Robert Grunenberg

 

 

„This is the real world, after all.“ (Brandon Lipchik)

 

It looks like a fight. Two dark-haired creatures are circling each other in Brandon Lipchik’s 2020 painting “Dropping Swords in Paths Untrodden.” The characters are composed of sharply outlined shapes, some of which cast shadows and thus suggest spatiality, which at second glance reveals itself to be erroneous, or implausible, rather. Apparently, these are digitally modeled humanoid bodies, presented here in arrested motion surrounded by something that may or may not pass as some sort of vegetation. However, upon closer inspection this painting does not provide a plausible image space. Instead, it seems to be a collage in 3D, in which shapes are arranged in overlapping layers. As if it were a video game from twenty years ago, cultrate bars protrude towards the center of the image, approaching the fighting men. Plants perhaps, maybe blades of grass, somewhat too bulky, though. The two red swords, which the painting’s title refers to, are completely flat. In contrast, the creatures’ fingers and toes are meticulously modeled and seem to have been scanned from real bodies. Several sources of light illuminate the scene but their placement and angles cannot quite be reconstructed. Not dissimilar to a carefully (albeit implausibly) lit stage, drop shadows and spotlights further dramatize the scene. Lipchik is interested in the symptomatic and very contemporary glow that screens and smartphones cast onto human skin. The high-contrast play of light and shadow caught in the hair of the characters battling in “Dropping Swords in Paths Untrodden” is reminiscent of the ever-customizable situations that 3D rendering software can artificially create. It is beyond real, if you will. The aesthetic of the hyperreal, that is the conflation of heightened expressivity with an impersonal style of painting holds true for the unusual points of view in Lipchik’s paintings, as well: they tend to be arranged in way that the spectator looks at the action from a raised perspective. We are looking at the characters top-down, their bodies appear foreshortened. Who is watching them? This may be a drone’s point of view, or that of a surveillance camera, mounted to the walls which occasionally line Lipchik’s garden- and pool-paintings. Then again, it is not a frozen and homogenous perspective we are dealing with here, one that would impose a specific viewpoint. Rather, the spectator gets the simultaneously disconcerting and (quite literally) uplifting sense of losing their footing. Just as all the hands, pool noodles, plants, and garden shovels are floating about awkwardly, so are we. A strategy game’s perspective, in which the player synthesizes an entire civilization within only a few hours — just to tear everything down again with sinister pleasure. It is a point of view that seems to be characteristic of our present age.

 

In the information society, images are increasingly generated based on knowledge, as opposed to being created based on subjective observation. A computer does not have eyes, instead it knows what it is looking at. In our everyday world, this aesthetic of the omniscient has become trivial, but in painting it is still unfamiliar. And how could it not be? The influence of digital practices and modes of perception on both visual culture and thought has not been mapped yet by a long shot — Lipchik is moving along the border of something that is genuinely new. But what exactly do we see in the God mode of this way of painting? The — mostly also floating — subjects of “Windows Into Exile,” Lipchik’s last show in Berlin from 2019, were inspired by two dandies who had lived on the island of Capri around the year 1900 and who star in a 1959 novel by Roger Peyrefitte. In contrast, his most recent works of his first solo exhibition at the gallery are stricter, less pop, even somber at times. A man is carrying a snake on his shoulders, artificial flames are blazing away, dark rain is falling into an aseptic swimming pool. It is an intricately constructed world in which image planes are tightly interlaced, yet everything seems to shy away from the sensibility of touch.

 

Nevertheless, we are witnessing a form of homecoming, here. Whereas the Capri-series found its references in Europe and in the past, the current paintings’ common ground reveals itself to be the artist’s home country, the USA. The texts that Lipchik has included in the exhibition clearly point this out. They are placed on the gallery wall as acrylic on canvas with silkscreen overlay facing the paintings. The visitor approaches them by climbing a slightly raised platform. With their digitally generated shadows and creases, those prints, too, emulate a computed hyperreality, translated into actual space. Lipchik’s poems are dominated by a cool, elegiac, at times apocalyptic tone, which creates a direct link to American Classics: Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin. Snakes with an agenda to smother the cries for change in generations make an appearance, so do burning cities and eternally blue swimming pools. “Willow Cracks” evokes the sensible experience of walking on grass and touching the skin of a tree “with dirty hands” — an obvious nod to Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

 

Literature plays a central role in Visions of Song. In all the time that Lipchik has spent isolated in his Brooklyn studio during the first wave of COVID-19, he did not only paint but also wrote a lot. One of the texts presented in the exhibition only becomes apparent upon slipping on a pair of VR goggles and entering the virtual layer of this exhibition, programmed by Lipchik. „Monument of Dropped Swords in Paths Untrodden“ is a painting the visitor can perambulate, a “poetry piece in VR.” Here, the three-dimensional creatures battling in “Dropping Swords in Paths Untrodden” make their second appearance. After sliding on the goggles, the visitor finds themself in a virtual room, which itself is located inside the gallery space whose paintings, mounted to physical walls, suddenly become semi-digital. This disposition in and of itself speaks volumes about how porous the borders between the worlds of the virtual and the analog have become today.

 

And why should it be any different? Brandon Lipchik was born in 1993. He grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, studied at Rhode Island School of Design and today lives in Brooklyn, New York City. That is what his resume claims and while this information is undoubtedly true, it does not quite tell the whole story. As any person of his generation, Lipchik, too, has grown up as much in virtual spaces as in those that can be described by conventional geography. For him, the ever human-made, yet sterile world of pixels is by no means the ‘capital Other’, opposed to the real world, as it may be for many artists of older generations. To the contrary: It is a self-evident part of life. In a (Skype-) conversation he casually calls that which is digitally generated “natural and normal.”

 

And why not? Here, perhaps, lies the profound misconception inherent to the discourse around Post-Internet Art that has commenced a few years back: A generation that has never experienced a world pre-internet cannot know Post-Internet Art, of course. To apply this term identifies its user as having been left on the (analog) shelf, a shelf dressed with tube television sets and VHS-players recording dubbed films screened on late-night TV programs, that is. Lipchik designs images with the help of a computer, but he paints them, too. Very evidently, his works are paintings, and as such they insist on physical presence as much as on the tradition of panel painting. The stretcher frames he uses to mount his pictures have an impressive depth of 10 centimeters, which is considerably more than customary for this type of format. Select areas of his paintings are embossed like reliefs, a thick, foamy substance sits on the canvas’ surface suggesting strands of hair. One is inclined to stroke this relief-hair, but of course is not supposed to. In fact, the bodies of Lipchik’s characters can be touched even less than the ones on traditional and — oh, beware! — actually painted pictures. Where the traditional painter leaves behind physical traces of their subjectivity with paintbrush or squeegee, the computer-generated image does not. If there is a residue of this indexical quality of painting to be found at all in Lipchik’s paintings, a residue of all that sensual blotting, smudging and signing which many contemporary artists indulge in, it is nothing more than a quotation. This is due to his complex working process: Whenever Lipchik sketches with a digital imaging program — in order to fill a plane with gestural lines, for instance — this very plane will always reveal itself as being the result of a software-based process in the final painting. Such is the case in the middle ground of his work “Vision of Monument Aflame“.

 

“This is not real,” this technique whispers to the analog human, “this is merely digital.” But in the end, the software, too, is human-made. The distinction between analog and digital becomes obsolete— the result is painting, no matter the tools used to execute it. In his latest paintings, Lipchik resorts to traditional oil paints once more, which he applies with a brush. He designs his characters on the computer and then transfers them onto the canvas by means of acrylic paint and an airbrush gun. Other elements are conventionally painted by hand. The synergy between the different techniques is eerily seamless, but this is to be understood as a process of evolution, not as a statement.

 

The painter’s tools change because the world changes. And that the world is changing — quite dramatically, in fact — isn’t a question in the year 2020. Brandon Lipchik’s first solo exhibition at the gallery is set to take place in the most uncertain and confrontational year in recent American history. Black Lives Matter and the protests against Donald Trump have become a wake-up call for many Americans who aren’t usually politically active, the artist states. There is no doubt that we are finding ourselves in a time of crisis. As a young American artist, what constitutes a positive point of reference when thinking about America? Lipchik turns to American literature as well as in the infinite possibilities offered by today’s ever-expanding image production machinery, which the artist uncovers and masters as a means for his own production of images. In their sum, these possibilities become more than a mere repertoire of techniques; rather, they mature into something that the term “America” was supposed to signify at a certain time in history: a promise of freedom.

 

Text by Boris Pofalla