"VIRTUAL" ART?

May 20, 2020  •  5 Comments

 

IS VIRTUAL ART THE FUTURE WE WANT?

 

I'm publishing this recent excerpt from my photography journal to initiate a conversation about online "galleries" and art sales during these rapidly evolving times. Your thoughts and ideas are welcome, either below or in the social media posts linked to this page.

NOTE: The panel discussion Experiencing Art: Under Lockdown & Beyond was inspired by this journal entry, hosted by Juri Koll (Venice Institute of Contemporary Art) and featuring Tarrah von Lintel (Von Lintel Gallery), Claudia James Bartlett (Director: Photo LA), and myself. A recording of the engaging, one hour ZoomCast is available here.


Journal Entry – Chungking Studio – May 9, 2020Journal Entry – Chungking Studio – May 9, 2020Photo: Osceola Refetoff

 

Journal Entry – Chungking Studio – May 9, 2020


Something on most artists' minds these days is how this world pandemic will affect our lives, our work, and the exhibition/sale of artwork in the near, intermediate, and long-term future. While complete answers to these questions are unknowable, this feels like a good time to explore what the post-pandemic art world might look like, and consider strategies to meet the new challenges and opportunities.

I do not like change, not as a general rule. A day doesn't pass without some pang of nostalgia, particularly with regards to how technology has devalued the things I hold dear. So what might this brave new world look like? How best to prepare for an uncertain future? And what evolutionary path is in store for photography?

Today, people and businesses are scrambling to move their existence online. Personally, I can't stand the idea. It's the opposite direction I want for myself and the world I inhabit. But the forces pushing our interactions into the ether are irresistible. I can only hope that we also experience a growing appreciation for things in the real world, and not all just tunnel deeper into our burrows.

It seems clear that many businesses I love will not survive. This despite remarkable optimism on Wall Street and fanciful pronouncements ("cheerleading") from the White House. Some of these lost businesses will be galleries, many already struggling to hold on pre-COVID-19. This makes me enormously sad, as I hold deeply to the archaic notion that art is best appreciated in real life.

Galleries closing is sad, but is it bad? Yes, if course it is – having spaces to show and see art is absolutely essential. But might there be certain benefits to some galleries closing? Is it possible that there are too many exhibition spaces in Los Angeles?

 

Art Collection – Chungking Studio – 2020Art Collection – Chungking Studio – 2020

Art Collection – Chungking Studio – 2020


I've seen a great deal of art in the last few years, some of it not very compelling. Could a reduction in exhibition opportunities increase the overall quality of work? And with many artists taking advantage of this time to reflect on their process, might the pandemic inspire enduring new creations? I wonder if our collective experience might even stimulate a cohesive art movement or two, the likes of which we have not seen since the very idea of art movements was seemingly discarded towards the end of the last century.

Damn, I am so old fashioned, I'm scaring myself. But, back to the future...

Galleries will close and art “experiences" will migrate online in an accelerating manner. While this is neither all good nor all bad, I fear the worst. Art requires context, and that's something the Internet does not provide to a meaningful extent. A quick Google search of an artist gives little insight into their life, their work, and the ideas that underpin their career. Often, a bunch of images just flicker past in random-ish order, giving us a false sense of knowledge and understanding. 

Luckily, we have books and museums and art writers to help us explore deeper meaning, but we've also become increasingly satisfied with cursory perusals. As far as contemporary artists are concerned, how will we truly come to know and experience their work as it migrates increasingly online, no matter how "immersive" the virtual experience?

Regardless of my passionate entreaties, to the Internet art will inevitably go. And of course, for the time being, online exhibitions are what we have. Clearly, some art forms will fare better than others. Video is a natural fit, but any type of subtle, non-graphic work is probably doomed. Photography may do okay with some caveats.

 

Launch LA – "Paradox California" – Osceola Refetoff & Chelsea Dean – Los Angeles, California – 2019Launch LA – "Paradox California" – Osceola Refetoff & Chelsea Dean – Los Angeles, California – 2019Photo: Osceola Refetoff

 Pre-COVID-19 opening – Paradox California: Chelsea Dean & Osceola Refetoff – Launch LA – 2019 
 

Launch LA – "Paradox California" – Osceola Refetoff & Chelsea Dean – Los Angeles, California – 2019Launch LA – "Paradox California" – Chelsea Dean & Osceola Refetoff – Los Angeles, California – 2019Left to right:
Charred House on Trinity Street – Sunset – Mojave, California – 2016
Edition of 10 – Framed: 25x36x1.25”/64x91x3cm $3200
Paper size: 24x35”/61x89cm $2800 (unframed), Image area: 18x27"/46x69cm

Remains of the Fruitland Fire – Dawn – Thermal, California – 2016
Edition of 20 – Framed: 25x36x1.25”/64x91x3cm $2500
Paper size: 24x35”/61x89cm $2200 (unframed), Image area: 18x27"/46x69cm

Both images are also available in a smaller-sized edition of 20
Paper size: 17x22”/43x56cm $1200 (unframed), Image area: 12x18"/33x46cm

Installation photo © Elon Schoenholz

 What your next gallery visit may look like...
 

The Internet "democratizes" photography in two problematic ways. When we gaze upon our small, backlit screens, great photographs do indeed look good. But so do good and even mediocre images, better in fact then they would look printed. Contrarily, truly outstanding photographs require in-person viewing to fully appreciate their luminance and subtle detail. Ideally this viewing is in a well-lit space devoid of excessive distraction. Add a measure of context by placing the work in well-curated conversation with other images, and you have the makings of a transformative experience.

Online viewing tends to be the opposite of all that. Rather than a thoughtfully selected presentation, we often experience a random onslaught of disjointed images. Welcome to your Instagram feed. So while photography is ever-present in our lives, its pervasiveness actually diminishes it as an art form. I call this the marginalization of ubiquity. And these same forces also erode salability.

Many galleries have addressed these issues by championing the photo that is not a photo. What's hot today are unique editions of non-camera-based exposures or various mixed-media interventions specifically intended to make the finished piece something "more" than a photograph. To be clear, I am a fan of much of this work, and cognizant of the collector appeal of one-of-a-kind artworks. But I do hope this time in isolation will renew interest in photography's primary function: the representation of real things in the world.

Of course, there are ways to improve the online viewing experience. Without question, every artist and gallery requires a well-designed and regularly updated website. But during the course of this entry, I've come to believe that a rush to show artwork on the web may actually be counterproductive. To me, viewing new work online before an exhibition decreases the pleasure of discovering it in person.

 

Von Lintel Gallery – Does Not Reproduce – May-Jul 2019Von Lintel Gallery – Does Not Reproduce – May-Jul 2019LINK TO EXHIBITION GALLERY

Artists: Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Christiane Feser, Rosemarie Fiore, Valerie Jaudon, Chuck Kelton, Klea McKenna, Floris Neusüss, Kate Petley, Osceola Refetoff, Paul Rusconi, Christopher Russell, Joachim Schulz, Joseph Stashkevetch, Canan Tolon, Michael Waugh, John Zinsser

Does Not Reproduce – 2019  "The exhibition will display works of art that suffer significantly from their translation to a 1080 x 1080 pixelated square."  (photo/quote courtesy Von Lintel Gallery)


In the end, isn't that the very experience we're trying to sell? Are we not specifically asking collectors to value the opportunity to experience well-crafted images in their homes, on their walls, in their real and actual daily lives? As a collector as well as a photographer, I'm supremely conscious of the value of living with artwork, particularly so during this time of self-isolation. 

I well understand that galleries are having a tough time. I get that collectors are increasingly fickle, at least partially because their noses are buried in their phones. It has become increasingly evident that many galleries will need to go out of business, perhaps via the intermediate step of moving their operations entirely online. The reduced number of physical galleries that remain may best be served by re-embracing their traditional role of connecting artists and collectors by establishing context, value, and the desirability of ownership for the carefully selected work they represent.

So fewer galleries presenting more relevant artwork, serving a relatively constant pool of genuinely informed and engaged art patrons. People who continue to value interacting with art in real life, first in galleries, and later in the comfort and safety of their well-curated homes.

I believe the fool's race to chasing online eyeballs will result in the same fate of our great journalistic institutions, increasingly absent from our daily lives in this time of greatest need. As a photojournalist, I know firsthand how that story turns out. Actually, what do I know? I still get the L.A. Times delivered to my home, where I'm constantly scheming about how to fill every square inch with artwork.

So sure, we'll be looking at art exclusively online for the foreseeable future. But it's my hope that this time of self-isolation will rekindle an appreciation for real things in the real world. When the doors finally re-open for social-distance-appropriate viewing, let's reflect on the blank wall space we've all stared at for months, and enrich our own lives by supporting local artists and galleries. As I recall reading in the L.A. Weekly, one good thing about physical galleries, you're not allowed to touch anything anyway.

 

Art Collection – Chungking Studio – 2020Art Collection – Chungking Studio – 2020

Art Collection – Chungking Studio – 2020 – I see empty wall space!

 

Journal excerpt lightly edited for clarity and length. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

 

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Comments

Osceola Refetoff
Great comment Scott. As we discussed yesterday, you have a true facility with words, also evidenced in the thought-provoking titles you invent for your paintings. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and focus our attention on the positive. The best advice usually applies directly to there person giving it. ;)
Scott A Trimble(non-registered)
Recently a very wise friend gently nudged me to focus on the positive. In that light I offer this: as many retail businesses move wholly online, there will be plenty of emptied commercial real estate downvalued and available for gallery experiences, even if those are serial pop-ups. Secondly, as certain as sea change feels now, in the early pandemic, things likely will return more surely to our known paths and passages among the three dimensions. Ultimately I think it will be hard to keep us apart. Our ride on this planet finds hills and valleys, some scary, some thrilling, but always, always in motion. Things change, yes. Remember, though, they will change again. Let’s continue to face the sun and feel the warmth, even If our eyebrows sometimes are slightly singed. Let’s keep our eyes open. There must be some great art developing in heads and hearts even now, even as we speak.
Osceola Refetoff
Hi Claudia! You're right that photographs were once mostly viewed in books. Back then, the print quality was pretty bad, especially compared to the outstanding reproduction in books today. Definitely the closest experience to seeing the work IRL. And photography books remain surprisingly popular, perhaps because you can enjoy them without needing to charge the batteries. ;)

Oh and I think the ZoomCast is Thursday, June 11th at 1pm.
Claudia James Bartlett(non-registered)
Hi ~ My feeling is that great always wins out. During this time of more online than in person viewing has made me appreciate truly great works even if I am not viewing them in person. If you really want to dial things back... there was once a time when people didn’t have the luxury of seeing works in person but, felt privileged to just see the image in a book. Not that I am promoting that, that is the best way to witness great work. But, great work can communicate even when removed from their original state. That doesn’t help artist that are trying to make a living. But it counts for a lot . Love your thoughts on this and looking forward to June 10th
dfm(non-registered)
"The digital image annihilates photography while solidifying, glorifying and immortalizing the photographic." --Lev Manovich

"Photographic images used to be about the trace. Digital images are about the flow." --David Levi Strauss
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