After more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man — the technological simulation of consciousness.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
“The medium is the message,” the memorable maxim from that 1964 publication, forever altered our view of technology’s foreboding influence on culture. McLuhan believed that technology, in addition to the content it mediates, has its own inherent message worth questioning.
This Message Has No Content, the title of P. Seth Thompson’s solo exhibition at Sandler Hudson Gallery through November 1, plays perhaps on McLuhan’s adage. The show tackles a dialectical triad of similar themes — quantum physics, 1980s American cinema and digital-era anxiety — which map out his autobiographical cosmography.
His vehicle: ghostly still images plucked from films that shaped him as a kid — Superman, The NeverEnding Story, Psycho, Space Camp — altered in the vein of such artists as Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer.
The look and feel of the show is cosmic, pseudoscientific, futuristic and, at times, opaque. Thompson’s digital prints have the laconic humor of 1960s Pop Art, similarly isolating and recontextualizing threads of American culture for proper scrutiny.
The show’s slick graphic quality gives many of the works an otherworldly, if not a hollow and commercial, aura. Some read as advertisements for Thompson’s Hollywood-infused philosophies. The vivid color palette — neon pinks, blues and greens — provides Thompson’s otherwise dark existential dilemma with spunky exuberance.
The Self Made Man is a trippy Alex Grey-ish portrait of Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent as Superman. (It also resembles curator Michael Rooks of the High Museum, if you tilt your head.)
Thompson, a Walthall Fellow, has re-created him as an ethereal cosmic creature, using the ubiquitous array of Photoshop special effects, which says as much about the overuse of Thompson’s medium as the character he depicts, and is perhaps the point.
Describing the superhero as “self-made” reframes the superhero’s actions within the “American dream” vernacular. Like Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portraits, Thompson presents this iconic American hero as the delectable stuff of cultural consumption.
Thompson’s titles endow many works with a conceptual weight, and they buttress others that would otherwise be less compelling. In the Beginning It Is Always Dark, for instance, depicts two hands, layered with a neon circuit board texture, clasping in a dark void. This snippet from The NeverEnding Story — which suggests Michelangelo’s creation image from the Sistine Chapel recast as a technological creation myth — is a visual one-liner. But its poetic title, which sounds both biblical and like something pulled from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, poeticizes the work within a greater cosmological context.
The film references can be obscure if you aren’t a member of Thompson’s generation or a film buff. I’ve Got One that Can See, for example, is evocative in a Barbara Kruger sort of way, starkly presenting a popular line from cult classic They Live over the blurred female face of Janet Leigh from Psycho. The images are visually persuasive — they make you want to understand them — but Thompson might ask himself how much he cares that many viewers won’t comprehend his references, especially if understanding them means going home and watching several feature-length films.
Some of Thompson’s photographs are a tad low-res. While their immateriality can be frustrating, it seems to be his point: that the image dissolves upon closer inspection reflects his quantum aesthetic.
Thompson’s choice of digital prints, as opposed to, say, tangible altered filmstrips or literal emulsion on paper, calls into question their “realness.” It’s an idea that works better conceptually than visually.
But perhaps the popularity of the “pixelated” in contemporary art is the 21st-century’s equivalent of Polke’s raster dots or Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots. Artists of today look to the pixel as the new phenomenological essence just as Polke and Lichtenstein used the dots to question the new reality of mechanical reproduction in consumerist society.
Thompson’s text-based works are reminiscent of Ruscha’s advertisement parodies or Jenny Holzer’s “truisms.” For example, the title, also the text of [Still Watching TV] It’s the Saddest Thing I Ever Saw, is a line taken from the screenplay of Splash. Isolated from the film’s context, the language/image combination might be a kitschy New Age marketing campaign or a corporate motivational poster. While effective, these read more as sketches for larger works than finished pieces in themselves.
Thompson’s three-minute video, The Day that I Broke Free, does everything his photographs do but with greater sophistication. The piece’s alchemy of video and sound creates an experience truer to what Thompson describes as the “tension between reality and fantasy in the digital era,” simply because its disorderliness and unpredictability feels more “real” than Thompson’s more controlled still images, and the “real” can’t be in question if it’s not present to some degree.
The work — made of altered and overlapping film snippets from the 1986 film Rad, an underdog tale about BMX bike racers — is more accessible than the still images because of its latent narrative, which blooms quite poetically alongside the potent soundtrack Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground by Blind Willie Johnson. Whereas Thompson’s Pop-inspired still images seem ironic, the video probes a deeper, more deliberately autobiographical emotional layer.
This Message Has No Content is paradoxical in that it tries to purposely question the depth of its own content. In addition to Thompson’s visually rich images, this slipperiness is what makes the show compelling, though perhaps more so for those who share his reference points and nostalgia.
If Thompson’s goal is to question the reality of what he’s seeing as a man who came of age in a pre-Internet era and is now enmeshed in a new hyperdigitized reality, then the show allows entry into Thompson’s point of view, as we look with him at the past with pixelated glasses.