John Kelsey, Facebook Data Center, Rutherford County, NC I, 2013, watercolor on paper mounted on aluminum, 9 x 12 3/4".

John Kelsey, Facebook Data Center, Rutherford County, NC I, 2013, watercolor on paper mounted on aluminum, 9 x 12 3/4".

John Kelsey

John Kelsey, Facebook Data Center, Rutherford County, NC I, 2013, watercolor on paper mounted on aluminum, 9 x 12 3/4".

“How much of the painting is already in the TIFF?” With this query, John Kelsey—author, gallery director, and member of the art collectives Bernadette Corporation and Reena Spaulings—began his 2010 essay “100%.” The question hints at a larger concern that remains central to Kelsey’s work: In the current age of hyperactive networking, to what extent is painting, or art in general, already digitally encoded as soon as it enters the space of communication, even if it cannot be reduced to a purely communicative function? Or, as Kelsey himself put it in the catalogue for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, “Artists tend to be entirely complicit with the demand to expand the noncontext of cyber-capitalism, especially when they make rough- or careful-looking stuff that really wants to show that it’s here, present, specific, even critical.”

In this, his first solo show under his own name, Kelsey connected the digital with the “rough- or careful-looking stuff” and explored their relationship in a manner all his own. Kelsey juxtaposes printed textbased works similar to those he showed at the Whitney Biennial—poetic appropriations and reconfigurations of language from spam e-mails—with a series of watercolors mounted on metal. Some of the watercolors are delicate, colorful renderings of the names used by senders of spam to evade filters, some are portraits, and others are abstractions made by painting around coins that had been scattered across the paper.

But the exhibition was predominantly devoted to watercolors of buildings, usually seen standing alone amid pastoral landscapes. Most are viewed from a great height, as if from a satellite or helicopter, and a very few show details of the interiors of the buildings. As the titles explain, these buildings are mostly the data centers of companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple—high-security facilities that house the hardware behind the knowledge economy, the supposedly immaterial production of the digital cloud. Kelsey’s buildings are painted from plans and sketches found on the Internet, from corporate websites that seek to show off the architecture of these facilities to journalistic articles that take a more critical look at the data centers—investigating their possible harmful effects on the environment, for example. Through the medium of watercolor, we see simultaneously an idealized landscape and the implied moment of its erosion.

Drawing attention to the fixed points where information is processed and saved when we communicate, Kelsey combines codes that seem fundamentally incompatible: watercolor, usually thought of as sentimental and relegated to the realm of the amateur or hobbyist, and aluminum and Plexiglas as mounting materials, which lend the pieces a cool, technoid affect. Mounting the watercolors directly on these backings gives them an aspect of ambivalence or irritation. This ambivalence may be precisely the irreducible quality of art, which interrupts ordinary communication. Even if, as Kelsey writes in the Whitney essay, contemporary art is unable to claim a “viable, inhabitable counterspace within the spreading noncontext,” it may still achieve “small breaks or gaps within the functional, semiotically saturated space-time of the metropolis.” The invitation card for the exhibition subtly displayed a moment of what Kelsey calls “communication in its interruption.” The artist’s name, painted in watercolor on the front of the card, fades into the name of the gallery: In both execution and coloring, it was reminiscent of the fake names from spam e-mails that Kelsey uses in his paintings.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Anne Posten.