Pixelated Utopia: A review of the hyper-contemporary at Real Tinsel

Bryant Girsch, work meeting

Is the world we live in via our phones and digital devices still a world?

I’m not a philosopher, but artists are philosophers by nature, and painters naturally create worlds in rectangles. “Hyper-Contemporary”, presented at the Real Tinsel Gallery in Milwaukee, is a collaboration between the gallery and the white cube showcase and Hasbrook Galleries Online. Sixteen artists from nine countries, spanning four continents, express “localized visions of the increasingly tangled fabric of space, time and self”.

This exhibit consists primarily of paintings and works on paper, often resembling the quirky inside jokes of online communities and meme culture. At other times, they express the existential anxiety and boredom we feel after scrolling around the living room too long while the sun shines outside.

Bryant Girsch’s “Work Meeting” shows an empty, gray meeting room from a unique perspective, echoing Renaissance compositions. The scene is punctuated by a laptop computer wearing the wallpaper landscape, “Bliss”, used by Windows XP. “Bliss” is one of the most viewed photographs in the world, an archetype of the faux sublime. In Girsch’s painting, the photo is also projected onto a wall monitor. Nature is split, our perceived pleasure expanding exponentially.

bird’s eye view of another bird, Luke van H

Interestingly, many of these artists turned to the use of airbrushing in their work. In vogue in the Pop era, this tool resurfaced with painters such as Keltie Ferris and Laura Owens. Here the artists seem to be using the airbrush to create an engagement with the smooth surfaces of mechanical reproduction and screens. Airbrushing frees the hand from the surface of these paintings, allowing the images to float off the canvas with ease.

“Skin Template” by Mattia Guarnera is a fractured portrait on two panels. As the title suggests, we see that Guarnera took the wrinkled, mottled surfaces of skin as his subject matter. It looks like a portrait photo has been digitally stretched, drawing the face and body onto a flattened surface. Also using airbrush, the painting has the feel of faces or cigarette butts copied from Xerox machines, or more formally, the flayed figure of Michelangelo’s self-portrait in the Sistine Chapel. Of course, the term “model” in the title sends the viewer back to the digital environment, reminding us of the strange simulacra we are witnessing. Martin Kacmarek’s wispy cowboy paintings in the exhibition are cut from a similar fabric.

The filtering of the natural world through our digital experience also stands out in “Birdseye View of Another Bird”, by Luke van H. The viewer looks at a red bird that appears to be about to land on a computer generated birdbath surrounded by green grass. The point of view and the title allow us to imagine ourselves watching this daily drama as it unfolds. Watching this voyeuristic scene, I couldn’t help but think of the bizarre Gen Z conspiracy “Birds Aren’t Real” and its layers of falsehood betraying the falsehood.

In the end, I admit I had a hard time attaching myself to some of these paintings. Sometimes they left me feeling like I accidentally walked into a cool kid’s party. I felt unable to grasp the references or have the right context to know exactly what was going on. Nonetheless, as I left the show and felt the authentic Milwaukee winter hit my face, I was fascinated to think that paintings can be a vehicle for expressing our pixelated utopias, that painting itself can be a means of communicating the death of painting. This show rewards paradox and celebrates the present in an unprecedented way.

“Hyper-Contemporary” plays at The Real Tinsel, 1013 West Historic Mitchell, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, through April 4.

Christopher S. Washington