Cory Arcangel’s Triple Threat: Power Points at the DHC/ART Foundation

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Installation view of Cory Arcangel, Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations series, 2013. © Cory Arcangel, Courtesy of Cory Arcangel. Photo: Vincent Toi, Phi

“What does it mean to have the artist’s hand involved?” It’s a question Cory Arcangel raises, standing next to what he describes as “the ultimate drawing”: his series of three nearly identical portraits of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Drawn using a pencil-plotter printer—an obsolete device purchased on eBay—it’s just one of the intriguing and unexpected works in Cory Arcangel: Power Points, now on display at Montréal’s DHC/ART Foundation.

Curated by John Zeppetelli, Power Points is the first major Canadian exhibition of work by the Brooklyn-based Arcangel. One of the youngest artists to ever be given a full-floor exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, Arcangel is renowned for resuscitating forgotten media and technologies to produce groundbreaking art. 

The DHC/ART exhibition—a survey of Arcangel’s work over the past decade—includes film installations, sculpture, and prints, as well as his savvy, reimagined video games. In Super Mario Clouds (2002 ), he creates a new form of landscape by hacking the popular Nintendo game and reducing it to clouds scrolling across a screen of blue sky. In 2002’s I Shot Andy Warhol, visitors are invited to take aim at art history: using an NES Zapper gun, they can play a modified version of Hogan’s Alley where the thugs have been mischievously replaced with cutouts of the iconic Pop artist.

While there’s clearly an element of humour underlying Arcangel’s art, it’s not all fun and games. The large-scale projection Self Playing Nintendo 64 NBA Courtside 2 (2011) features a digital Shaquille O’Neal having a disastrous day on the job. The NBA superstar keeps missing the basket over and over. But who can’t relate to a day in which nothing hits the mark? The work seems to speak to our collective setbacks and missed opportunities.

Although Arcangel posts much of his work online in different incarnations, visiting the exhibition is an immersive visual and aural experience. Shaq’s pounding basketball intermingles with the sounds of Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11, an atonal composition by Arnold Schoenberg. Arcangel (who is a trained musician) has realized a video version of the 1909 composition; only in his 2009 work of the same name, the three-part piano piece is interpreted by cats. He created his own software, Gould Pro, to edit and assemble approximately 200 downloaded YouTube clips of cats walking on keyboards, recreating an almost note-for-note rendition. As the artist explains in a walk-through of the exhibition, the video—which has brought Schoenberg to animal-lover blogs, and user-generated content into the art gallery—is about “shifting cultural hierarchies.”

Creating his own tools and code is a characteristic aspect of Arcangel’s artistic practice. To produce the 2006 film installation Colors, he developed software to read the 1987 namesake film (a story about gangs and race relations in Los Angeles), one line of horizontal pixels at a time. The result is ribbons of shifting, hypnotic colours shown against the original film’s highly charged soundtrack. Described by Zeppetelli as a beautiful formalist experiment, Colors reminded me of Quebec artist Rita Letendre’s paintings of energetic colour bands.

Despite their digital DNA, some of Arcangel’s works would not seem out of place alongside twentieth-century abstract paintings. The DHC/ART exhibition includes a room full of visually seductive works from his Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations series. With their geometric lines and seamless colour fields, they may remind viewers of paintings by artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. But look closely, and you’ll see that they are chromogenic prints, made by a click of Photoshop’s gradient tool. It’s a clue revealed by the prints’ titles, instructions for recreating them yourself: Photoshop CS: 30 by 40 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient “Blue, Red, Yellow”, mousedown y=3500 x=10180, mouseup y=3500 x=10500 (2013). 

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Arcangel refers to the Gradient series as Ready-mades, Marcel Duchamp’s term for ordinary objects elevated to the status of art. By pushing and poking at the boundaries of art in the digitally driven, twenty-first century, Arcangel is a triple threat: his work in Power Points is a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the intellect.

Cory Arcangel: Power Points is at Montréal’s DHC/ART Foundation until 24 November. Arcangel performs there with D’Eon on 26 September.

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