Human Touch in the Age of Tech

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Human Touch in the Age of Tech

By Zach Horn February 6, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Artificial intelligence (AI) will be disruptive. There is a wave coming from Apple, Facebook, and Google that will break upon our utility, inundate our self-determination, and wash away the value of our judgment. The AI waters have already reached the shores of painting. In October 2018, Christie’s auctioned the first artwork created by artificial intelligence, Portrait of Edmond Belamy (2018), for $432,500. The creators, an AI arts collective called Obvious, cribbed their applied AI method, Generative Adversarial Network, from open-source code. Their algorithm mashed together fifteen thousand digital images of paintings from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries until a computer couldn't determine if the result had been made by a human or machine. It's a ho-hum painting, a Photoshop-filtered Sargent-like portrait.

Against the backdrop of these advancing technologies, the painters Nicole EisenmanMonica Majoli, and Ann Toebbe craft paintings-as-sociological-studies that grapple with how humans fit into an increasingly automated world. Like J.M.W. Turner painting the industrial revolution, there is a necessary role for brilliant artists such as these in our digital age. Even now, technology can be dehumanizing, isolating, and compulsorily public. Eisenman’s, Majoli's, and Toebbe’s paintings emphasize the importance of human touch. In contrast with AI's mimicry, they probe rather than copy human peculiarities.

Nicole Eisenman is one of the most acerbic and funny contemporary painters. She has recurrently turned her brush to our obsession with gadgets. In Weeks on the Train (2015)Eisenman centers on a passenger ensconced in her laptop, her potbelly peeking out. This is the antisocial side of personal electronics, without eye contact, companionship, or human interaction. The comical, James Ensor-ish jesters in the row before the protagonist only emphasize her solitude. Eisenman paints a related picture in Breakup (2011), in which a canvas-filling face stares despondently into a phone. Notably, she does not reveal what her subjects see on their screens. This angle emphasizes the psychological impact of technology without showing viewers the actual message. In Selfie (2014), Eisenman paints a profile of a reclining Gustonian head gazing into his phone, which shines back his enlarged cartoon eye. Here, a viewer does see the screen, but it only acts as a mirror. Eisenman shows us an altogether-too-familiar reflection: individuals, lost and melancholy, left to their devices.

Native Angeleno Monica Majoli presents another take on reflected bodies. Her series Black Mirror, begun in 2009, shows shade-on-shade images of her nude exes, painted and drawn from staged photographs, which hang as diptychs with architectural, abstract lithographs. The series title alludes to the blackened mirrors with which a previous homeowner had lined the walls of Majoli’s bedroom—though for today’s viewers it will certainly conjure the eponymous Netflix show, which explores the dark underbelly of high-tech near-futures. The paintings are intimate in scale, in subject, and in pictorial composition. Majoli pushes the viewer into the personal space of the women. In Black Mirror (Judie) (2012), for example, we can almost feel Judie’s breath emanating from her spot-lit lips as she lies naked in noir darkness. In Black Mirror (Pamela) (2012), the subject lounges in a suggestively post-coital repose. Majoli’s paintings are uncomfortably revealing and confrontationally personal. They are like John and Yoko giving interviews from bed, letting virtual strangers into private lives. In the revisionist interpretation in which the phrase black mirror means a screen of a shut-down device, the viewer of these paintings is the cellphone left on the nightstand, given entre into a bedroom that should be off limits.

Ann Toebbe similarly offers viewers in-depth access to her domestic scenes. She primarily paints top-down views of houses with an aesthetic of early versions of “The Sims” video games: flat saturated colors, patterns, and minutiae, without rendering or cast shadows. Many of her compositions zoom in past the roof, so that a viewer peers into yard and house simultaneously. Depicting both interior and exterior spaces in the same picture is a classic move in the style of Piero della Francesca. But Toebbe presents multiple views in impossible concurrence, making the viewer omniscient. In Family Room (Sister) (2017), Toebbe details so much about the household—a family of five with three daughters and a cat, who like to watch the Cincinnati Bengals—that it’s like TMI. Toebbe's cataloging straddles intimacy and awkwardness; it’s less data breach than Facebook over-sharing. Social media has increased our tolerance for what is acceptably made public, which makes the exposure in Toebbe's paintings normative.

Ann Toebbe. Family Room (Sister), 2017; gouache on panel; 28 x22 inches. Courtesy of Zevitas Marcus.

Toebbe's downward perspective implies the viewer is in the air, hovering. Until the advent of the airplane in 1911, most artists placed the viewpoint on the ground or close to it. However, the martial nature of aircraft, beginning with the First World War, gave some early artistic depictions of flight a sinister shade. Note the malevolence in Tullio Crali's Incuneandosi nell'abitato (1939), painted two years after Guernica exposed the horrors of aerial bombardment. Toebbe's work flies much closer to the ground, so that the paintings aren't so much soaring over cities as spying into backyards, as in Around the Block (Ohio) (2017). Toebbe lets us in, not as invited guests but as invading drones. Her radical perspectival shifts absorb the impact of technology, from the Wright brothers to Google Maps, on contemporary viewers’ sense of space and privacy. 

Nicole Eisenman, Monica Majoli, and Ann Toebbe employ the imagery and implications of technology with subtlety, never losing the imprint of the human body that makes their work so personal. There is something about each artist’s touch that makes the paintings feel warm. They have been handled. As we brace for the impending AI tide from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Cupertino, these painters are producing black mirrors covered in fingerprints: timely and poignant work that reveals a beautiful, vulnerable humanity.  

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