The group show Merge Visible at Horton Gallery references the Photoshop command that collapses active layers into one. Along with its complements—Merge Down and Flatten—Merge Visible is an image editor’s ninja move: a swift gesture that, while yielding no apparent changes, discards what’s hidden from view, paring down multiple levels of content into a single flat image.
Through painting, photography, and sculpture, the nine artists exhibited in Merge Visible all collapse and unify pictorial space—an act that not only reflects modern and contemporary art’s progressive stages of mutiny against older representational traditions, but also responds to the day-to-day prevalence of tablets, flat-screens, and other two-dimensional, digital modes of perception.
There are moments that Trudy Benson’s paintings evoke the materials of craft and construction—frayed ribbons, electric wire, macramé rope—thanks in part to her use of traditional brush-and-palette techniques. But the most striking visual elements in her canvases resemble, with eerie accuracy, the shapes generated by the seminal ‘80s graphics program MS Paint, which Benson used as a child to create some of her first abstract compositions. These forms will be instantly familiar to computer-savvy nerds of past decades: perfect rectangles and ovals, perfectly level, meeting the kinds of fidgety scribbles made by a computer mouse with a sticky trackball.
In the same vein, Laura Miller pays homage to the visual vernaculars of the Microsoft Office software suite—and to Powerpoint, specifically. For her piece 24 Horizons, the artist overloads Powerpoint for Mac 2011 with loops of quickly transitioning slides, and captures the aleatory glitches and stuttering that result as the program grows overwhelmed. Full of abrupt transitions, stock images, and quickly alternating shapes, her videos capture the audiovisual chaos that so often erupts when a glut of information meets the brand of boozy amateur ethos aroused by our democratized access to digital tools. And yet the sensory overload inspired by her works is art-historically resonant as well, evoking the tactics of disorientation favored by prior generations of video and installation artists.
Keegan McHargue likewise combines a profusion of visual elements until they reach a tipping point. In Untitled (Colony), 2013, he’s crammed together a cavalcade of stylized comic-book beings—worms or aliens, perhaps—overlapping like silhouettes upon photograms upon window-decals. McHargue’s work ricochets between poster design’s compressed surfaces and time-tested perspectival techniques: A centipede in the frame seems almost to extend from foreground to back, as its thoracic segments progressively lighten in hue—but the foreshortening we’d then expect is nowhere to be found. Ultimately, by relentlessly accruing razor-thin forms, McHargue propels his canvas toward a point of fracture: a dramatic collapsing of the picture plane.
To many, the act of photographing photographs lends itself to the compression of pictorial space, thanks to the resulting layers of remove between an initial 3-D scene and a final print. But for Daniel Gordon, rephotography does just the opposite: it wages war against flatness. Gordon, who reshoots images culled from the web, envisions his studio as “a physical manifestation of the Internet.” In palettes that are half Fauvist art, half ad-agency copy, he photographs JPEG print-outs of fruits and other still-life elements. But he first folds and tears his cutouts—sometimes even adding shadows—until, photographed once again, they become grotesque approximations of 3-D objects, like specimens arching their backs against the glass of a biologist’s slides.
John Houck, the other rephotographer in the show, has long professed an interest in the mathematics of grids. Early on, he photographed these grids as subjects, but later began introducing narrative elements. In his recursive images, he enmeshes impersonal systems—like boxes and graph paper—with personal effects such as postcards and trinkets. Yet Houck undermines the cool primacy of Cartesian order by breaking down his grids, setting their fragments slightly askew.
Systems and grids abound in the work of Terry Haggerty and Susie Rosmarin, who both paint rebuttals of Op-Art traditions. In his acrylic-on-wood Counter Point, 2013, Haggerty deliberately twist and bends hard-edged stripes, so that they appear to wrap around the edges of his canvas, like highway lanes curving over hilltops out of sight. As such, where many of his predecessors favored fields that seem to extend ad infinitum beyond the edges of a frame, Haggerty’s optically vibrant patterns make his canvases seem like bounded, convex, 3-D objects.
Meanwhile, the Houston-based Rosmarin creates colorful retinal-burning fields of plaids and grids, motivated, in her words, by the “amount of expression you can get out of lines.” Nowadays, connections quickly emerge between her work and the moire patterns of compressed, computer-processed images, even though Rosmarin sticks with tape and paint. In the context of “Merge Visible,” her art becomes even more intriguing, combined with the fact she perfected her laborious techniques long before precise patterns came to evoke digital tools. As viewers, we find ourselves scouring her paintings for traces of the artist’s hand.
Taking industrial spray guns to the surfaces of his “IMG_” series, painter Michael Staniak generates swaths of color that conjure the perfect gradients of an Inkjet print—with a twist: He sprays the pigment onto organic and irregular surfaces full of craters and drips, created via his careful manipulation of casting compound. By superimposing Inkjet gradients onto pseudo-moonscapes, Staniak activates the gap between biomorphic textures from our terrestrial world and hard copies of the digital realm.
Layers often represent slices of motion through time in the work of sculptor Ryan Johnson, who mixes calculus with a dose of Futurist whimsy. Johnson’s sculpture, Composition, at first glance seems like two lovers walking toward each other on a multitude of spindly legs. Their profusion of limbs appears to animate temporal fragments, like a stroboscopic photograph or the pages of a flip-book collapsed into one. And yet, complicating any such read is Johnson’s choice of homespun materials and techniques—of wood and brightly colored paint—all of which lend his sculpture the sort of fetishistic power one might expect of folk-art objects.
In the traditional visual logic of painting, layers have long evoked the depths of pictorial space. One could say they’re even also treated and viewed as forensic evidence of process, labor, and time. If so, the artists of Merge Visible are wise to the new rules of a Photoshop world, where strata can be instantaneously swapped, collapsed, and discarded—where hidden content can be unearthed or lost in a wink. Perhaps, with their work-intensive, analog techniques, the exhibited artists are creating monuments to snapshots. There’s a poignancy underlying these projects: Relative to digital ephemera, these artworks, in effect, all become impastos: thick, textural, materialized responses to the infinitesimally flat images they reference.