Miroslaw Rogala: Boundaries of Freedom

at Oskar Friedl, through February 12

Tom Seghi

at Gwenda Jay/Addington, through February 16

By Fred Camper

Back in the late 60s some filmmakers and performance artists began talking about how new technologies would expand the possibilities for media, change human consciousness, and create a better world. I wasn’t very sympathetic, perhaps because I didn’t take the proper drugs before seeing their performances–disorganized, fuse-burning blowouts involving, for example, 12 film projectors, four slide projectors, six strobes, and a live seminude performer holding a candle. Even more baffling to me were such artists’ attacks on more traditional media like cinema. The frame was said to be too limiting, inadequate to capture the vastness of reality. Some artists designed wraparound projection schemes: the viewer sat in a tentlike enclosure while projectors outside cast images on all sides and above. But I always thought that the very limitations of cinema constituted its strength–the rectangular frame, the limited number of frames per second, the single sound source (stereo wasn’t available for noncommercial filmmakers then).

Indeed, most of the art I love depends on some form of tension between artist, materials, and reality. One marvels at a sculptor’s seemingly effortless reshaping of marble into fluid forms. Amazement at the illusions a painter is able to create is enhanced by some knowledge of the limitations of paint. A photographer declares his worldview as much through what he excludes as what he includes. Yet the utopian rhetoric around multimedia and virtual-reality presentations grows ever stronger, encouraged by rapid-fire technological advances. Many such claims take the same form they did in the 60s: evolving technology will enable the human brain to evolve. It’s rarely suggested that such “evolution” might in fact be devolution. On the other hand, if the art of the past century has taught us anything, it’s that artists have a great record of overturning previous paradigms, so it’s a good idea to keep our minds and eyes open.

I approached Miroslaw Rogala’s exhibit at Oskar Friedl, 15 digital artworks from the past decade, with some skepticism. Five of the works are from his “Transformed City” series, made with a digital camera equipped with a fish-eye lens, which provides a 180-degree view. A Chicagoan born in Poland, Rogala digitally merged two fish-eye images to produce a 360-degree view, and used that to make digital prints on transparent plastic, mounting them in a grid; typically one print includes the entire 360-degree view while the others represent selected portions of it. The 360-degree image in Transformed City (Krakow) shows the central plaza of this old city as a disk within a white sky in which a single tree and bird, both close to the photographer, are equally prominent. Traversing the grid from right to left, then left to right, and finally from right to left again, the images grow closer to the plaza and its buildings as Rogala “zooms in” on them; in the last print, the buildings seem to wrap around us and the bird.

What’s intriguing about the “Transformed City” pieces is the way Rogala controls our journey–we’re not lost in an interactive CD-ROM that allows us to travel anywhere. It took a little time to figure out how to look at the images to get the zoom-in effect–but there is a right order. Every picture has some form of curvy distortion, but the nature of the distortion changes as we move into the scene, further suggesting the transformative possibilities of a journey. At the same time, Rogala’s multiple images and their placement in a grid tend to undercut the autonomy or significance of any one picture: the artists’s choices seem somewhat arbitrary. And if they are, one almost longs for the interactivity of CD-ROM.

Yet each composition has a controlled elegance and power, due in no small part to the buildings’ jagged facades, particularly those of the two old cathedrals that frame the plaza in Transformed City (Krakow). Looking at this powerful study in contrasts between gray stone, flapping black bird, stark tree, and white sky one feels sure that Rogala’s choice of this particular view of the ancient center of Poland’s famously medieval city was not random. The balance between the elements shifts in each composition, but some balance governs each selection, suggesting that the artist has chosen these views for their internal visual tension. Indeed, in the larger of two grids titled Transformed City (Warsaw) Rogala has digitally modified the images to produce an illusion of movement. The lines made by bricks in a street curve toward the edges of the picture, for example, as if wrapping around us, suggesting a rapid thrust toward the center. Here there’s a tension between conventional cityscape and almost abstracting distortion.

A different use of the camera is made in Study for “Lover’s Leap”, one of several pieces here made in collaboration with the digital-image collective (Art)n Laboratory. This view of Chicago shows what’s above it–a rim of buildings–as well as what’s below, the ground; combining the two views in a three-dimensional light-box image makes it appear that one is looking up through a hole in the ground toward the skyline. On its own the work might be a bit gimmicky, but in the context of the show it represents an intriguing alternative and made me wish more of the city views in Rogala’s show were presented in different formats. The fact that Lover’s Leap itself was a complex interactive installation suggests that Rogala questions the relationship between different means of representation in multiple ways.

Another collaboration with (Art)n Laboratory, Virtual Sketch #2: China Wall, is interactive in itself. Another three-dimensional light-box picture offers a cluster of images: TV monitors angled in different directions, a row of ancient Chinese drawings, a photograph of the Great Wall. But if one places one’s hand near the center of the picture, a strange “singing” is heard; varying one’s hand position results in a different song.

Like other works in the show that document installations and performances, this one is somewhat enigmatic. But the whole show is a kind of enigma. The most successful images offer a traditional tension between limitless reality and limited materials, but Rogala’s various presentations indicate an apparent desire to transcend limitations. And it’s not always clear what perspective he has on his own imagery. His work in this show occupies a curious space in between precise, traditional works that play off limitation and less controlled forms like interactive CD-ROMs. In effect Rogala’s art foregrounds one of representational art’s oldest subjects, the relationship between imagery and the “reality” behind it–but as he re-poses the question, it’s even more open-ended.

At first glance Tom Seghi’s 14 paintings of fruit at Gwenda Jay don’t seem to have much to do with Rogala’s digital work. A Chicago native who’s long lived in Miami Beach and has been doing still lifes throughout his career, Seghi makes various sized paintings of one, two, or three apples, pears, or pomegranates. Painted with considerable skill, these fruits almost seem to leap off the canvas, offering themselves up as larger and brighter than life. I doubt there’s been a pear since Chernobyl that’s glowed with as bright a green as Green Pear; its Day-Glo intensity arguably makes it more sensuous–or crass, almost obscene.

Gallery manager Dan Addington told me that two painters who viewed the exhibit separately were disturbed by the spray-painted look of white highlights in Red Pear. In both cases Addington and the artist discussed whether airbrushing or similar techniques were appropriate to painting. Together they concluded, he says, that the artists’ dislike of such techniques revealed their “learned prejudices”–and that Seghi was to be credited for inspiring such debate.

The problem I had with these paintings was that they almost ignore the rectangular composition in favor of the sensuality of the painted fruits. Seghi’s intense colors, his modeling of the fruits’ surfaces, and the way he de-emphasizes the fruits’ shadows and reflections in what seems to be a table below them all isolate his subjects in the center of the canvas: the shadows and reflections seem to be present merely to set off the fruit. Nor is the fruit dynamically placed in the frame. Yet Seghi appears to have carefully calculated the relationship between the fruits. The red globes in 2 Pomegranates are tilted in an almost winkingly cute way, a tactic Seghi uses a few times.

The apparent attention to fruit arranging at the expense of overall image might make a cynic suspect that Seghi is more of an interior decorator than a painter. And in fact the collectors who buy his paintings often hang them in their dining rooms or living rooms, according to Addington. Like the decorative fruit baskets so often displayed in bourgeois homes, Seghi’s paintings seem more concerned with luscious display than actual nourishment.

At the same time I found these paintings compelling, seductive, almost hypnotic–impossible to dismiss; like some of Rogala’s work, they bear an uneasy relationship to “reality.” Is this art merely a self-effacing tribute to the real? Or does some part of the work represent a statement by the artist? How much artistic control is enough to qualify something as art?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Transformed City (Krakow)” by Miroslaw Rogala; “2 Pomegranates” by Tom Seghi.