Digital art is fascinating
The art of portraiture is undeniably ancient — marble busts of Roman emperors, stone homages to pharaohs, lifelike renditions of polytheistic deities all gave way to stoic seated royals in paintings, sensual socialites in ethereal tulles, provocative models on the covers of fashion magazines, and way too many selfies on MySpace, Facebook, and now the all-too-ephemeral, brightly highlighted Snapchats.
But I’m not an art history professor right now, which is probably a good thing, because I seriously doubt bright young minds are eager to study Snapchat just yet. What I am doing, however, is watching the relationship between digitization and the self not only correspond, but actually merge. The last two years of technology have negated a fascinating expression of self-portraiture.
I was inspired today by a Richard Prince compilation that “averaged” all the faces of Seinfeld’s girlfriends, and the examination of averaging in photography on Petapixel. Apart from being distinctively aesthetically cohesive with Prince’s soft brushstrokes of nurses and Tiffany logos, that he has begun experimenting with digitization is exciting. Typically, he is known for reappropriating brands and iconic commercial images, even facing lawsuits for using exact logos and photos of others.
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Prince rarely delves into portraiture. A famous image of the nude 10-year-old Brooke Shields is perhaps his best known, suggestive in its dichotomized subject matter of childhood and sexuality. The work is titled “Spiritual America,” and while it has been deemed largely pornographic, the concept of selling the child’s body is still in league with his other studies of branding. Averaging of faces has a similarly commercial angle. What is the ideal face, and to whom is it marketed?
The title “Spiritual America” is significant in this case, as the new American cultural trend of combined facial data spans sociopolitical platforms. The October issue of National Geographic featured a more scientific angle on merging faces in discussion of multiethnic census forms. For National Geographic, the averaging is not digital, but biological: the fascination with overlapping ethnicities gives way to greater understandings of facial evolution. Averaging is being used to seek so-called beauty, to the point where the averaging software itself seeks anatomical regularities. Petapixel even examines the average of celebrity beauty, and opens the possibility of creating the so-called perfect face.
Outside of averaging software, digitization in artistic portraiture does take other forms around the world. Armenian-born Tigran Tsitoghdzyan is known for his “Mirror” series (2012), in which he paints hyperrealistic faces that overlap features onto covering hands. The facial features pop out of the translucent hands, effecting a striking and unusual illusion. Tsitoghdzyan’s work is uniquely contemporary, in that it addresses the evolving understanding of the face in art and technology through its layering and provocative features.
From an art historical standpoint, this attention to detail and realism is reminiscent of other movements in human study, from representational approaches in Greco-Roman sculpture to the British neorealism of the early 20th century. The emphasis on authenticity often stems from an abundance of creative counterculture, as a quest for something pronouncedly real. Lithuanian artist Tadao Cern takes old master works and recreates them with digital technology. His series is called “Revealing the Truth” (2013), which recalibrates a portrait of Vincent van Gogh and the “Mona Lisa” by systematically overlapping the oil paint with model-based images off a digital camera. The urge to find the “real” subject pairs with the new trend of averaging faces, because it’s a sense of literal and exacting truth that is becoming a major movement in contemporary art. The painterly effects of oil on canvas are subservient to the absolute, status-worthy truth.
Multitudes of faces increasingly find their way into art and statistics, so it is no surprise that greats like Richard Prince are jumping on board. What will continue to prove surprising, however, is the changing mindset of a generation overloaded by faces. The more faces we see, the more relevant averaging becomes.