From the altitude of an airplane, thousands of feet above the surface of the Earth, cities look like circuit boards. Despite their obvious disparity in size, cities and circuit boards are both built to optimize function through meticulous winding, angling and connecting pathways to produce an energy or effect.
Tulsa-based artist Grace Grothaus made this observation from this very height back in the mid-2000s. And as the plane sliced through the air, she came to a conclusion.
“I kind of had this idea that it is a manifestation of the way we think as humans, that we build things that have a certain look and a certain feel,” she said. “It’s like the way that we think mapped out physically, and that it’s very different from everything else in the natural world.”
Identifying as a “new media painter,” Grothaus decided to explore this idea through electronics, something she knew nothing about at the time. But that wasn’t an obstacle. She split her time learning from her brother, a computer programmer, and experimenting with code and various tools to break into a fledgling realm of digital art.
“There’s the learning curve with every piece that I make,” she said. “With every new media artist that I talk to, they also feel like they’re constantly learning and innovating.”
Grothaus, who has an extensive background in drawing and painting, said when she was learning about new media art, there wasn’t much to reference from its start in the ’80s and ’90s.
“There was a disconnect in some pieces for me. I didn’t think that they really had any reference to traditional media,” Grothaus said. “I wanted there still to be evidence of the hand.”
Grothaus got her first LED light to illuminate in 2006, and since then, she has been exploring the progression of painting in the new media realm. Although she initially takes every idea to paper, she equates electronics with paintbrushes in terms of essential artistic tools.
“We all kind of have that backlit aesthetic in our head,” she said. “Painting should also carry forward and use that screen aesthetic.”
Grothaus’ exploration finds its ideal venue at Mainsite Contemporary Art’s most recent show, Glitch/Analog, curated by Laura Reese of the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition.
“There’s a real synthesis between digital and traditional that’s going on right now, and it’s very interesting to explore the kind of hybridization between those two forms,” Reese said, “not just the shift entirely from traditional to digital but more the collaboration between two art forms.”
Grothaus categorizes her two featured works as paintings. However, they are controlled by microprocessors to manipulate several lights to move behind and across the picture plane, creating the effect of light moving through tree leaves. And her second piece actually turns off at night and restarts at dawn the next day, going through a whole day of light fluctuations.
“It seems that lots of traditional media just don’t take digital art seriously,” Reese said. “Lots of solely digital artists want to try to distance themselves from traditional art, and these artists [in the show] who are working in a synthesis embrace both sides and are trying to bridge this gap between old artists and new artists and trying to make it all work in the same world.”
Reese said another good example of media convergence is the work of Stuart Whitis, who takes traditional paintings from neoclassical artists, puts them on his computer, digitally alters the image and paints each pixel on his canvas.
In his work, Whitis said he addresses three main fears related to the onset and invasion of technology: the erosion of privacy, the loss of community and the hardening of empathy.
“I address these fears through my work by painting in a digitally impressionistic technique that alludes to figures in history,” Whitis said. “The painting’s lo-fi aesthetics simulate the corruption of historical context into fractured bursts of information.”
Despite uncertainties within technology’s social impact, Whitis takes interest in the new media’s digital tools, especially their interplay with analog forms.
Oklahoma artists like Grothaus and Whitis are at the cusp of this trend.
“This isn’t just reflecting a trend nationally, but I think that Oklahoma artists have the ability to be on the verge of a new trend,” Reese said. “That is important that these are Oklahoma artists and they are making new and interesting things.”