When an artist works with computers, how does he coose what to use? “I’m pretty agnostic about tools: I use everything from Hollywood-style 3-D software to custom software to output technologies,” Jason Salavon told the Journal in a telephone interview. “I’m a classical conceptual artist. I let the idea come first.”
A show of Salavon’s computer-based art opens today at Eight Modern gallery on Delgado Street. He is an assistant professor of visual arts at the University of Chicago, where he is also the only member of the humanities faculty with a dual appointment in the Computation Institute.
Born in Indiana in 1970, Salavon grew up in Fort Worth. “I was the first generation that played video games,” he said, “and my dad was a painter. Those influences combined to give me the idea that computers could be used for art.” He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Unviersity of Texas and an master’s in fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. Salavon taught at the Art Institute and worked in the video game industry for many years as an artist and programmer.
Salavon agreed that his work might have fascinated the Futurists, a European school of artists in the early 20th century. “I definitely identify with the Futurists’ ideas and their interest in science and technology,” he said. “Art right now is just dealing with the hyperspace and time, and the new technology that is permeating the culture, and their legacies and relationship to the arc of art history.”
One of the leading practitioners of computer-based art, Salavon uses software of his own design to capture and transfigure data and images drawn from popular culture, art history and his lived experience. The resulting videos and photographic prints often obscure the distinctiveness of their sources while revealing the visual architecture and conventions that unite them. “I’m just performing a pretty heartless mathematical operation on a series of data, where I set up a rule system,” Salavon explained. “But it has a relationship with abstractionists who were taking the reality of a situation and bringing something into it that made it bigger than the individual moment.”
For instance, “Spigot (Babbling Self-Portrait)” is an abstract digital portrait based on Salavon’s 11,000 (and counting) Google searches over the past two years. Feeding live from the Internet, “Spigot” randomly selects and reruns previous searches in real time. One video stream displays the text and dates of the original queries, transformed by an algorithm into a grid of colored boxes. The other video projection transmutes the raw data into a pattern of pulsating, rainbow-hued, concentric squares. A bevy of robotic voices reads aloud the various search terms represented, providing a pervasive but indecipherable audio counterpart to the visual diptych.
In “Still Life (Vanitas),” Salavon has used production-level 3-D animation to create a photo-realistic, yet completely synthetic, tableau of a mammal skill and candle-stick in the style of 17th-century Dutch painting. Over the course of four hours, these objects are constantly, but imperceptibly, changing in form, position, and material. In the artist’s words, “the infra-perception pacing aims to explore evolutionary phenomena through a lens of historical painting.”
Salavon’s photographic prints also draw upon his interest in art history. “Baroque Painting” and “Impressionist Painting” isolate and organize the color palettes from the 100 paintings by Rubens and Monet. “Portrait (van Dyck)” and “Portrait (Velazquez)” digitally average 80 portraits by these old masters.
Salavon has been written about in publications such as Artforum, Art in America, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired and Contemporary. “The information in his statistical works has been reframed as art, much as Warhol and Lichtenstein repurposed prevalent popular culture, forms of the 1960’s,” Butler University art historian Elizabeth K. Mix said. “By inserting a perceptual optical phenomenon in place of traditional presentation of information, Salavon creates a visual experiences that preferences the aesthetic over the intellectual. Yet, the work remains reflective and dependent on the original concept.”
His work has been shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Lose Angeles County Museum of Art, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, the International Center of Photography and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Many of these institutions have also acquired Salavon’s work for their collections. In 2007, the National Portrait Gallery purchased Salavon’s video triptych “The Late Night Triad,” making it the first electronic artwork of the museum’s permanent collection.