Pose for One Hour, and His Digital Wizardry Creates Art

Don’t look now, but just as technology has changed the way we bank or buy tickets to baseball games, it’s blazing a new trail in how artists create portraits.


Lincoln Schatz, a digital artist who uses new technologies for his innovative multimedia portraits, is emblematic of the innovative ways subjects are becoming immortalized. The latest example of his work, which premieres Saturday at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, uses a squadron of cameras and computers to create an ever-changing documentation of such Bay Area personalities as craigslist founder Craig Newmark, sex guru Annie Sprinkle, and Beau Takahara, founding director of ZeroOne San Jose: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge.


“The Cube,” the staging area where the footage of the subjects is captured, is a 10-by-10-by-8-foot plexiglass box embedded with 24 video cameras. A central computer collects the footage for a layered, multi-perspective portrait later displayed on plasma monitors.

Explaining this new breed of artwork is not easy to do at a cocktail party, says Schatz, especially if he resorts to the gallery-speak description of himself as a “generative portraiture” artist.


“I give them the short answer,” Schatz says, “and there’s this glazed-over look I get back. Then, they look at me and say, ‘Did you see the game yesterday?’”


Schatz, 43, uses digital media to collect the footage. Computers reconfigure the images by combining, juxtaposing or layering them. The result is akin to staring into a window overlooking a busy street scene and seeing both the interior of the building and a reflection of the outside. By combining multiple images, a new visual hybrid emerges.


JoAnne Northrup, senior curator at the San Jose Museum of Art, has been a fan of Schatz’s work since she saw a piece of his at bitforms gallery in New York City last year. Like the portraits produced through “The Cube,” Schatz’s New York piece involved collecting footage – in this case, of gallery visitors strolling into the exhibition space. The images were then randomly mixed and projected onto a screen.


Schatz’s work functions like a metaphor for human memory, which recent studies have shown is, in fact, highly subjective in how it prioritizes data, Northrup says.


“What makes his work really interesting is that, just like the nature of memory, it decides what images to retain or delete,” Northrup says. “I love the fact that the similarities and this digital artwork have an extremely human dimension.”


Northrup says she hopes that the museum will acquire one of Schatz’s pieces. His digital work “End of Boom,” part of “A Model Building” exhibit, is at Palo Alto Arts Center through Dec. 22.


Lawrence Rinder, dean of the college at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, will learn first-hand about becoming a subject of Schatz when he steps into “The Cube” as part of the Clark Gallery exhibit. He will spend 60 minutes in the box doing what he does 12 hours a day: developing curricula, e-mailing faculty and students and accomplishing a typical hour’s worth of administrative tasks from his laptop.


Schatz’s pieces mirror Rinder’s own interest in art that models the experience of consciousness, which was the subject of an exhibit he curated at the college six years ago.


“Lincoln has managed to take very high-tech materials and technology and make them relevant to people’s lives and experiences,” says Rinder, the former curator of contemporary art at the Whitney Museum. “It’s in the way in which he harnesses not just moving images but layers of images that evoke the spirt of passing time and memory.”


Catharine Clark, the director of the gallery that bears her name, says that the technology is anything but an obstacle in helping Schatz make a statement about memory.


“He is not using a paintbrush or a camera to create static work,” she says. But “like a painting in a series, you might have an overriding idea that defines the body of work.”


“The Cube” and Schatz’s other digital art projects are something of an outgrowth of his early work as a sculptor. The technology has become a new means for him to set a series of basic conditions and allow something to evolve over time.


“In the last 20 years,” Schatz says, “I was always trying to close that gap between studio practice and life. I really think that with this ‘Cube’ project, I have finally done it.”




Here’s how “The Cube,” a generative portrait environment by Lincoln Schatz, works:

• A subject climbs into a 10-by-10-by-8-foot plexiglass box, which is embedded with 24 cameras mounted at varying heights.
• Subjects are encouraged to perform an activity that represents their personalities, interests or values.
• For an hour, cameras shoot the person in the cube.
• 24 computers, each connected to a camera, send a total of 24 hours of footage to two central computers.
• A select percentage of files are retained in the artist’s specially designed software.

• The footage is reconfigured to create a dense, many-layered hour-long video portrait.

By Mark de la Viña

San Jose Mercury News | October 21, 2007

© 2007 San Jose Mercury News