Almost a Quality: Blinn & Lambert at Microscope Gallery
Blinn & Lambert: New Grey Planet at Microscope Gallery
December 15, 2017 to January 14, 2018
1329 Willoughby Avenue, #2B, between St Nicholas and Wyckoff avenues
Milk glass floats under a pendulum of light in New Grey Planet, one of Blinn & Lambert’s two title videos at Microscope Gallery, its effect both vivid and spectral enough to recall Francis Ponge’s assessment of the mollusk, “a being— almost a –quality.” Like Ponge, who wrote prose poems on subjects such as oranges, doors, and snails, the artists experiment with everyday objects (ping pong balls, rough-skinned fruit, a tennis racket) toward a personal, and intuitively precise language of things.
The exhibition hints at a narrative set in deep space but which can also feel, in Microscope Gallery’s cavernously dark gallery, like deep sea. A soundtrack of unnerving sounds – buzzers, clicks, what I think was a vacuum cleaner – emanates from the two monitor videos, New Grey Planet: Chapter 1 and New Grey Planet: Library. These videos bookend a series of installations, still life arrangements of found glassware and flimsy sculptures on glass tables, projected with blue and red light. The complex shadows they cast come to life when wearing 3D glasses, looming forward in some cases, flattening into a stark picture plane in others. Projected on the wall opposite from these installations is a large, dazzling CGI video, a completely different species of 3D.
Blinn & Lambert, the collaborative alias of Nicholas Steindorf and Kyle Williams, took their name in 2016 from matte and reflective surface options in Maya, a program capable of making virtual figments look hyper real. They’ve digested some of that program’s visual logic but use it sparingly. Only Doe, a Deer is made with it, its ambitious exploration of CGI all the more deliberate for being just one in a constellation of techniques. Both New Grey Planet videos work backwards: they look virtual but are not, an effect achieved in part by how the camera swivels under and around objects, giving the impression of a zero gravity space.
It’s a major trick how uncannily these floating objects resemble sci-fi set pieces: planets, moons, a space ship. In an exhibition abounding with double meanings, it feels more like a disposition than a gimmick. Every object has a shadow teeming with associative resonances. In one of the most strangely poetic moments of the exhibition, the shadow of a porcelain deer figurine is partially absorbed and erased by a stream of time-released water. An aquarium on the floor neatly collects the runoff. Turn around and see its double in the large CGI video, which conjures an eerily lifelike deer sipping water from a stream.
Painting, the oldest technology referenced in the exhibition, runs likes a current through all the work (its use of still life format, sophisticated attention to how color creates the illusion of space, and compositional inspiration drawn from Balthus’ masterpiece, The Mountain). Doe, a Deer foregrounds most explicitly how painting might help push the boundaries of CGI. A glittering, frenetic work, it’s the exhibition’s most painterly installment, channeling Stan Brakhage and early experimental film’s use of, and kinship with, abstract painting. Takeshi Murata’s charged phantasmagorias exist somewhere in its subconscious. It tells its story in color: squint one eye and the world turns red and black, the doe’s lavishly reproduced fur bending in the stream. Squint the other, and you’re submerged under water.
CGI is well placed to question the reality of nonhuman things, and some excellent work – Helen Marten’s “Evian Disease,” Hito Steyerl’s “Liquid, Inc.” and Kate Cooper’s “Rigged” come to mind – have been acts of artistic semi-philosophy. But CGI is also disposed to advance a received idea that (increasingly expensive) things are as worthy of ethical consideration as humans. The art worlds are too numerous to have one zeitgeist, but this is one of them (it’s one of the thrusts of Object Oriented Ontology, an influential philosophy within some corners of artistic creation). One friend called it “the talking toaster problem” after the 1987 prototypical-“Toy Story” animation, “The Brave Little Toaster,” in which the internal lives of objects tell a now-familiar story of old things fighting impending obsolescence. CGI versions of this in art today – creepy humanoids and pop culture pastiches – whether made from critique or conviction, risk taking complexity with objects for granted.
Blinn & Lambert’s objects are far from talking toasters. They’re more like deadpan performers from the age of silent film. And like Ponge before them, the artists find life in these everyday things through twin acts of observation and imagination. Expressivity isn’t a given – it’s a project.