Does Virtual Reality Mean the Death of Art Institutions?

Some say that virtual reality may mean the end of art institutions. I take a different view.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s "The Night Watch"

As a student, seeing a slide of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s “The Night Watch” paled compared to seeing it several years later at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. As I would come to find out, a projected slide didn’t capture the greatness of this painting. It has to be seen and experienced in person to be fully appreciated.

“The Night Watch” is stunning in person. The painting commands your attention by size alone. At nearly 12 feet wide and over 14 feet tall, it dwarfs the swarm of visitors flocking to it. You feel small and insignificant compared to the portrait of a militia company in front of you. In other words, this painting has presence. But it’s Rembrandt's use of light that’s most arresting. Etched in my memory are the two brilliantly lit figures—a young girl and lieutenant with elegant embroidered details on their clothing—in what is otherwise a dark scene. You can’t help but stop and stare.

One of life’s pleasure is physically seeing an artwork. For me, it’s not just about seeing a painting I’ve studied. It’s about the entire experience of getting there and sharing the opportunity with friends or other gallery goers. However, virtual reality (VR) poses an interesting challenge for viewing art today. Some say there’s no need to go to a museum or gallery when you can don a VR headset and see paintings, sculptures, and photographs virtually in the comfort of your own home. I take a different view: VR won’t replace physical art institutions, but VR will affect them.

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The Power of a Painting

Steve Hough’s painting, “The “R” of Entropy,” is both beautiful and thought-provoking.

Steve Hough, "The "R" of Entropy." Urethane on silver plated, carved polymer relief, 2016. 38.75"h. x 85.75"w. Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago.

On a frigid evening in early January I ventured out to Zg Gallery to see their latest group exhibition, “Para Natural World.” I tend to avoid gallery openings because they are usually bustling with people, which is great for the gallery but not so great for viewing art. But I figured the Chicago exhibition would be desolate, since it was nearly zero degrees outside. I was wrong: people were out in droves.

The chance to see a new painting by Steve Hough, an English artist based in Wisconsin, was my motive for attending the opening. I’d seen Hough’s work in the past, and found myself mesmerized by his simple motifs that suggest qualities in nature, such as dimples of sand on a beach. His latest work, “The “R” of Entropy,” mimics the ripple of a pebble piercing the surface of a blue body of water; gradations of circles emanate to the painting’s edge. When I got word that this new painting would be displayed, I knew I had to see it.

Upon entering Zg Gallery, I meandered through small groups of people sipping glasses of wine as I looked for the painting. I found it hanging in a small side gallery—distinct from the other artwork on show. In part this was because of its physicality, about seven feet wide, but also its reflections of color and light stopped me in my tracks. Rather than a slab of blue paint on a canvas, the painting’s hypnotic circles had a three-dimensional quality that radiated light beautifully. In short, “The “R” of Entropy,” like his others, was aesthetically delightful. Yet something was different: seeing this painting in a gallery full of people allowed me to experience Hough’s work in an entirely new way.

For awhile I basked in its surface qualities. Facing “The “R” of Entropy,” I noticed how the gallery’s bright lights accentuated the tactility of the circles wound tightly in the center. At the same time, they highlighted the softness of the circles that had flattened towards the painting’s edges. I wanted to see how the lights affected the painting from other angles, and was surprised the shades of blue changed as I moved side to side.

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An Art Exhibition in an Unlikely Place

Matt Nichols upends traditional art expectations in his exhibition, “SomethingDivine.”

Matt Nichols, “SomethingDivine,” 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Unless you’re looking for Matt Nichols’s exhibition, “SomethingDivine,” you may miss it. On the DePaul Art Museum’s second floor, three restrooms—men’s, women’s, and unisex—designed for individual use contain an array of white, hand-carved soaps and embroidered hand towels. The soaps are mundane with simple designs. What the soaps lack in aesthetic value, they more than make up in the questions they pose. Because you are in an art museum, you cannot help but wonder if these utilitarian objects are works of art. If they are art, how should you interact with them?

The first question is answered by the museum label. It provides the typical details you’d expect, including the name of the artist, artwork title, year made and medium. As for the second question, there’s no direction how or if you should use the soaps and towels. However, the causal display of objects with inherent use-value inside a private space baits you to pick up a piece of soap and use it. You’ve got the freedom to interact with and enjoy art, without expectations or watchful eyes of a security guard. As such, visitors have taken the liberty to use the towels, which are tousled on the shelf, and soaps—some of which are broken or misshapen from use.

Matt Nichols, “SomethingDivine,” 2016.

Each of the three restrooms offers a similar setup: a handful of soaps line the sink counter; several more hang from white ropes under a shelf next to the sink with embroidered hand-towels on top. Indeed, blurring the line between art and function is at the heart of this fascinating show. As the artist puts it, “My hope was that the soap would be used and essentially lose its "Art" value/nature as it assumed its utilitarian role.”

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The Human Touch: Artificial Intelligence and Art

The human effort involved in creating art with artificial intelligence.

It’s increasingly common to use artificial intelligence (AI) in art. Google has popularized this process with its platform, Deep Dream Generator. What began as a way to help engineers and scientists understand artificial neural networks, a form of AI, has blossomed as a means to create art,1 producing images that have been described as “trippy” and “psychedelic.” Outside of Deep Dream, artists are using other forms of AI to produce portraits, landscapes and abstract works of art.

AI has made significant strides since the 1950s, when it became established as a field. Today it’s used across industries. Given AI’s vast application and artists’ inclination to experiment with the latest technologies, it’s not surprising that AI and art have merged. Excitement around AI as an art medium abounds, yet this question looms: does AI mean we’ve lost the hand of the artist? No, but it seems hidden and needs revealed.

For some, using AI in art is a way to show the autonomy and creativity of a machine, thereby downplaying the human role in the art creation process. According to artist JT Nimoy, “there can be a tendency in some discussions to say ‘wow, look how much it's doing on its own.’ Look how hands-off my job became."

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