Gallery Oldham
North West England

There is definitely a whiff of dry-as-a-bone academia about Oldham Gallery’s current ‘Digitalis’ exhibition, featuring as it does five artists who all lecture in fine art, all with a background training in painting, and all being independently absorbed in the potentials of digital media for the fabrication and, more significantly, the substance of their practice.

This is not necessarily a bad thing; the show sitting in stubborn opposition to the soufflé-light, Wacky Warehouse displays beloved of publicly funded galleries that, understandably, have survival as their primary concern.

The exhibition hang itself is a slightly idiosyncratic affair: a few painted panels are peculiarly high on the wall; a digital image is positioned to highlight the architectural presence of the display walls; a DVD playback is slightly too close to a neighbouring inkjet print.

Slowly it congeals into sense with cross-referencing between media and formal devices a cheeky acknowledgement of the complex of virtual spaces being addressed. This also serves to warn visitors that time will need to be spent osmotically absorbing the information layered, often literally, in the works.

Harriet McDougall’s ‘New Frontier’ and ‘Colour Bars’, painted acrylics on linen, are Bridget Rileys rebooted for the digital age. Carrying the ambience of Kraftwerk’s alternative universe retro-chic, they are, on close inspection, acutely concertinaed lines and tonal shifts; paintings of visual effects producing the very same effects they reference. McDougall’s inkjet prints are less successful, the antiseptic purity of their aesthetic battling with their white frames, window mount format and reflective protective glass.

The artist’s 3 minute DVD projection ‘Frontier’ takes the lines of her paintings and prints and imposes them on a digitally treated woodland scene; a compact copse of parallel, vertical stripes pulsing with a pleasing range of earthy browns and greens and pale sky blue.

David Manley seems less easily seduced by nature’s visual plenitude. His ‘Out Of The Woods – A Painter’s View’ appears to be both a sculpture topped by a crude viewing window and a potentially useable ramblers staff. The wood and bronze listed in the piece’s materials suggests otherwise, whilst the unreadable x-ray-like acetate filling its viewing frame indicates an impulse to organize the barebones of natures’ chaos.

Although an effective three-dimensional addition to the exhibition his acrylic and digital print on canvas works ‘Le Pay Minervois No. 6 – Homage To Malevich’ and ‘Le Pay Minervois No. 3 D.O.C.’ are ultimately much more satisfying works.

‘…No. 3…’ hints at multiple inroads into the spatially confusing painting; hints of text on a wine bottle label, the ghostly bleached out print of a vineyard with its horizon line turned to the vertical, matt and gloss areas of paint, these all coexist, leaving the impression of a somnambulant wander through a holiday brochure editing suite, mid-party. Alternatively, ‘…No. 6…’ looks like a dirty protest on the wallpaper of a French chateau. Add multiple vanishing points and hints of a game of parallel narratives glueing the visual components together and the paintings get better with each viewing.

Stubbornly maintaining the distinctive qualities of alternative media, John Rimmer’s corner-piece ‘In My Room 2’ consists of two distinct parts, each using the same curlicue motif. A small acrylic and oil on canvas showing the hand painted repetition of a decorative form, somehow bringing to mind the latticework of the window shutters in William Fox Talbot’s 1835 proto-photograph of Lacock Abbey’s windows. Adjacent is a screen showing a 360-degree pan around pulsing, ornate planes like free-floating stage flats.

The mechanics of image reproduction are presumably being referenced here, but the success of the work hinges on its sheer oddness, instead of a clinical blandness it radiates an archaic occult ambience, like an animated rug in a 1970’s cinematic interpretation of a Dennis Wheatley-style séance.

More determinedly flat are Sarah Key’s paintings on board which have the appearance of layerings of surfaces, printed and peeled off to leave stranded fragments, with a touch of trompe l’oeil to add substance, and windows onto the areas of paint beneath the surface. Key’s three abutting square panels – ‘Derrida Is Dead 2’, ‘The Grid 2 (Where I End)’,‘The Text’ – seem a little heavy-handed on critical theory references but the titles loudly announce their visual genesis in the transcription of the hand-written into a final state of mute materiality using a series of digital scans as stages of ‘abstraction’.

In a further interplay of transcriptive processes, Rick Copsey uses close-up and amended digital photographs of ridges of paint on canvas to simulate semi-abstract seascapes – the sublime hidden in the mundane. They radiate the unnatural clarity of hallucinogenic CGI ‘stills’.

There is a common fallacy that the mass of the sea quickly becomes a projection for the viewer’s state of mind. It is probably more accurate to consider the dead minutes gazing at the folds and swells of water as analogous to the nullity of hypnotic digital screens; an abnegation of responsibility for physical engagement via the insidiously soporific curl and slap of wave after wave. The seductive surface quality of the medium becomes the actual substance of the work with paint, and therefore painting itself, the clear paternal reference point. By filtering it through digital media and (re)presenting it , the play of the visual becomes the arena under scrutiny.

The relative affordability of new media has led to an un-anchoring of the assumption of authorial weight ingrained in the ‘art’ object – a democratization of production with the presumption of a parallel democratization of interpretation. This, finally, seems to be the questionable assumption tackled by the show.

A constant here is work which uses technology to reference the artisanal, the human touch embodied in craft work, as a potentially oppositional activity in a world apparently mediated by sensibilities now dictated by technological innovations. Or, conversely, the inevitable failure of any such attempts.

Either way, any exhibition which is happy to critique it’s own forms as a necessary constituent of it’s own existence deserves at least one visit and, in an area now defensively existing as an offshoot of the entertainment industry, becomes a quietly subversive event.

After all, in a media driven society the nervously thin and constitutionally sour is often mistaken as a positive display of seductive androgynous swagger. An occasional counterbalance of avuncular cynicism is a very necessary injection of reality.