Miltos Manetas

First Gallery

Miltos Manetas is known as much for his advocacy of computer-generated and Web art as he is for his subversive and innovative tactics, as when he created an alternate website for the Whitney Biennial’s genuine one in 2002, substituting work by his friends for that of the officially selected artists. A true believer in technology’s aesthetic potential, he is intent on reinventing traditional pictorial methods—specifically, painting and drawing—by using the computer’s capabilities and limitations to turn ordinary, Pop-inspired objects (video games and their characters, computer cables, screens, Apple Quick-Take cameras, etc.) into motifs but also stylistic models, painting them as if seen on-screen.

In this exhibition, Manetas showed fifteen large-scale computer-aided “drawings” made between 2003 and 2006, along with an unrelated video. Slightly more conventional than Manetas’s other work, the drawings seem to take as their subject adolescent female ennui. Their protagonists are identified as “Girl,” “Chinese Girl,” “Priscilla,” or “Jane” in titles that include Chinese Girl in the Desert, 2004, and Priscilla with Gary Hume, 2005. The “girls” are depicted individually, sometimes cropped, in a variety of poses: reclining, reading, smoking, standing with a dog, looking at a computer screen, and so on. In their seeming vacuity and languid posturing, they could be starker, simplified versions of Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits or Karen Kilimnik’s cartoony, fashion mag–inspired drawings: young, lissome women, physically attractive and possibly (or almost) famous.

The images, which look like rough, preliminary sketches, mostly in black and white (though some have flecks or flashes of blue, red, or yellow), were made via a process Manetas first began using in the mid-’90s. The “drawing” is first created on a computer, with standard graphic software; it is then printed, with an ink-jet printer, onto letter-size glossy paper. The meeting of the ink and the slippery surface of the paper causes random smears and smudges that serve to loosen the strict linearity of each figure’s outline, often obscuring or blurring parts of the whole form and giving the figures a hazy appearance overall. In the final step, the ink-jet works are photographed and enlarged to more than five feet in height, giving them a cleaner, sleeker look that compensates for the messiness of the original printouts.

Academic notions of draftsmanship aside, drawing is, in its broadest definition, the production of a picture or diagram through mark making. In this sense, even Manetas’s computer-assisted pictures remain faithful to the form: Though drawing has always been tied as much to the artist’s unique hand as to its importance in making ideas visual (Beuys considered it a modification of thought mediated through an “anthropological entity,” i.e., a human being), the use of mechanical drawing aids dates at least to the Renaissance, when the camera obscura was used to transpose the seen world into two-dimensional, “truthful” representations. Admittedly, the conceptual weight of Manetas’s works lies more in the realm of technique than of subject matter; the artist is playing with romantic ideas about the value of pencil and paper versus mouse and screen, but also with the popular belief that machines are infallible or at least an improvement on human imperfection. Without denying the necessity of human intervention, Manetas makes a gesture once considered fundamental to artmaking susceptible to adjustments, modifications, and alterations that are determined by systems specifically designed to process, not create.

Elizabeth Janus