The computer revolution has had a profound impact on the art world. These days it has become almost commonplace to see computer-generated images exhibited side-by-side with painting, sculpture and photography. A new show of digital drawings by Jon Haddock at the Howard House Gallery in Belltown is gaining national attention, and our KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, went to see why. Here is his review.
No one will leave the Jon Haddock show with anything but a strongly mixed response, and that’s obviously the point. Haddock takes a group of widely circulated photographs of traumatic news events, and recasts them as though they were episodes in a child’s video game. The resulting images are remote, glossy, and intriguing. Like Pop art, they rework imagery from popular culture to make a point. But unlike the oil and canvas paintings of Pop, these mechanically produced images have little physical presence — they rely for their impact on the strength of their ideas.
What makes Haddock’s show notable is the skill and the wit with which he creates his little scenarios. His point of departure is the Sims, a wildly popular computer game. The Sims is a sort of digital dollhouse where one gets to play God with the inhabitants of a world of tidy, roofless houses, always seen from high above. The everyday action is strictly G-rated.
Haddock’s simulated world, on the other hand, is the territory of troubling and all-too-familiar recent events. In one typical image, tiny figures crowd into the corner room of a pastel-colored bungalow. Two Swat team officers point guns at figures in a closet. In spite of the weird scale, digital-doll style, and helicopter view we quickly recognize the scene — the taking of Elian Gonzalez. Look close enough, and everything in the news photo is there- the scowling cop, the terrified kid, the hanging clothes. But Haddock’s setting gives even greater space to the neutral, irrelevant things the photo doesn’t show, like the rest of the room, the rest of the closet and the rest of the house.
The tiny scale of the action and video-game look keep these pictures from anything approaching dramatic weight. How could anyone be so worked up over, say, Haddock’s version of the shooting of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman when they are reduced to a few little bloody dolls lying in the courtyard of a dollhouse condominium? Or the confrontation between the lone Chinese protester and the tank in Tienamin Square when the tank seems but one mouse click away from being turned around, blown up, or deleted?
The leveling effect is made even more pointed by the inclusion of scenes from recent movies side-by-side with actual history. The shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald gets the same treatment as a shooting from the Godfather, and both are diminished to near-inconsequence.
Haddock, a former painter, draws well and pays attention to detail. The pictures are weirdly engrossing in spite of the over-familiarity of their message, a critique of the desensitizing effect of mass media. But there is at least one other meaning we can take away from the show.
Haddock chooses a completely unexpected viewpoint in his version of the Vietnam war photo of burned children after a napalm raid. In his picture they are seen above and from behind, only partly visible — and not particularly distressing - as they disappear offstage. Most of the frame is weeds and empty road.
The meaning in historical events, Haddock seems to be saying, is only one which we ourselves invest in them. From God’s viewpoint (and that of Haddock’s pictures), there is no history, only a continuous stream of shapeless actions. The dramatic news photo is a sort of lie, plucking out of the chaos one frozen moment and turning it into an icon. An icon that is ultimately no more and no less connected than to actual events than Haddock’s defiantly neutral, computer-generated art. There is something fascinating and something terribly disturbing in all this, a statement with which the artist — clearly a fan of contradiction — would no doubt enthusiastically agree.