To digitize or not to digitize

“New in Town”
Portland Art Museum
1219 S.W. Park
11 a.m – 5 p.m. – Tue.-Sun.
After June 1 – 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs. and Fri.

In the digital age, with everything transformed by the silicon chip, it is hard not to talk about process. Obviously, like every other segment of society, the art world has been affected by the emergence of digital technology. While some artists continue to take a skin-and-bones approach, others make the most of the technology available. Both approaches can be seen at the Portland Art Museum’s current contemporary exhibition, “New in Town.”

Featuring the work of young and not-so-young artists currently working out of the greater Los Angeles area, “New in Town” offers insight into the way technology has affected the art world. Of the artists on view, two seem eminently more successful in their end result than others: Monique Prieto whose oil-on-canvas paintings are derived from computer-generated images; and Kelly Nipper, whose chromatographic photo prints are manipulated by the artist with good old-fashioned creative gusto.

In Prieto’s work, figure-like shapes emerge from the base of some of the canvases and amorphous images seem to float on others. The flat hues she utilizes are those one finds in an after-dinner mint dish – subdued pastels that beg to be bitten and tasted. There is something about Prieto’s work that grabs us, and the bite we want to take is nearly antithetical. Her works are computer-generated, and like the candy that they remind us of, they are manufactured, void of any nutritional value. This is truly “candy for the eyes.”

But what is most impressive about Prieto’s work is its subdued nature. This isn’t slick, flash-bang rave art, nor is it an example of the shiny new minimalism, This is smooth, simple understatement. The artist takes the cold world of ones and zeroes and translates it to acrylic on canvas with, for lack of a better term, a human touch. We are left with an aesthetic feeling a typical Flash animator would not quite comprehend, let alone know how to pull off.

Photographer Kelly Nipper does not use digital imagery, but her photographs are manipulated in a way that renders a similar effect. Her prints from the series “Shotgun and a Figure 8” each depict figures standing in front of a wood-paneled wall. The print has been manipulated so that a white area covers most of the figure, and a hole has been cut, leaving the head of the person exposed.

It is the process itself that makes Nipper’s work stand out. To manipulate digital prints using a program like Photoshop would be too easy for an artist like Nipper-she understands there is still room for experimentation in the darkroom, and proves that everything, in fact, hasn’t been done.

In the end, what sets these two young artists apart from the rest of the exhibit is not process alone, but their smart use of negative space. While their fellow “New in Town” artist Shirley Tse’s work with PEVA and plastic rivets harkens back to the high point of ’60s minimalism-making art out of industrial materials, whatever is “there”-these two artists focus on what’s not there. And while it seems basic, the restraint and assuredness evidenced by Prieto and Nipper prove complicated in their simplicity. The digital age might be here, but Prieto and Nipper prove the value of the work remains in the hands of the creator.