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Picture Perfect

Digital technology blurs the real, the imagined and the meaning of photos as art

Like it or not, we're living a technological reality that has come alive with a kind of glittering seduction. Increasingly in everyday life, computers and art are converging: in the computer-generated technodazzle of network news logos; in the TV spot for Listerine's "Plaque Buster," which stars a computer-animated bottle of mouthwash swinging through the jungle, Tarzan-style; and in the hot new supermodel who graced the cover of Mirabella last year -- and turned out to be a digitally produced image created by art directors as "the face of America."

Yes, the computer is much quicker than the eye. In everything from action movies to family fare, shots we see aren't just captured on film but are "rendered" by megabucks of software run on high-tech computer workstations. Not surprisingly, today's photographic artists are stuck smack in the middle of a classic 20th-century dilemma: how to remain disassociated from corporate pressures while at the same time succeeding in an establishment that's dependent on corporate largesse.

The digital revolution sharpens the point of the problem, since the tools of digital culture -- rendering programs, photo and video applications -- are developed in the context of commercial art. An Adobe Photoshop ad splices together soothing sound bites to inform us that, "Reality is fine, except when it's limited by budget, backgrounds, lighting or even the occasional blemish. Enter the world of Photoshop and leave harsh reality at the door. If you can dream it, you can do it."

To be sure, with the help of computer programs such as Photoshop, anyone can create photorealistic images that then allow you to design realistic or surrealistic worlds. Anyone can get access to the technology and anyone can use it -- at least, anyone with money, experience and knowledge.

Digital technology makes it possible to create a complete world, and one that has the total appearance of reality. It lets you play God. As we become more sophisticated, the ability to subvert and counterfeit becomes equally sophisticated. The disparity between our personal reality and mediated reality becomes even greater. With digital technology, how does one know if an image is real or fabricated? What is beauty?

Of course, these are concerns that have been related to photography almost since its invention in 1839. Is a photograph a truthful representation of reality? How can photographs be manipulated to make them more or less true? How do art and technology come together in the marketplace?

These issues are given a new twist in "Metamorphoses: Photography in the Electronic Age" -- a traveling exhibition packaged by photo-book publisher Aperture -- now at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery. "Metamorphoses" examines how more than 15 leading artists create, alter, layer and enhance photographs using the latest technologies. The survey offers a vivid look at the present and potential future impact of these new technologies on photography. The selection depicts a medium in transition, pointing to the electronic crossroads where computers and photography, art and technology converge.

Digital art, of course, is the apotheosis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. The very distinction between original and copy becomes meaningless in a digital world. But digital artists aren't the first renegades to try to crack the art-world oligarchy. Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, for example, commented on art as supercommodity when he pinned a note to a wall stating that his work "need not be built." Andy Warhol undermined the idea of originality by substituting mass-produced aesthetic for the artist's individual style.

Still, the art market co-opted such efforts, since the pieces could be sold as originals. But a work created through a computer leapfrogs over notions of originality, commerce and style. A digitized work consists only of information that can be molded into a picture. But if it's not object-oriented, what has it become ?

For the artists featured in "Metamorphoses," there's an attempt to deal not only with new technology, but with new reasons to make art. Pervasive throughout the show is a marked uncertainty about what the future may hold -- there's a sense that we're at the dawning of the age of something, but no firm grasp of what that something may be.

For some observers, photography depends on the notion that the photographer experienced the scene. Digital technology, however, easily breaks that link. Was the photographer actually there, or was the image totally conceived in a computer? As the emerging field of digital imaging changes the world we live in and the way we look at pictures, "Metamorphoses" asks us to rethink the role of photography in contemporary life. Accordingly, the Blaffer Gallery show presents the boundary between photography, painting, sculpture and video as increasingly porous, leaving the photographic residing everywhere in general, but nowhere in particular.

Curiously, much of the work in "Metamorphoses" involves the potent ambiguity of technological progress, best described by Marshall McLuhan: that we drive into the future with our eyes firmly planted on the rear-view mirror. That ambivalence is suggested by MANUAL's (the Houston collaborative of Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom) 19th-century view of nature as both a spiritual and material resource. Their photorealistic Edens portray banal geometric shapes of wood floating in forests destroyed by logging. We witness the idea of landscape refracted through the lens of a projected memory.

But perhaps technology's great appeal is that it allows you to get rid of your personal memories. In exchange, of course, it gives you many other memories, many other minds, many other selves. The downside for those occupying the heights of digital reality is the extermination of human memory and sensibility. After all, nothing is for free. For every gain, something is lost -- with virtual reality comes the possible loss of actual reality. Our senses are stimulated by total simulation. Some become technological fetishists, addicted to technological euphoria.

While most of the works in "Metamorphoses" buy into a crusading spirit for a technical apocalypse, they also revel in a kind of mythic primitivism. Futurism and nostalgia, utopia and decadence, frontier mentality and the electronic frontier -- it's all a bit schizophrenic. The pictorial tensions created by James Nakagawa, Deanne Sokolin, Paul Thorel, Shelly J. Smith, Eva Sutton and others are absorbed from a number of disparate sources: they recall such modernist experiments of the 1920s as Francis Brugiere's multiple exposures and John Heartfield's photomontages as well as slick TV and magazine advertising. A number of works display a connectedness of forms that has a dreamlike coherence. Others seek to capture the experience of being physically present but emotionally distant, alienated from self, culture, body, sexuality or spirituality.

Pedro Meyer's vision of the Mixtec people of Oaxaca is a magical world of bright colors and floating figures, a world where one constantly experiences the extraordinary within the ordinary. For El Santo de Paseo (The Strolling Saint), a statue of a saint casts a shadow as it silently hovers alongside a blue wall. In La Tentacion del Angel (The Tempatation of the Angel), a tiny old woman carries a burning bush as she strides across a tabletop toward a young girl dressed in an angel costume. For her part, artist Martina Lopez uses computer technology to fabricate dreamlike landscapes. Reassembling old family images and fragments of snapshots, she aims to unhinge time in a way that reflects the personal experiences of both artist and viewer.

To suggest the elusiveness of visual experience is to call for unexpected approaches to image-making. The complexity of that task suggests why the most interesting works in "Metamorphoses" emphasize the provisional quality of their imagery, celebrating the fragmentary and the bizarre. All too often, however, the artists succumb to playing with technology for its own sake. Rather than create visual epiphanies that suggest subjective ways of seeing, these artists are obsessed with the clean, high and dry -- a cold veneer that exhibits a glossy falseness.

Overall, the digital domain seems very neurotic about cleaning up reproduction, as opposed to the dirt, dust and general messiness of the analog. A lot of computer art is, in fact, really about computer gadgetry: the intent just doesn't merge with the concept. It may attract attention for its extraordinary potential as a tool, but glitzy technology can never substitute for stridently charged subject matter and genuine artistic expression.

"Metamorphoses: Photography in the Electronic Age" shows through July 30 at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, entrance no. 16 off Cullen. 743-9530.

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