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Digital Dexterity

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Over its rise from scientific novelty to market commodity, "digital" is a word that has become synonymous with technocracy and hype, with the profusion of "time- and labor- saving" devices that clutter up our lives and take lifetimes to master. Fascinating yet frustrating, digital technology has revolutionized communications media while leaving many feeling that the world had been made somehow less substantial in the process. Which may have only been inevitable, considering that so much of what once seemed sacrosanct has now been reduced to so much computer code.

It was once widely believed that digital technologies would revolutionize the fine arts as well, but so far nothing remotely like that has happened. The most prominent exhibition of digital art to date, last year's Bitstreams show at New York's Whitney Museum, left many feeling underwhelmed, perhaps because we are inundated with digital effects in the mass media already. And now a digital expo at the Contemporary Arts Center raises the question: What might one expect from a show with the almost oxymoronic title of Digital Louisiana anyway?

Forget Central Standard Time; Louisiana exists in a zone of its own where the most pressing scientific challenge is to develop the best remoulade sauce. In that context, Digital Louisiana is a kind of cybernetic jambalaya, a gumbo of techniques and effects. Although it runs the gamut from sophisticated to primitive, its most surprising revelation may be the extent to which digital technologies have infiltrated traditional media. For instance, Teresa Cole's Trapped is a juxtaposition of a figure and a floral pattern that might have been borrowed from an Old Master painting. By isolating the imagery into sharply etched silhouettes, Cole concisely conveys an antique mini-drama in a starkly contemporary context. Once, photography would have been used to etch the images onto a lithography plate; now digital techniques generate faster and sharper results. Similarly, painter Frahn Koerner uses her computer as a "virtual sketchbook" that enables her to work out compositions and color combinations on the screen before finalizing the results in paint on canvas.

Such mix-and-match methods are nothing new to Linda Frese, the longtime cyber queen of Cajun country, who for years has created surreal digital images from found materials combined with her own photographs. Heartbeat, a maze of French Quarter scenes, Spanish moss, cemeteries, bayous and African drums, typifies Frese's cyber night-tripper mumbo jumbo, perhaps the closest thing to what a name like Digital Louisiana might imply. It flirts with hokum, but is redeemed somewhat by the ghosts of Max Ernst and Clarence Laughlin lurking invisibly in the recesses of its convoluted composition.

Such approaches suggest a view of digital technology as the ultimate collage medium, and to some extent that may be the case. Clifton Webb transposes his intriguing Afro-cubist photo-collages directly into digital prints with minimal manipulation. Even Paul Higham's extravagantly animated projection Still Life With French Horn and Virus -- a kind of room-size screen saver with a manic life of its own -- began with a scan of a French horn. Yet, some artists create new forms seemingly out of the blue, without resorting to pre-existing materials. Michael Greathouse employs 3-D computer drafting programs to design plastic sculptures inspired by video games, toys, the Internet and "the aesthetic of digital simulation" that spawned them. The final result is abstract, a minimal head trip of pop culture forms detached from any known functions.

Among the most purely digital works in the show are John Simon's graphic abstractions displayed on screens from junked Apple PowerBooks running programs he wrote himself. A personal favorite is Complex City, an abstract cityscape with overtones of Mondrian, Peter Halley and Eduardo Paolozzi, in which perpetually moving colored squares weave in and out of glowing abstract grids like cars navigating city streets in infinitely variable patterns. If Simon's cyber-concoctions are pristinely austere, David Sullivan's painterly images are more figurative and flamboyant. Using "paint" and "draw" computer programs utilizing a hand-held stylus, Sullivan concocts surreal psyche-environmental landscapes like Fountain in which mythic alchemical mutants emerge from the industrial backwash of local bayous. Products of the artist's hand, mind and computer, Sullivan's cyber-paintings reflect the pronounced diversity of a show that is more of a collective cyber-snapshot than a final statement -- a digital work in progress toward destinations unknown.

David Sullivan's Fountain evokes a surreal psyche-environmental landscape, reflective of the diverse nature of the CAC's Digital Louisiana exhibit.
  • David Sullivan's Fountain evokes a surreal psyche-environmental landscape, reflective of the diverse nature of the CAC's Digital Louisiana exhibit.

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