All That Is Solid …: Alex McLeod Taps the Cult of the Canadian Sublime and Explodes the Digital

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Alex McLeod’s most recent solo exhibition – his first at Division Gallery in Toronto – is aptly titled HONEYMOON, featuring a unique formal marriage between innovative digital technologies and a distinctly Canadian matrix of idolized landscapes and limitless perspectives. Marking a departure from his exclusively digital innovations, HONEYMOON subsumes national art traditions and renders monumental landscapes in new-media dimensions.

In earlier productions, McLeod consistently placed due emphasis on his very medium, demonstrating reflexivity on the potential for new media to engage new meanings. Now, as then, his structures are built from specialized digital knowledge and sophisticated commercial applications. The resulting artwork is invested in gaming culture, its evolutionary aesthetic, and the industry’s pioneering influence in producing multi-platform narratives. Still, McLeod designed this new series of artworks specifically to be activated in a contemporary gallery space – not online, not viewable from any console. Honoring and reconciling the realm of “purple lunchbox” culture within the white cube is a challenging task. McLeod expertly secures this link between the digital-gaming and visual-art arenas with an elevated phenomenological approach. Sublime iconography from the database of Canadian art is subtly referenced and evolved.

McLeod is, arguably, an early contributor to post-internet art, though his use of digital media resists easy cynicism and close-circuit referencing, opting instead to image the world as idealized hypotheticals, or phenomena with the potential to synergize global cultures. Fittingly, the artist’s signature saturated style involves a variety of popular global influences ranging from Mariko Mori’s 3-D worlds to Andreas Gursky’s aerial photographs. However in HONEYMOON, an integration of subdued Canadian content appears for the first time, as both strategic and poignant.

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I draw the safety belt and it feels like a crystalized spider web. The secured click seems amplified. My kids and I are driving home after having just viewed McLeod’s show and the youngest is looking over the list of works I received from the gallery director. “How were all these works created in one day?” she asks. I look back and see her pointing to the date – July 23, 1984 – listed beside the artist’s name for every work. I explain: “That’s the artist’s birth date.”

Given the fact the my own birth occurred 38 weeks after the death of Marcel Duchamp makes me less inclined to believe in re-incarnation and more appreciative of how artists naturally evolve the pioneering experiments of their disciplines into new genres. After my first viewing of McLeod’s new work I quickly understood new terms are required to accurately describe the unique modes of digital representation and analogue reception at play here.

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Moravisum: [mawr-uh vī’sum] From Latin i) Mora: (delay, hence, space of time); ii) Visum: (vision, mental image); noun 1. A perceived critical/aesthetic distance (esp. inherent to works of digital art) from source cultural references and conceptual origins; verb 2. Experience the sublime (esp. restored from its analogue predecessor) from a digital source.

The year 1984 commenced with a visionary promise from Apple Computers: “see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” The award-winning commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, featured an early glimpse of how the elements and aesthetics of gaming culture could be harnessed to drive transformative narratives in the most competitive emergent marketplaces. The revolutionary ad featured a heroic female protagonist stylized in Olympian-like garb wielding a sledgehammer – this occurring exactly thirty years before Marvel comics reintroduced the character of Thor as a woman. While the advent of the personal computer triggered the second-generation video-game market crash, the art market boomed. Accordingly, market success developed from the Pictures Generation was an ironic turn for a group of artists who both consumed and critically reproduced mass media imagery. Similarly, McLeod’s production both references and examines popular and contemporary media while at the same time operating within an ambitious art market.

This surge of prosperity emerged in contrast to Reagan’s conservatism and the ensuing economic recession. Orwell’s Oceania was foremost in the minds of artists working to contrast the retrospective 1950s political aesthetics. Run-DMC released their first album as the inaugural Notorious” Air Jordan 1 hit both the shoe stores and the courts. Warhol was hedging his bets by folding canvas onto itself to produce Rorschach-like paint blots for social self-analysis while at the same time feeding the American pop-culture craze by offering his Michael Jackson silkscreen for the cover of TIME.

McLeod’s early scenic tableaus of metropolises and futuristic worlds connect back to the technological shifts of the mid-eighties affecting the Canadian cultural landscape as it inched towards a digital future. The launch of Much Music secured a new stream of American pop influences to feed pre-internet Canadian youth. Surviving winter and the economic recession was alleviated with the respite offered by Nintendo systems and video culture. Its American content created a delayed feedback-loop for Canadians, who were absorbing foreign content without the ability to directly experience the context of its production.

McLeod proliferates geographical expanses. GALAXY (2015) features images of winter forests warped into a massive digital orb. In its lower section, a globe icon is rendered as a flat grid – the only remaining vector graphic in the hyper 3-D composition. It exists as both a cartographic residual and an Easter-egg find. SAPPHIRE (2015) features a massive cool-blue mountain range. The vista commands the entire frame like an Ed Ruscha peak, the pixel as refined and resolved as a hyperrealist’s brushstroke. The color scheme in a looped video titled BLOODMOUNTAINS (2015) matches the Canadian flag palette, with Kubrick’s intro to The Shining cited as a source for this infinitely-rolling vista. This reference in fact loops back, however obscurely, to Canadian art, with its connection to Alex Colville (the film features four of his paintings), and McLeod’s work affecting a digital form of Colville’s finely-organized realism in the mathematical orchestrations of 3-D wire-framing and stretched textures. Michael Snow’s experimental film La Région central (1971) also surfaces as a cinematic referent point, with his use of customized engineering and documentation of the Canadian landscape’s potential for infinite perspective.

In a bold contrast of scale, McLeod’s tiny sculpture COIN SPIRAL (2015) is easily missed. Floating atop a nondescript, miniature white shelf, the delicate work features a stack of small gold coins spinning outward in a Fibonacci sequence formation. The rewarding and possibly addictive token economy of video-game and art collecting is presented as following an invisible yet organically-fabricated order.

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This time I am alone in my car in Los Angeles and it’s 1999.

I have my radio consistently set to “The Wave” 94.7 KTWV-FM. It’s evening and it appears the station is undergoing digital reformatting as I listen to a hypnotic looped track featuring ocean sounds. The gentle waves continue to crash, only to be precisely interrupted at every two-minute mark when an announcer’s voice provides station identification and information regarding the technical upgrade. His tone seems apologetic as it punctuates the ebb and flow of the lapping waters. The prerecorded PSA doubles as a robotic metronome. I know I’m completely alone while I listen and wait, stalled in early-evening traffic on the 405. The sunset offers impressive spectra to illuminate my newly-discovered awareness of digital solitude.

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Cubusolus: [kúbos soh-luh s] From Ancient Greek κύβος i)‎ Cubus: (A mass, quantity); From Latin ii) Solus: (alone, by oneself); noun 1. An existential awareness produced in digital isolation; verb 1. Experience a sublime encounter from a solitary digital perspective.

McLeod’s DEADBOAT (2015) typifies the existential abandonment digital realms often communicate. The remnants of this new world are discovered as old-world finds: obsolesced navigation vessels submerged in hyper-real rendered waters. The scene features lingering tripartite masts obdurately breaking the surface – a crucifixion milieu – in defiance of a steady, inevitable demise.

Canadian post-disciplinary artist Lynne Heller was one of the first to explore the sublime solitude associated with virtual environments in her hybrid installation Dancing With Myself (2009). Heller’s video installation presents her Second Life avatar “Nar Duell” dancing alone in a virtual discothèque. The avatar’s movements are replicated by a single, professional dancer in the real space of the gallery, directly in front of the digital projection. The operator and player are presented in tandem. The virtual experience merges with the real space of the gallery and the art viewer becomes witness to what is normally solitary digital navigation.

McLeod employs a similar strategy of revealing digital operations in an earlier work titled Ruinz (2011). Utilizing Unreal Engine 3 video-creation software, he built an interactive environment that enables participants to move throughout a 3-D digital environment. The virtual world was uninhabited except for the active single player present in the gallery space. The classic solitary, first-person gaming perspective is made material. Both Heller and McLeod disrupt the isolation of digital travel in favor of documenting the real-time engagement of participants made aware of their sublime experiences, and the duplicity of being within both artificially-constructed and physical space at the same time.

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Fumonere: [f oo muh-ner-eh] via Old French from Latin futurus, from the stem i) Fu-: (from a base meaning ‘grow, become’); via French from Latin monumentum, ii) Monere: (remind). noun 1. Historical documentation specific to archival digital formats; verb 1. To build greater memory of analogue content via digital technologies.

LIBRARY (2015) appears as a CGI film-still inspired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford. An aerial view presents a limitless hallway in a library. Countless books are flying off the shelves to join the disarray of fallen publications scattered across the labyrinth-patterned floor below. The cause of this disruption remains a mystery. Again, this environment is void of any human presence; instead, an invisible force is at work displacing each minimally white-bound edition. In an age of rapidly-shifting archival formats, each “book” seems to represent the pixels or bytes comprising the new binary symbolic code and order.

Two sculptural works, LOWERED CHEST (2015) and RIBS (2015), replicate artifacts commonly populating gaming environments as props to help establish the specific settings of their fabricated worlds. Both of these wooden sculptures visually submerge into the gallery floor using crafted liquid angles with added quicksand duration. The minimalist low-lying forms of Ronald Poulin are rediscovered here along with Rebecca Belmore’s Spine (2001) as more Canadian treasures are revealed with some liberally interpretative digging.

The incorporation of a clearly distinguishable homage to the cult of a Canadian sublime in art – specifically the country’s canon of work documenting the solitary experience of an almost unending landscape – marks a new territory of depth for McLeod’s production. The matured potency of HONEYMOON is less reliant on respectful references and heightened by a timely consideration of how digital phenomena has altered the traditional aesthetic, quality, and location of the phenomenology of immeasurable space. McLeod’s C-prints traverse zones from Joseph Légaré’s topographies, the Group of Seven’s Scandinavian reformulations, Joyce Wieland’s voyages, and Will Gorlitz’s treetops to arrive at an altogether-distinct location. McLeod directs us to the polarized yet interfaced area discovered between the digital and analogue zones of unique, and sometimes overwhelming, spatial receptions.

Whether or not this paradoxical link between solid and iconic, Canadian art tropes and ethereal digital formats, is carried forward in later series, the potential to situate the context of his digital work within boundless territories is both McLeod’s greatest natural resource and his artistic edge.

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