoliths. “The process of making them is an integral physical meditation, deeply corporeal and messy,” explains McKinley. “Process art takes religious rites and ancient ritual as its precedent; it views the artist as an essential intermediary between nature and object reality.”
While process art embraces human agency and materiality, digital art often takes physical detachment as its subject. Loulias’ reflection on memory and technology was the catalyst for this show. The more human data we dump into The Cloud—from phone numbers to photographs to facts we can Google any number of times over—the less we have to rely on our internal memories. “I considered that maybe we have decided to direct technology in this way because memories can be painful,” she says. “Maybe by evolving out of our ability to remember and externalizing all of our information to our devices, we have actually found a way to be free from our past.”
This self-effacing impulse constitutes the data cloud’s ominous underbelly, prodded by several other artists in the show. Eric Yevaks actively seeks erasure through repetitive action, moving back and forth between digital images and paint to produce a completely diffuse image. “I want to get lost in this fog to lose my identity, to stumble out clean and purified,” he states.
“Dreamliner” from the NYC-based Franklin Collective (artists Mark John Smith and Matt Whitman) also touches on this theme, employing digitally scanned film footage to explore what constitutes presence. The title alludes to Boeing’s first all-composite aircraft, The Dreamliner, which the artists see as a symbol of our “obsession with the reduction of mass and a drive to diminish the burden of physical trace.”
In context of the show, the cloud is also emblematic of competing desires to be guided by some omnipotent force and to control our own existence (ie: through curated representations of ourselves online). Noah Sokoloff’s glass-splattered canvases, steeped in the tradition of glassmaking, juxtapose the ordering principles of craft and the organized chaos of process art. Artist Liliana Gao layers oils to create cumulus abstractions that beg to be gazed into formations. “Where We Begin and End” by Christopher Lin reminds us of the hand we have in natural cycles of creation and destruction, inviting the user to blow a cloud of ink-tinged bubbles onto the gallery wall over a bed of plants that physically recoil from the the splatter.
From salt set on stone to industrial clouds caught on video to digital blips captured on a canvas, all of these pieces in tandem comment on a crucial moment in our technological evolution. “I think the juxtaposition between process/material and digital brings a realization that we are still of this earth,” says McKinley. “Even if we can find ways to transcend our bodies through avatars and abstract networks.” So, with our feet on the earth and our heads in The Cloud, the thought becomes: where do we drift from here?
IN THE CLOUD opens today, 25 June 2015 with a reception at 6PM at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, and will run through 28 August. For those who can’t make it, a livestream will be available.
Images courtesy of respective artists and Ethan Cohen Fine Arts