Confronting The Digital And The Tangible: Nate Boyce’s "Polyscroll" on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
By Joe Ferguson
Growing up in a rodeo town, I once imagined exhibition openings as exotic events where fashionable intellectuals gripping champagne flutes or craft beers stared intently at a painting to accurately decipher its contents. I live in San Francisco, so smartly dressed means vintage-looking designer sneakers, selvedge jeans, and any shirt or blouse purchased from a boutique. I did not study art history or fine arts, so understanding the particular idiosyncrasies of the art world took time. A knowledge of well known modern and contemporary masters, plus a few Clement Greenberg quotes will help you fit right in on opening night.
I was surprised the other night when I attended the opening for Nate Boyce’s Polyscroll exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Sure, there was the reception area that played out like the description above, but when I went into the gallery the tone of the evening drastically changed. Attendees were staring at video screens, not uttering a word—no one was even taking a selfie next to the sculptures.
Nate Boyce is a San Francisco-based artist who employs handmade drawings, 3D modeling software, animation, and sculpture. For this exhibit, he layered his sketches into animations, creating images that fluidly shift and mutate as they horizontally drift across large LCD screens. His use of traditional color schemes, as opposed to the hyper-real pop colors often used in commercial CGI productions, evokes a response more often associated with paintings than video. Unlike the blank stares of toddlers watching a Pixar feature, these viewers seemed lost in consideration or reflection. When I asked people what they thought about his work the reply I most often received was a simple “Interesting” paired with a contemplative nod.
Accompanying the animations were several sculptures. Welded metal forms were affixed to grids, abstract supports, and even a railing. The sculptures were powder coated and airbrushed, as if to reference a previous era’s methods of making things by hand, yet their shapes and slick veneers reminded me of industrial manufacturing and digital fabrication.
The pieces, juxtaposed as they were, reminded me of how our current perception of space has been altered by an increasing exposure to a digital environment.
To fully take in the sculptures, viewers had to bend and move around them, but the simulated 3D images on the video screens required nothing more than a passive stance. Watching attendees attempt to see all of the sculpture Render Cage 1, for example, was particularly interesting. Perched on the railing above the main lobby, some viewers leaned out into open space to see the back of the piece—they seemed to possess an innate need to circumnavigate the piece.
Descartes may have believed we can learn all we need through passive observation, but many cognitive scientists assert we understand our world through the process of embodiment, a cross-modal faculty that took millions of years of evolution to develop.
Polyscroll forces us to confront the divide between the tangible and digital, and begs us to question what impact this profound change to our visual landscape imposes on our ways of understanding.
As I made my way back to the noisy reception area, I looked around and saw that the crowd was engaged in discussion. Those quiet observers were now talking about what they saw—an objective worthy of an art exhibit.
Polyscroll is part of the Control: Technology in Culture series, curated by Ceci Moss, Assistant Curator of Visual Arts, and is on view through April 5th.