PAINT A SCREENSHOT: Digital Images & Physical Paintings in a Virtual Course
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Many instructors ask students to put their phones away during class. But on the first day teaching ARTS 354: Intermediate Painting this semester, I asked my students to take out their phones and browse their screenshots folder while I explained their first assignment. I gave them the following directions:
Open your screenshots folder on your phone.
Choose a handful of images to paint.
Paint the image the size of your phone screen.
Send one final image to me in the USPS Mail
With our entire studio art course virtual due to COVID-19, I searched for ways to see my students' work in person. And while there have been many challenges this semester, I wanted to explore new possibilities for assignments which are even more suited to virtual instruction than traditional courses.
This project turned out to be a great first assignment, as the subject matter was limited to screenshots they already had taken on their phones. It also gave us the opportunity to ask questions about digital technologies. I asked the students to think about the difference between seeing something in-person and seeing an image. Furthermore: what makes an image different when we experience it digitally and what happens when we translate that digital image into paint? In the age of mechanical reproduction and digital dissemination, what would be accomplished by investing the time to paint a digital image? Would the image be transformed or would the time spent reproducing the image in paint give us new insight?
We talked about Leo Steinberg’s concept of the flatbed picture plane, which marked a new way of conceptualizing the virtual painting space in response to the saturation of documents, charts, bulletin boards, data and other media in Mid-Century America. Now, “Post-Digital” painters are responding to digital space in a similar way. These artists often don't view the picture plane as an illusionistic space, but as digital windows, tabs, and layers. I wanted to open up subject matter for my students so that they would be able to appropriate anything found online into a painting. This is only fitting with so much of our lives currently being spent in digital spaces (including this very class).
But what my students sent me exceeded my expectations.
A handful of my student's work focused on the object-ness of their painted screenshot. Tianyi Liu decided to include red thread in their painting Say the Price Again, as if the tactile feel of viewing a product in-person could be conveyed through online shopping. Alia Frickensmith pasted a separate piece of paper to their screenshot which is painted on the front and back as her phone case. And Shayla Torres painted her screenshots on cut pieces of cardboard. The tattered, uneven edges call attention to their hand-made qualities and are in sharp contrast with a phone's slick digital aesthetic.
This project gave my students the chance to demonstrate their creativity simply through the act of choosing the image. In particular, I am thinking of Zoe Kelley's decision to paint a screenshot of a Google maps route after missing an exit on the highway. The resulting directions turn and twist around the exit ramps of a cloverleaf interchange, one of the many frustrations of modern times. I also think of Greer Durham's decision to paint screenshots of profiles found on the popular dating app Tinder. As was mentioned during our critique on Zoom, these images appear almost as if they've been transformed into trading cards because of their new material presence and size.
I encouraged my students to consider what it might mean if they choose to replicate all the details in their image, including battery life, time, and the amount of likes on an instagram post. Sam Wagner does this well in her meticulously painted images of cute animal posts on instagram. Every small detail of fur is painstakingly painted, as are the exact number of likes and comments received.
In November, I hung the screenshots I received in a show at the Link Gallery, a space in-between the School of Art+Design and the Krannert Art Museum. For those students who were still on campus, it was a way to see their peer's work in person.
The installation of paintings highlights their physical presence by placing them on pedestals and protruding them out from the wall. At the same time, their digital nature is also foregrounded. The staggering of the paintings are like the tabs, windows, and swipes of a screen that we encounter most digital images with… while the plexiglass displays recall the tactile feel of a phone screen.
As I sat alone in the lobby of the Link Gallery one day, sending a quick email before heading to my studio, two undergrads walked into the space on their way to visit the Krannert Art Museum. As they passed the exhibition of my student's work, they both stopped in their tracks and stared at the exhibition. I couldn't help but watch out of the corner of my eye as they approached the paintings and examined each one. I couldn't hear what was said, but I heard the excitement in their tone as they talked with one another. They looked around for 5 minutes, took some pictures on their phone and left.
I don't know how many people were able to see the paintings in the week before Thanksgiving break (in fact, I don't even know how many of my students got the chance to see the exhibition). But I do know that those two students enjoyed the show... and likely a handful of other students, faculty, and staff. It reminded me that in this time of immense physical separation of social distancing, we are still a community and art still has the ability to inspire.
And in that moment, I was even more grateful to all my students for their patience, hard work and perseverance this semester.
Jake Foster is a 3rd year Studio MFA Graduate Student at UIUC and an Instructor of Record for Intermediate Painting in Fall 2020.