MKE Journal Sentinel

Nathaniel Stern scans artwork into being
Mary Louise Schumacher for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It’s a quirk of human nature to want to see the world through facsimiles of it. That instinct — to look at pictures — is as old as humankind. It defines us, really.

So what happens when the world itself seems to be a terrain of copies, when our days are filled with more images of people and places than actual ones, for instance.

This is the territory of Milwaukee artist Nathaniel Stern, who just had a solo show at the Tory Folliard Gallery, some of which remains on view. Stern creates work he calls Compressionism, images made by strapping a desktop scanner to his body and scanning various landscapes in steady long lines, sweeping motions, quick pogo stick-like hops or while scuba diving underwater. These scans are then turned into artworks using photographic or inkjet printing processes.

In “Soft,” for instance, we see what looks like scrubby, organic matter undulating in water and pressed up against glass, presumably the face of the scanner. It’s akin to what we might expect from a work of art, a pictorial depiction beneath glass. But we also see the gravity of it, the sensation of these wheat-colored plants with a faint purple tinge brushing against the surface.

Distorting waves, not unlike those of an analog TV screen with the horizontal hold out of whack, are a visual hint that we’re looking at manipulated media. Throughout the series, mysterious digital hiccups, skips, drags and scratches are further pictorial pointers. In them, oscillations of time and movement are inferred. Some works have an inherent quickness, while others are more unhurried and stretch out a moment in time.

Barely detectable inside this expression of narrative is the artist himself, and the sense of performance he brings physically to the work. He says he “performs images into existence.” I like that. I like that the primary artistic act of this work, fundamentally about the mediation of imagery, isn’t made with a computer but with a body out in the world doing things.

It is intriguing to consider our changing visual literacy, by the way. Much of Stern’s iconography would be unintelligible to our 19th-century counterparts.

The best works in the “Rippling Images” series, for me, were those where realism, simulation and abstraction combined in playful and surprising ways, when the digital ripples and the watery ones that are Stern’s subject become inseparable, when reality and its copies dance.

The result is something quite transporting, works reminiscent of the primordial and the pliability of human perception in the 21st century. My only quibble is the somewhat informal presentation of the works, which are set loosely into the frames so that ripples in the paper are visible. I’m told this is intentional, that the artist wants us to see these prints as objects with a surface. I’m just not sure this works.

Stern is represented by the Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St., which is currently showing some of his works. He also has related work up at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, 273 E. Erie St., through Saturday, Dec. 6. He will also have a show at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, opening April 11. For more information: