Good Life, with its pixilated image of a bottle of Joy, is an ironic ode to consumerism -- and an early example of digital art.
Good Life, with its pixilated image of a bottle of Joy, is an ironic ode to consumerism -- and an early example of digital art.
Courtesy of Moody Gallery

Digital Manual

Artists Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom met when they were both teaching at Smith College. By 1973 they were living together, mostly in Bloom's studio. They wondered if they could make art together, too. Both had worked with drawing and painting, but it was photography into which they wanted to delve deeper. The pair coined the collaborative pseudonym Manual in the spring of 1974 and have been working as a team ever since.

Manual has evolved along with technology, and their body of work also includes film, video and digital media as well as objects and installations. A watershed show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which hasn't exactly shown a lot of new media art, is presenting a retrospective of their work called "Manual: Two Worlds -- The Collaboration of Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom." It's also an important show for Manual, whose role in the evolution of digital art is not widely known.

Before turning to photography, Bloom was a minimalist whose paintings had become objects that didn't reference anything. This was during the period of the Vietnam War, student uprisings and unrest in Cambodia. "I felt somewhat helpless to respond to it with my minimalist art," she says. "I essentially painted myself into a corner and used photography to get out of it."


"Manual: Two Worlds -- The Collaboration of Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom"

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet

Through May 23; 713-639-7300

Hill's route was different. "In 1967 I went to see Blow Up, and photography was the center of the film," he recalls. "I went on Friday to see it, and I went back again on Sunday and bought a Pentax on Monday morning. It was something new that I was ready for."

Manual chose to collaborate using photography and video because, unlike, say, drawing, the medium didn't betray whose hand did what. Their first series, "Art in Context: Homage to Walter Benjamin" (1974), utilizes traditional photography. The works wittily remove art from the museum context. In one, a reproduction of a Rembrant self-portrait is placed at the base of a tree and dubbed Rembrandt in the Grass. Meanwhile, French TV puts Jean-Auguste Ingres's iconic 1814 Grand Odalisque on a '70s-era portable TV.

Some of their other photographic works have a '60s-inspired performance aspect to them. The "Woodland Rituals" (1974-75) series depicts woods, nakedness and forest-floor detritus -- the artists were trying to physically interact with nature and, according to Bloom, being attacked by mosquitoes.

Hill and Bloom moved to Houston to teach in 1976. Their work from the mid-'80s features brightly colored, engaging pop-culture images fueled with a postmodern zeitgeist. The series "Videology" (1983-84) features images shot from a TV screen or staged and videotaped by Manual; a plastic Mickey Mouse figure coexists with Jimmy Swaggart, an electric chair and a book called Marx and Engels: The German Ideology held closed by two red metal C-clamps.

Good Life (1986-87) is an ironic ode to consumerism featuring a pixilated image of a bottle of Joy dishwashing liquid overlaid by the text of the title. The photograph is a good example of Manual's early use of digital imaging. The two bought their first computer in 1985, but they didn't have the same interest in computers that they had in photography and video. "We were less excited with the computer, but we could see that it made things possible," remembers Hill. "Later on it became like a studio in a box."

In the early '70s, the couple bought land for a getaway in rural Vermont. Slowly, pop culture receded, and nature began to reassert itself in their lives and work. They used video to capture and incorporate rural scenes. Gray's Auction (1987) is a slow-motion meditation on a poor farmer selling a favorite horse. PAST/ORAL (movements III & V) (1991) uses footage from Jack and Jill log-sawing competitions and shots of guys competing with souped-up, jet-fueled, phallic-looking chain saws attacking logs. Its audiotrack incorporates phrases of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

The advent of editing software for home computers and digital video was a boon for the duo. In the "Arcadia" series as well as other works, they've used the computer to insert virtual 3-D constructions into natural worlds in photographs and video. The objects are brightly colored and geometric, heightening the sense of the artificial and the man-made -- the artists are choosing to make works that look obviously computer-generated.

Moving beyond video, Manual is now designing computer programs that generate animation as works are viewed. The Protracted Image: Big White Pine (2nd version) (2002-2003) is visually and conceptually intriguing: They shot 1,620 digital photographs of a massive white pine between September and December. Projected wall-size, the computer changes the tranquil scene almost imperceptibly from evening to morning, from fall to snowy winter.

The artworks in the show succeed or fail independent of the technology used to create them. The earlier pieces and those from the mid-'80s are the most immediately engaging. A quiet sense of loss and lament pervades many of the nature-focused works, but the later "Arcadia" series becomes more of a hermetic intellectual exercise. As Manual explores nature and relations between man and nature, the artists' desire to avoid stridency and obvious advocacy sometimes results in images that are too measured or ambiguous to engage the viewer. This could be a side effect of the collaboration that has served the duo so well in other aspects. The rough edges of personal idiosyncrasy have been increasingly rounded off in Manual's works.

Throughout their collaboration, Manual has worked on the cutting edge of new media, but not because they're technophiles. Their work isn't about technological showmanship; they use technology as a tool. The retrospective was organized by the International Center for Photography in New York and brought to the MFAH by photography curator Ann Tucker, who included additional works. And the exhibition is a tremendous step forward for the MFAH as an institution -- curatorially as well as technically. Installation requirements for film, video and computer-generated works are involved and expensive. And MFAH director Peter Marzio gave Manual prime first-floor space in the Beck building for the show. That's a big deal. The duo had anticipated being consigned to the basement slot currently held by the gunsmithing exhibition.


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