Die Beeld

nathaniel stern: review in die beeldStern manipuleer oog om alledaagse nuut te sien
original article

Stern manipulates the eye to see the everday anew
by Franci Cronje

One of the strongest critiques of digital art (often rightfully so), is that appropriation and unoriginality are always at its core. Many hijack the conceptual frames of popular culture and media, or historical works, without adding much value. Seldom do we find fresh processes or ideas that ask us to engage in real discourse.

Nathaniel Stern’s Outlet exhibition, ‘time and seeing’, is exempt from such criticism. He is the father of an exciting new art movement called ‘Compressionism’. In Stern’s own words, he ‘uses simple, digital technologies, in combination with performance and exhibition, to explore different ways of looking’. Compressionism sees a performance-based scanning of large objects, followed by the digital ‘stretching’ of resultant images to original proportions. To accent certain elements, Stern manipulates colour and contrast. The final product is a combination of the recognizable and unrecognizable, in beautifully flowing images and forms.

By way of a quite old-ish scanner (Stern says newer ones are too light sensitive for exterior use) connected to his apple computer, he scans wildlife and landscapes bit by bit. He straps a handmade scanner-cum-computer-appendage to his neck and braves the Emmarentia dam looking for water lilies. He glides over a nude, or executes intricate movements in front of a bookcase. The end result is really new and fresh. Although his pieces refer to Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending a staircase’, Monet’s ‘Water lilies’, and the performative elements of Jackson Pollock’s dripping paint technique, it is light years ahead of postmodernism’s “references and re-referenced” in existing imagery.

Stern’s conceptual inspiration comes from Jackson Pollock, the American pioneer of Abstract Expressionism. Jack the Dripper (so called after he introduced the world to ‘action painting’) perfected his dripping technique as he moved away from conventional easels and paintbrushes. Stern’s scanner, playfully called Action Jackson, fulfils a similar function to Pollock’s sticks, knives and trowels – moving away from the camera and LCD screen.

Stern, like Pollock, also works with a mixture of the controllable and the uncontrollable. Initially, he followed forms and figures strictly from one end to the other; more recently, he has changed his technique substantially. He will hover over a certain part, for example, in order for an Agapanthus’ petals to be discernable, but the rest of the image flows into abstract shapes and hues.

For Stern, an important part of performance art is its ephemerality and fragility. The landscape’s impermanence is further accented through his use of shifting pixels – concept and image are transfigured into an almost transcendent artwork with its own life. His images accent the transience of nature, and of science.

Viewers have had astoundingly different reactions to the eleven prints on show. Some of them see only the seductively beautiful images. Others immediately recognize their art historical references. The artist himself re-members his process-as-performance: where he hovered over a part of the object, while scanning faster over another. For me, it is intriguing that the brain constantly tries to form some kind of closing. My eye follows the lily leaf in the one corner, and tries to make conceptual sense of its other fragmented parts. At some point, my right brain takes over and I revel in the form, colour and perfect balance between these strange prints.

And this is where Stern really succeeds as an artist: he invites us to look with new eyes at the world around us.