Seattle's ArtsWest Artists' Association disconnects from the virtual world and makes art about the experience in "Unplugged Challenge."
I can scarcely believe it myself, but in my younger days I lived quite happily for three years without a telephone and for 15 years without a television.
As for personal computers, they were just a glimmer on the high-tech horizon.
Yet now, whenever a power outage or hard-drive crash exiles me from the grid, I’m shocked at how unmoored and incomplete I feel.
Curators Nichole DeMent (who recently stepped down as director of ArtsWest Gallery) and Michele Osgood (of Bherd Studios) knew exactly what kind of angst they were tapping into when they suggested to members of the ArtsWest Artists’ Association that they swear off TV, the Internet, social media and texting for a week and translate their “deprivation” into works of art. The resulting group show, “Unplugged Challenge,” is a mixed bag with some feisty highlights.
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Susan Melrath best captures the spirit of the experiment with her droll “Unhappy Unplugged,” a digitally manipulated image of an electrical outlet that’s all frowns. She presents an even direr scenario with “Permanently Unplugged,” consisting of an electrical cord tied in a hangman’s noose.
Stephen Rock’s contributions, “An Exaggeration of Data” and “Failed Silence,” are, like Melrath’s “Unhappy Unplugged,” digitally created inkjet prints. (Artists who normally worked in digital media were allowed to use digital means to explore their “unplugged” experience.) Both are marvelous meditations on information overload in which website pages, toolbars and logos are digitally “shredded” into long strips and packed with a bar code intensity into a single symphonic image.
Other artists returned to noncomputerized basics. Marty Gordon whipped up five collages on wood panel that remind us what a pleasurable experience glued-paper assemblages can be. The wittiest, “Technical Difficulties,” features, among other figures, a man in a suit with a blind, static-filled cathode-ray tube for a head.
The subtlest commentary on unpluggedness may be Glenda Weibel’s four watercolors. The largest, “The Forest,” is exactly what it sounds like: a delicate rendering of a forest landscape. The twist comes with three smaller watercolors in a similar sylvan style titled “Alabama,” “Pakistan” and “Westminster Abbey.” As Weibel notes in the show’s catalog, it was impossible, even in a disconnected state, to escape the news of tornado destruction, Bin Laden’s death and the British royal wedding.
Chris Sheridan’s painting “Disengaged” strikes the most personal note, literally rendering the “left hanging” feeling that comes with losing access to the virtual world. In it, a tattooed man is suspended in midair on what appear to be ropes of blood. At any minute, he’s going into panicky free-fall.
For a few artists, the constraint seems a bad fit. Dori Westphal, for example, confesses: “I’m always unplugged when I paint.” Her contributions, “The Olympics in January” and “As Ravens Fly,” are perfectly pleasant. But why are they here?
However the artists chose to interpret it, the concept behind the show has a power all its own.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org