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Giverny of the Midwest: A Conversation with Artist Nathaniel Stern

with Bonnie North on Lake Effect
Artist Nathaniel Stern speaks with Lake Effect’s Bonnie North about his use of scanners to create beautiful images.

Nathaniel Stern’s intensity is palpable. The media artist always has multiple bodies of work going on simultaneously, he’s a Fulbright scholar, a professor of art, a parent.  Talking with him, you get the impression he never stops thinking about, or exploring, art and life.

Stern’s current exhibition at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend is called Giverny of the Midwest. The work has had previous exhibitions in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, but this is its first stop in the United States. The scans are a nod and homage to the Impressionist painter Claude Monet…if Monet were painting his lilies while immersed in the pond rather than sitting on its banks.


Nathaniel Stern, detail, Giverny of the Midwest, Digital print installation, 2011, Lent by the Tory Folliard GalleryCredit: Musem of Wisconsin Art.

The work is technological, thought-provoking and unexpected. And although his work has been compared to photography, Stern would disagree. “It’s probably closer to print making.” He continues that as opposed to the objective distancing you get in photography, “where you’re looking through [a] lens and seeing what you’re capturing, (with this work) it’s more that you’re on top of or a part of your medium,” says Stern.

When he isn’t scanning his environment, Stern is an Associate Professor of Art and Design in Peck School of the Arts at the UW – Milwaukee.

Related artworks: Giverny Remediated, The Giverny Series, Giverny of the Midwest, Weather Patterns, The Mist
Other related texts:
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MKE Journal Sentinel, WORT fm, Die Beeld, WORT fm, Sunday Independent

MKE Journal Sentinel

Nathaniel Stern’s “Giverny of the Midwest” makes U.S. debut
This article by Rafael Francisco Salas appeared in both online and print editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MKE_JS

Claude Monet was in his 80s when he painted his way into eternity with a 42-foot long triptych, “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” famously hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and created in the artist’s aquatic gardens in Giverny, France. Many believe that painting as an art form did not catch up with Monet’s water lily works, which numbered in the hundreds, until the Abstract Expressionists came along a generation later.

In this series of prints, Stern straps a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack to his body, and performs images into existence.

Artist Nathaniel Stern, who grew up in New York and knows the MoMA triptych intimately, has used Monet’s artistic cataclysm and deconstructed it into a similarly scaled artwork. Exhibited internationally, his “Giverny of the Midwest” is being shown in the U.S. for the first time at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Giverny of the Midwest (detail) - R17

Stern does not try to overtake Monet’s masterpiece but rather makes quotations from it and reinvigorates the debates it spawned. Is realism an image or an emotion? Is an object more important than the light that reflects off of it? When is a painted mark a water lily or simply a daub of painted material?

Stern’s work is not a painting. Rather, it’s a performative series of photographic scans printed on watercolor paper. The artist strapped a high resolution scanner and battery pack to his body and began capturing the elements of a lily pond in Indiana by mucking about in it and scanning plants, water formations, earth and sky. The pieces are hung in an grid formation, further expanding the notion of deconstruction. The images are still, but describe his process of documentation, which was often in motion. We see imagery pulled into swimming tendrils as he moved the scanner through water or over an insect’s body. Abstraction and startling realism combine and allow us to experience objects, color and movement all at once. The warping and pulling of the images is filmic and beautiful.

Giverny of the Midwest (detail) - M18

And it is important to note that this work is indeed beautiful. I admit, the process sounded interesting and fun, but I did not expect the results to move me sensually as well as intellectually. Stern does not forget that his subject matter is eminent, and that nature and how we experience it, through digital processes or in paint, has unfathomable potential to excite us. His work resounds with content about how we view the world and through which lenses, whether it be technology or our physical selves.

In the end, I was seduced beyond content. It was the tensions between realism and abstraction that kept confounding my readings of the work. In all honesty I have never seen anything quite like it.

With that said, it is at times difficult to see. The scale of the work requires a distance from it, and the shallow hall where it is hung doesn’t allow the viewer to take it all in. So, while I was able to appreciate smaller moments, an overall view is hard to get at.

Nathaniel Stern’s “Giverny of the Midwest” is on view at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, through Sept. 6.

Rafael Francisco Salas is a painter, an associate professor of art at Ripon College and a regular Art City contributor.

This article by Rafael Francisco Salas appeared in both online and print editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

WIRED

‘Beyond the Interface’ deconstructs the human-machine matrix (Wired UK)
Daniel Culpin

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The relentless assault of technology on the rest of our lives is the subject of a new exhibition and series of events, Beyond the Interface — London, opening at the Furtherfield Gallery on 25 April.

The show is a “remixed” extension of an exhibition shown at the International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality 2014 (ISMAR) in Munich. Curated by Furtherfield and mixed reality media artist Julian Stadon, it brings together a number of leading contemporary artists to explore how technology disrupts, enhances and alters the way we live.

On the approach to the gallery, in the McKenzie Pavilion in the heart of Finsbury Park, you’re immediately immersed by the transformation of the walls into lush, teeming images of water lilies; a hacked Monet for the 21st century. Giverny Remediated, by US-based artist Nathaniel Stern, is part of his Compressionism series. Defined by shifting, interactive prints, and inspired by classic Impressionism, the images were captured with uniquely twenty-first century methods — Stern strapped a scanner to his body to capture the blooms.

“I might scan in straight, long lines across tables, tie the scanner around my neck and swing over flowers, do pogo-like gestures over bricks, or just follow the wind over water lilies in a pond,” Stern writes on his website. “The dynamism between my body, technology and the landscape is transformed into beautiful and quirky renderings, which are then produced as archival art objects.”

Water and fluidity as a metaphor for data is a central theme of Stern’s work. As part of Beyond the Interface — London, Stern has also been commissioned to create a brand new installation, Rippling Images of Finsbury Park, a public artwork based in the park’s boating lake. Visitors will be able to download the artworks by public USB installed in the gallery’s walls, using anonymous file-sharing network Dead Drops.

Also in the show, Zach Blas’ Facial Weaponization Suite is an uncanny, disturbing protest against the dehumanising effects of biometric facial technology. The New York-based artist creates “collective masks” from facial data collected by participants in community workshops. These masks — distorted, amorphous blobs, almost resembling chewing gum — erase the recognisable features of the human face, ensuring wearers are unable to be detected by biometric facial scanners. Fusing a cry against government over-surveillance with a sympathy for those frequently pushed to the social margins, Blas’ work is provocative and politically charged.

Also on show is Jennifer Chan’s Grey Matter. The Hong Kong-raised, Chicago-based artist employs videos, gifs and webpages to cast a wry, quizzical look at representations of gender and in modern media culture. In the five-minute video, Chan adopts the persona of a teenage internet user creating her own confessional online diary, using social media — sharing, posting, following — to confront issues of privacy, voyeurism and online identity.

Beyond the Interface — London runs at the Furtherfield Gallery until 21 June, 2015

See original post on WIRED UK

TEDx talk

“Nathaniel Stern is an awkward artist, teacher and writer, who likes awkward art, students and writing. Stern’s talk, Ecological Aesthetics, discusses tweets in space, scans at the bottom of the sea, interactive installations, and art in virtual worlds – all work about the complex relationships between humans, nature, and politics.”

tedx uwmilwaukee

What is TEDx?

“Imagine a day filled with brilliant speakers, thought-provoking video and mind-blowing conversation. By organizing a TEDx event, you can create a unique gathering in your community that will unleash new ideas, inspire and inform…. A TEDx event is a local gathering where live TED-like talks and videos previously recorded at TED conferences are shared with the community.” – from the TED web site

 

 

What Animals Teach Us about Politics

massumi-animals

Cover image: detail from Giverny of the Midwest (2011).

“This is a truly brilliant book, one of Brian Massumi’s best. More than anyone else I have read, Massumi makes real progress in untangling the relationship between play, sympathy, politics, and animality. What Animals Teach us About Politics provides a fascinating and persuasively non-subject-centered account of sympathy, and it goes a long way toward helping us to see how the practice and theorization of ‘politics’ would be radically refigured within a process-ontology.” – Jane Bennett, author of Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

Title: What Animals Teach Us about Politics
Author: Brian Massumi
Publisher: Duke University Press
Date of Publication: September 2014
Language: English
ISBN-10: 082235800X
ISBN-13: 978-0822358008
Order this book from Amazon.com

WORT fm

The 8’oclock Buzz: Frankensteined Scanners Under the Sea

Last time the Monday Buzz talked with Milwaukee artist, Nathaniel Stern, he was sending tweets into space and subverting Wikipedia for his own nefarious artistic ends. Now, he’s jerry-rigging flatbed scanners for high-resolution, time-shifting underwater duty. Listen as Nathaniel explains to host Brian Standing how to turn a flat imager into a self-contained scuba camera, the philosophical nature of an image, and more.

Download the mp3 (13mb), or listen to the entire interview about performative printmaking / Compressionism with host Brian Standing:

M Magazine

Scanning the Artscape
Five artists on the rise in the cream city
by Tory Folliard with Christine Anderson; portraits by Dan Bishop

Milwaukee’s Third Ward has been named one of America’s Top Twelve Art Places 2013, which recognizes neighborhoods in the largest 44 metropolitan areas in the country where the arts are central to the social and economic vibrancy of a neighborhood. Even with a flourishing art scene and a wealth of talented artists — in the Third Ward and beyond — many artists still remain unknown to most Milwaukeeans. Here are five artists to watch chosen by Milwaukee art curators….

nathaniel-lynden

“I believe that art can change what we see and do, and are.”
— Nathaniel Stern
, Milwaukee: Interactive, Installation and Video Art | nathanielstern.com

Giverny of the Midwest (detail) - R5

Curator: Graeme Reid, assistant director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art.
“Stern is one of the most creative, articulate, imaginative artists in the state and, frankly, the country. He should be an international art star. Actually, he is! I can’t think of too many other artists in the state who are building a similar resumé.”

nathaniel stern scanning water lilies

Back Story: The former New Yorker has an impressive resumé of exhibitions and awards from all over the world. (He recently exhibited in January in Johannesburg, South Africa.)

Stern’s interactive art often centers on bodily performances. In his current “Compression” series of prints he straps a laptop and desktop scanner to his body and performs “images into existence.”

Moving his body while he scans the landscape around him, Stern creates images that are later made into prints. He is an associate professor of art and design at the Peck School of the Arts at UW-Milwaukee. His work is on exhibit locally at Lynden Sculpture Garden in a collaborative piece with Jessica Meuninck-Ganger.

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Art South Africa

art south africa nathaniel sternDirty Hands or Hands-off? – The Print Matrix in a Mediated Milieu
by Dominic Thorburn

Since the very first images were made by dipping hands in natural pigment and pressing them on cave walls in Lacaux and Altamira, artists have been getting their hands dirty to make their mark. These simple images have to be some of the most economical, powerful and evocative symbols known to us. I believe it helpful to revisit visual images of this nature, to regain perspective and seek solace in them.

Just as language cannot be defined as alphabets, words or syntax, printmaking cannot be defined as a series of technical processes. It is defined by its function, its philosophical approach and the ideas and images it generates. Print may stake claim to creative territory that goes beyond any map; the meaning of the images produced by print media are the expanded terrain, the mediate milieu of the dialogue, the larger picture.

Nathaniel Stern is a prolific experimental video installation and time-based artist and writer who harnesses printmaking to extend his repertoire:
“I combine new and traditional media to create unfamiliar experiences of that which we encounter every day. My art attempts to intercept taken for granted categories such as ‘body,’ ‘language,’ ‘vision,’ ’space’ or ‘power.’ It works to refigure fixed subject / object hierarchies as unexpected and dynamic engagements…
Through performance, provocation and play, my work seeks to infold our unfolding relationships with the world, and with one another. I invite viewers to explore, to embody, and to re-imagine.”

Compressionism is a digital performance and analog archive started in 1996 [sic] where Stern straps a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack to his body and performs images into existence. He might scan in straight, long lines across tables, tie the scanner around his neck and swing over flowers, do pogo-like gestures over bricks, or just follow the wind over water lilies in a pond. The dynamism of his relationship to the landscape is transformed into beautiful and quirky renderings, which are re-stretched and coloured on his laptop, then produced as archival art objects using photographic or inkjet processes. He also often takes details from these images and reinterprets them as traditional prints: lithographs, etchings, engravings and woodcuts.

Michael Smith comments that “Stern’s entire process expands to encompass fairly traditional printmaking techniques, and a great tension is established by this…. The results are compelling, an amalgamation of visual languages from two very different ends of Western Art history…one that accrues a salacious, lo-fi quality that adds another dimension to Stern’s repertoire”. It is interesting to note that these works are not only painterly but undoubtedly printerly in their aesthetic; in addition the notion of compression and pressure that is so vital to printmaking is central.

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Sunday Independent

Sunday Independent, Nathaniel SternCreating new Impressions
This article by Mary Corrigall appeared in both the online and print editions of the Sunday Independent

Impressionism has become so unsexy in the last couple of decades. Well, in art circles, that is. Mostly it’s because this once avant-garde French movement has been embraced with such gusto by the masses. For this reason many overseas public galleries wishing to up the foot traffic in their institutions and assert their relevance to society stage themed shows from this period, or exhibitions by artists connected to it.

The frequency of these impressionism blockbusters has rendered the art from that movement blasé. So it is surprising to find a multi-media artist who embraces what is termed “contemporary practice” to be so captured by the art of Claude Monet and in particular his artwork Water Lilies (1914-1926). As the title suggests they are paintings of the most banal of still life subject matter: tranquil ponds dotted with lilies Monet spied in his garden in Giverny, France.

For Nathanial Stern the radicalism of the impressionist vocabulary hasn’t quite worn off. He returns to it anew with an eye for reinventing it for the digitised era. Like many viewers who have stood in front of Monet’s large scale paintings in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Stern was seduced by the romantic, hazy lens through which Monet depicted this bucolic scene. In his version of Monet’s Water Lilies he has retained the large scale in his triptych Giverny of the Midwest – the pond he studied was in Indiana. Stern was aware scale played an important role in creating an immersive experience for viewers. He deconstructs and then reconstructs Monet’s approach, but this activity is not in service of demystifying, or satirising it, but re-enacting a moment in art history using digital media.

“Immersion” and “deconstruction” inform this body of work and Stern’s mode of documenting reality, which involves an HP scanner harnessed around his neck as he wades through the pond. Put plainly, he scans his subject matter. Because he does not remain static while doing this he generates images that appear life-like, but distorted. Not too unlike the kind of distortion reality undergoes under Monet’s heightened gaze, which amplifies the physical and sensual properties of his interest.

Just as Monet realised a purely figurative rendering of organic life doesn’t quite relay the physical experience or weight of reality, so does Stern recognise a straight life-like scan won’t do so either. Stern’s proximity to his subject matter facilitates a level of abstraction before he has even begun his process of “decompression”, which involves undoing the compression of the image. He is so close to his subject matter he doesn’t necessarily observe it, but is immersed in it. Because of this the view is distorted. It is a bit like putting the lens of a camera right up against that which is to be photographed.

Physical distance is a prerequisite for representation. Stern’s approach challenges this idea for not only is he immersed in his subject matter, but ironically he equips himself with a gadget that has no view-finder so he is unable to see the images he is capturing. As a result he records while not being trapped by, or implicated in, the act of recording. Thus representation is separated from seeing, it becomes an intuitive act of another kind.

This, of course, is the antithesis of the effect digital mediums have had on a society which has become more consumed with the act of documenting life that reality is viewed through a lens. In this way Stern succeeds in achieving what Monet never could: he is able to exist in a moment without the burden of reconstructing it. For this reason he is a participant rather than a detached observer. Stern is able to produce images that relay so much detail, like a insect caught in a petal or the veins of a leaf. These details might have evaded his detection despite his proximity and immersion. This suggests he was unable to fully appreciate the scene in its totality. In this way the full weight of reality is always withheld.

It is only in the processing of his scanned images, in which he stretches them out, that another encounter with his subject matter becomes possible. This encounter is obviously subject to his manipulation; he heightens the colours and decompresses the images to such a point that they are abstracted.

Stern doesn’t present one cohesive view of the pond, but a plethora of cropped details of it. The images are pieced together to form three larger “canvases”. They need to be scrutinised up close, where you can spy traces of the submersion of his physical being in the work – denoted by finger prints.

These works are excessively beautiful and compel immersion. Viewing them is a time-demanding exercise, which defies our usual consumption of imagery. This is exacerbated by the number of small canvases one must view, which appear like pieces of a puzzle even though they do not fit together to create a complete image. These are fragments of reality. Stern suggests a scene cannot be relayed in its entirety, so despite his reverence he challenges Monet’s work. Stern doesn’t order the visual world; he casts his garden pond scene as an indeterminate one that exists beyond the boundaries of any frame.

*Giverny of the Midwest has been on show at the Art on Paper Gallery in Joburg.

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SA Art Times

SA Art Times, Nathaniel SternInterview with Nathaniel Stern
This article by Wilhelm van Rensburg appeared in both the online and print editions of the South African Art Times

“The best decision of my life was to chase Nicole Ridgway halfway around the globe, and make her agree to spend her life with me.” So says Nathaniel Stern, world-renowned media artist. When he first met her, Stern was finishing his Masters of Fine Arts in digital art at New York University, where she was a visiting fellow.

He was completely enamoured with Ridgway the moment she began speaking. “She had that beautiful accent (now so familiar to me), and she was the most brilliant and generous person I had ever encountered. For two months I basically harassed her with a flurry of e-mails and letters on her door, and by sliding my arm in hers in the hallways, until she relented and agreed to go on a date with me. And then she stood me up!”

Figuring that Nicole was far too decent to do such a thing without reason, he checked and found a note saying that she was attending a talk by Vito Acconci at Cooper Union. Stern’s response was to show up at that same lecture with another woman on his arm – and one whom he knew would have to leave early for a class – so he could have another shot at Nicole. Finally, the two had their drinks at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge (cheap but watered down bourbon and soda) talking non-stop into the night. That cold February in the East Village in 2001 was when he decided to follow her back to South Africa, where she held a tenured position in the Drama Department at Wits. “I lived in New York until my early twenties,” Stern says, “but I grew up in South Africa.”

Upon arrival in Johannesburg, Stern quickly established himself. As video artist and performance poet, he worked with PJ Sabbagha and the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative on The Double Room, which took the FNB Vita Award for Most Outstanding Presentation of a Contemporary Work (2001). The Mail and Guardian newspaper tersely referred to him as ‘digital guy’ for some time after that. As teacher, he began working with Christo Doherty, Head of Digital Arts at Wits School of the Arts, lecturing in the newly established MAFA program (2002). And as fine artist, Stern won a merit prize at the Brett Kebble Art Awards for his interactive installation, stuttering (2003). With the money from that prize, he bought the software that enabled him to create a major winning work at the second and last Kebble awards for another interactive installation, step inside (2004).

At this point, Stern was offered a solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG, 2004 – 2005). The Storytellers, featuring both a 6-channel and 1-channel video installation, a large-scale interactive art work, and over 3 dozen prints, was sponsored by the American consulate and the JAG itself. “But that still wasn’t enough to cover the show,” Stern begins, an edge of sadness in his voice. He explains that Braamfontein-based Andrew Meintjes, “who was becoming a good friend,” agreed to produce the prints for the show at no initial cost. “As a believer in my work, he said I could pay him back once the pieces sold.” Only hours after their agreement was reached, Meintjes was shot dead in his studio, the culprits getting away with nothing more than a cell phone. “It still haunts me,” Stern vocalized. With only weeks to spare before the opening, Stern was able to use his Kebble winnings for art yet again, this time parlaying the money for his museum show. The Storytellers was dedicated to Meintjes.

In between all of this Nathaniel and Nicole flew back to New York to get married, and Stern did a short residency at Cornell University where he continued to produce video art; he collaborated with Marcus Neustetter on various work and exhibitions (both on- and offline), and worked on a second award-winning piece with PJ Sabbagha.

In 2006 back in Johannesburg, a major breakthrough occurred in Stern’s work. He produced a custom battery-pack and hardware in order to attach a desktop scanner and laptop to his body, and scan or perform art works in the landscape – chief of which was in a lily pond at Emmarentia Park in Johannesburg. The scanned data was compressed into narrow horizontal or vertical strips (playfully coining a new –ism in art, namely Compressionism) and then stretched and edited on his computer to form a new piece.

“I thought of the resultant prints as fundamentally electronic works, in which I attempted to bridge the analog and the digital; but a graduate student at Wits who I was teaching at the time, Richard Kilpert, said these were the best prints he had ever seen. So I asked: ‘Teach me about printmaking?” This led to a whole new direction in Stern’s practice. He soon teamed up with Jillian Ross at David Krut, publishing a new body of work and portfolio for his exhibition Call and Response with Alet Vorster at Art on Paper Gallery (now GALLERY AOP). Stern jokingly laments that Voster did not like the work he first showed her on his laptop, but she took a liking to the prints as soon as she saw them in the real world a few weeks later, and eventually published the catalog for his highly successful solo show (2007).

This was also the time, however, when Stern decided to leave South Africa to pursue a PhD abroad, with Nicole and their newborn, Sidonie Ridgway Stern. Most of the programmes he looked at were either practice-based, or focused on visual interpretations of contemporary work. Stern wanted to pursue written research on interaction and performativity in media art. This landed him study with Professor Linda Doyle at Trinity College, the University of Dublin, in the Electronic and Electrical Engineering Department of all places! “Here I was, a fine artist, in an Engineering Department, pursuing a humanities-based PhD,” Stern observes wryly. “Linda did not have a clue what I wanted to do, but she was completely open to my interests and had no agenda of her own; and most importantly, she asked really smart questions.” During his two-year stay in Dublin, Stern continued to exhibit there, in Cork, Johannesburg, New York and more, and completed a short residency in Belgium.

While he and his family initially intended to return to South Africa on completion of his doctorate, after submitting his dissertation to his supervisor in 2008, Stern accepted a full-time position in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM), moving his wife and now two-year-old back to the United States literally a month before the global economic crash. “Like most other places during the economic recession, it was not kind to the arts or education, and I have to live with budget cuts and forced pay cuts now; but I’m having a great time of it nevertheless.” He loves his colleagues in his department, and has been collaborating with local, but globally known American artists since his arrival – Jessica Meuninck-Ganger and Yevgeniya Kaganovich in Milwaukee, and Scott Kildall in San Francisco – and writers such as Mary-Louise Schumacher at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The majority of his work now combines new and traditional media – concrete sculpture with 3D imaging, prints with video, electronics and mechanics with sculpture – a trajectory he credits Compressionism with.

Within three years, and thanks to major shows, awards and publications worldwide (including the Venice Biennale, Transmediale and several solos and duos in London, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Johannesburg), he was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. At UWM Stern manages a fantastic mentorship programme, working with students who help him with his installations, prints and various forms of participatory work, while gaining important experience in the studio and in relation to professional practice. “As in South Africa, where I always did community work in the arts, I am continuing to help build the arts in Milwaukee, by working with organizations like The Upgrade and Milwaukee Artist Resource Network. In fact, I am trying to combine my efforts across cities. I’ve already brought several of my American collaborators to South Africa, and am currently trying to bring South African folks to UWM – taking advantage, for example, of renowned author and director Jane Taylor’s trip to the states in the Fall.”

South Africa, Stern says, is still home. He plays an active role in the arts, plugs his friends and colleagues into each other’s life and careers, and tries to come back to visit everyone and exhibit new work as often as he can – wistfully avowing to move back one day. His latest solo exhibition in Johannesburg is again at GALLERY AOP in August 2011, where he takes the scanning of water lilies to a new level. Entitled Giverny of the Midwest, Stern has become a latter day, albeit electronic Monet, basing his 2 x 12 meter installation on the Impressionist’s famous Water Lilies painting in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He will also show a selection of older work and a new 6-channel video installation as part of Transcode, curated by Gwen Miller, at UNISA, this September, then museum, gallery and festival exhibitions in the states, New Zealand, and Canada in the weeks that follow.

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Live Out Loud

Live Out LoudThe Art of Compression
This article by Christine Grové appeared in both the online and print editions of Live Out Loud

Delving into the intricate and compelling world of American-born and Joburg-based artist, Nathaniel Stern, one is once again emphatically confronted with the pure immensity that is art appreciation and philosophy. Because Stern’s work is embedded in extensive investigation into subjects so significant to human nature, currently and historically, his art is quite possibly some of the most relevant around.

A productive day in Stern’s life may consist of wading waist-deep in a water-lily pond with a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack strapped to his body. Wielding this unique contraption he literally performs images into existence by scanning along table surfaces, swinging over flowers, hopping over bricks or, in this case, floating over water-lily ponds. This active engagement with his surroundings translates into quirky and organic but condensed renderings which he then re-stretches, crops and touches up on his laptop, and finally they are transformed into exquisite archival art prints for the gallery wall. This process of art-making he has suitably named Compressionism.

Stern follows a rather unique trajectory when creating his Compressionist works. From influential roots in Impressionism through to Surrealism imagery, ending in a postmodern sentiment, Compressionism is more than a playful allusion to historical art movements of “isms”. Allegorically, Stern’s term Compressionism dictates the nature of this day and age. In a world of time and space constraints threatening to slow us down, the concept of compression allows us to “zip-folder” large amounts of data into smaller spaces, which is also intrinsic to our lives of trying to fit an alarming amount of activities into one day.

His latest installation, entitled “Giverny of the Midwest”, on display at Art On Paper from 30 July 2011, is part of an ongoing series started in 2005 in Johannesburg. The main work, a 2 x 12 meter installation of 93 prints of water-lily pond scans was inspired by Monet’s work in Giverny where he spent over 30 years painting his famous water lilies. For this particular work Stern spent three days camping beside a lily pond in South Bend, Indiana with his scanner-laptop-battery apparatus, endlessly scanning his surroundings with only his studio assistant and an agitated snapping turtle for company. After this brief adventure, it took over eighteen months of editing and reworking images to achieve the full installation to where it is now.

Using Monet’s Water Lilies triptych at the MoMA in New York as his source for following movement and patterns of colour and light and Mondrian as the inspiration for the spacing of the images, Stern managed to create a kind of digital play between modularity and Modernism in this large installation.

Coining new terminology and experimenting with new hardware combinations are, however, not the only things Stern concerns himself with. He is also a prolific scholar of performative and interactive art and is considered one of the fathers of this progressive movement in South Africa. Throughout his career he has explored an array of different concepts including political commentary, performance, human interaction and language, and has deepened his research around these interests over many years.

Like most progressive artists today, Stern often collaborates with other artists. “I believe that artists no longer simply make images, they make discourse – they ask us not only to look but to look again, to re-examine,” he says, “Art is always dialogical – I mean, simply, that it is in dialogue – with history, with other art and artists, with current events, with politics and pop culture and more. Most of all, it is in dialogue with people, with real people.”

In his 2003/2009 updated work, “Stuttering”, one of his many interactive installations, Stern investigates how we affect, and are affected by conversation and comprehension. Each viewer in the space triggers a large-scale interactive art object projected on the wall in front of them. Body tracking software picks up the movement of the viewers and animates a quote about stuttering and is accompanied by an audio recitation of its text.

When questioned about bringing art to the people via interaction, Stern quotes: “There are a lot of reasons I work with interactive art. A large portion of this is to reach a bigger audience and get them excited about art, while also engaging with complex ideas and materials. And I also believe that such work can be serious stuff, which needs to be investigated further by those in the academy and elsewhere.”

Some of Stern’s other works will also be on display at UNISA in September.
For more information visit http://nathanielstern.com or www.artonpaper.co.za

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