New York

John Maeda

Cristinerose / Josée Bienvenu Gallery

What does it mean for a digital artwork to be medium-specific? The answer usually involves interactivity, a variously controlled and predictable behavior and response onscreen. But new-media theorists have shown that interactivity is largely a mirage, a mediated reflection of the programmer’s choices and hence not much more radical than the kind of engagement famously identified by Ernst Gombrich in 1959 as the requisite fill-in-the-blank response to illusionistic painting.

With his recent exhibition of twenty-eight color digital photographs (all 2002), some sandwiched between panels of Plexiglas, some framed, and all hanging on the wall, John Maeda extends the parallels between painting and digital art. A sort of antihero figure among computer artists, designers, programmers, and engineers, Maeda is outspoken in his insistence that the computer be explored as a medium, not used as a tool. Discouraging the headlong rush to master the latest software and advising expressive experimentation instead, Maeda is also known for his determination to make art that his children will understand and enjoy. His concern with the intersection of the material and the virtual in his art parallels the traditional dynamic of form and content.

In the photographs on display here, Maeda enlists Color Field and Pop to provide context to his approach and to the pictures themselves, which are the results of loading a scanner flatbed with various food products—sugar, vegetables, Cheetos, a school of sardines—and manipulating the images in the direction of abstraction, sometimes into expanses of color, sometimes into loose grids of repeated forms. A cascade of multicolored Jell-O and several washes of color—turnip purple, zucchini green, and beet red—evoke Rothko, while two highly pixelated pictures are composites of all the Campbell’s soup cans Warhol used. The food is fodder for manipulation and abstraction, mere information “fed” into the computer, while the real subject is the legacy of postwar American painting and the place of digital art in relation to it.

The medium qua medium tends to remain front and center in discussions of digital art, perhaps because it requires specialized equipment or simply because it is a relatively new field. In fact, new-media art can be seen as developing in the opposite direction from traditional forms: The effort to establish its artistic legitimacy has preceded the development of experimentation beyond concerns of medium. Thus digital art remains necessarily self-referential. Combined with the potential for the sublime inherent in digital art’s capacity to represent infinity, this self-referentiality could blossom into an extension of abstract painting. And, on the other extreme, given that the medium remains on the cutting edge of technology; that there is often clear crossover with design; that it is perilously subject to commodification; and that the artist must also be an engineer (or at least hire one), digital art can continue and contribute to the legacy of Pop. After all, Maeda’s soup cans not only take note of Pop seriality but introduce a new version of it: the simultaneous, layered composite.

Taking the digital artwork off the screen and putting it on the walls in a visually compelling form is a promising step, not because it represents a surrender to traditional spectatorship but because it complicates the application of both conservative art criticism and insular new-media discourse. It is only the fact that Maeda aims to make his work accessible to his children that threatens to undermine his project. His soup cans and Jell-O could degenerate into the kids’ favorite foods. Assuming that Maeda’s aim is to elicit more than a fill-in-the-blank response, he must avoid infantilizing his audience.

Nell McClister