Nathaniel Stern is diving off the coast of Florida, scanning the gorgeous seascape before him—literally. He’s got a desktop scanner strapped to his back, uploading images to an on-board Windows tablet. A few jellyfish, a bit of coral, the expanse of blue—he scans it all. He isn’t capturing these images for science or study, but for gallery walls.
Stern is a digital artist, and for the past 10 years, this has been his medium. His latest show, Rippling Images, opens today at the Tory Folliard Gallery in Milwaukee (it premiered at South Africa’s Turbine Art Fair in July). Its 18 “underwater performative prints” are distorted swashes of vibrant color—what you’d expect if you scanned, say, a school of fish—but beautiful just the same.
“For me,” Stern says, “the way time and space are folded into each image—as vertical slashes or angled swooshes of movement and stasis—are like potent mappings of land and sea, body and technology, together.”
The series, which the artist calls “Compressionism,” began in 2005 in South Africa, where Stern was living at the time. He’d been experimenting with various kinds of interactive art, and galleries started seeking his work. He had no idea what to do, so he simply showed up at a gallery with his “mobile studio”: laptop, video camera, scanner, and hard drive. Then he scanned every object he could find, from windows and walls to doors and benches. He hung each print alongside to its subject—a scan of a window next to the window, for example—and hoped people would get it.
“I thought this would be an intervention in how we understand space and tech,” he says. “People went gaga for it.”
One of Stern’s favorite artists, William Kentridge, attended the show, and said Stern’s prints reminded him of Japanese woodcuts like Hokusai’s classic The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. “You should go out and scan the landscape,” Kentridge told the artist.
For the next decade, he did just that.
Making His Own Water Lilies
His favorite work—prior to Rippling Images, of course—was Giverny of the Midwest, his techy homage to Monet’s Water Lilies. (Stern is a self-described fan of the impressionist.) To create it, Stern brought a laptop, five scanners and battery packs, and two student assistants to South Bend, Indiana, to spend three days scanning a lily pond. The water claimed two scanners and his phone, but they wound up with 130 scans that Stern then spent two years editing into an installation composed of 93 prints. Laid out in a Mondrian-like arrangement, the piece covers more than 250 square feet and is nearly identical in size to Monet’s masterpiece. Giverny of the Midwest was shown in South Africa in 2011, but Stern’s continued to work on it since, and it will have a US debut at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in April next year.
After he’d waded through water for Giverny, Stern decided it was time to go under it. His brother-in-law Emyano Mazzola, an Italian scuba instructor (and Stern’s occasional photographer), suggested scanning a coral reef. He sought a grant from University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where he teaches. It loved the idea, so he became a certified diver and went to the Florida Keys.
Though he’s been using rigs of various sorts over the years, going underwater posed a particular challenge. He designed 10 rigs, built five, and brought three. One consisted of a FlipPal portable scanner and a DryCase for the tablet. But the “most fun” rig, Stern says, was made entirely of Plexiglas. Vacuum-sealed with a bike valve, it kept his Windows tablet dry.
To a point. The rig started leaking at 30 feet (it was supposed to go to 60), and some of the images included scratches and bubbles. “I love this,” Stern says. “The work is meant to frame and amplify the forces of land and sea, show how they affect movements and actions and performances. None of this technology ever did precisely what I wanted or intended, and you can see that in every image. It’s beautiful.”
That’s one reason Stern wants to keep creating this kind of art—an unusual move in an era when digital artists are expected to constantly grow, adapt, iterate, change. “To stick with one image-making process for 10 years—and it’s easily going to be another 20—is not something most digital artists do,” says Stern, who’s planning an ice dive for his project. “The process and what comes out of it are so rich and full of wonder.”
Don’t believe him? If you meet him on the street, Stern might even give you a try: He loves watching people attempt to scan their world for the first time. “They want to move quickly,” Stern says. “But the images don’t capture anything. Then they start to slow down. And instead of just moving, they’re moving with, or moving around. It’s pretty magical to watch people dance with the landscape.”
“You can hear,” he adds, “that I’m a hopeless romantic.”
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