Lee Arnold’s Digital Landscapes of the Soul

Lee Arnold is an artist whose digital animation I’ve had a great time getting introduced to. Over the last two years the artist, who was teaching at Drexel University at the time, was in group shows at Drexel University (twice), Vox Populi, Painted Bride and Fleisher-Ollman.  And each piece of Arnold’s I saw was a take on the landscape, internalized and remade in a melancholy and poetic way.

Arnold’s Alpinia in particular reminded me of  Jeremy Blake‘s moody distortions, only quieter.

Alpinia, a work I first saw in 2006 at Drexel’s show Inter-Logic, appears on its surface to be abstract — a landscape of bright-colored triangles with a musical soundtrack with some childrens’ voices in the background. But the triangles are animated and they become a slowly-unfolding alpine landscape  and as the scene shifts and draws you into the shart-pointed peaks of the landscape, the work becomes ambiguous. The minor-key music plays on and the childrens’ voices take on some urgency — are they screaming in play or in fear?  It’s a terrific piece and blissfully quick and I’m putting it below so you can experience it too.

Alpinia from Lee Arnold on Vimeo.
Alpinia, 2006. Seen at Drexel’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery in 2006.
Alpinia mediates modernist abstraction through the lens of contemporary technology. The camera travels through a 3D world comprised of simple 2D geometric shapes, suggesting a perfect Swiss landscape.

Alas, Arnold’s no longer teaching at Drexel but has a tenure track position (yes!) at Drew University in Madison, NJ. He’ll be one of four in the small art department and he’s charged with teaching all things digital. I’d never talked with the artist about his work so we had coffee and I took some notes and discovered that artist is a former kindergarten teacher and Vermont Studio Center staffer and that he segued into digital art via painting (MFA, UPenn, 2000).

Arnold’s got formalist concerns and visual concerns on his mind when he makes his art. But there’s a melancholy poetry than runs through much of it. And although there’s nothing overtly narrative or linear, it’s human concerns like memory, loss, love and loneliness that are suggested. Kind of like The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Arnold’s works suggests a world caught in an endless loop, a carousel existence with beauty and unfulfilled promise where you can go for miles and always seem to wind up at square one.

Here’s an excerpt from my talk with Arnold at Green Line Cafe Lancaster Ave.

Lee Arnold
Lee Arnold at Green Line Lancaster Ave. where we talked on Aug. 2.

Tell me about yourself, where you went to school, etc.
I grew up in Bucks County…I used to come to Philly on the weekends. I went to Hamilton College (BA, magna cum laude, 1994) in upstate NY and studied art and philosophy. I did the Tyler Rome program (1992-93) and took summer classes at Tyler. I went to grad school at UPenn for painting (MFA 2000).

I worked at Abington Friends as an assistant kindegarten teacher. Then I moved to Brooklyn to teach at a Friends School…kindergarten. There’s not much money in it.

Were you raised as a Quaker?
I went to Quaker schools as a child but wasn’t officially a Quaker.  My wife and I were married in a Quaker meeting house.  But I’m not a member.

I went to Vermont Studio Center as a resident, Fall, 1996.  Then after a couple months they  took me on and I worked as staff. They asked “Do you want to do our website?” I didn’t know how but figured it out and did it. There was no money in it but room board and a studio in exchange for 20 hours a week of work.

What kind of paintings did you make?
Abstract paintings and tiny, like Tom Nozkowski‘s. I didn’t know his work then found it and said “Oh this is what I was trying to do.” Milton Avery, too — messy things.

I got interested in photography at Tyler. It was about the image. When computer came along it was the way to make things come together.

I was also a musician. In high school and college I was in jazz band. I played piano. Post college I was in a punk rock band. I’m not a performer. So now I work on the computer.

Stereo from Lee Arnold on Vimeo.
Stereo, 2008. Seen at Vox Populi in 2008.
Music composed by Jaques Tati & performed by Chris Dingman. Stereo is a film shot in Super 8 about memory and nostalgia. Shown as a stereo image, the world is presented as both dream and reality.

Is the music on your videos yours?
On most of the videos it’s mine. The Fleisher-Ollman piece originally was Brian Eno. I tried to get permission and didn’t get it so put my own music on but I was frustrated with that so put Eno’s back on and said “So what…nobody’s going to come after me.”

The Vox piece, the vibe player playing Jacques Tati music. I commissioned him, Chris Dingman, to play it.

How did you find a vibe player?
Through a friend I got a list and called. I became friends with the player.

S-Bahn from Lee Arnold on Vimeo.
S-Bahn, 2006. Shown at Fleisher-Ollman gallery in Morgellons.
Music by David Bowie & Brian Eno. S-Bahn is trip through Berlin. A formerly divided city that also serves as the border between eastern and western Europe, Berlin is the onetime home of Einstein, Nabokov, Weill, Auden, and the Third Reich. 21st century architecture has left the layers of Berlin’s history exposed to plain view.

Tell me how you got interested in digital from being a painter
I was always interested in computers even as a kid. When I was finishing school computers became affordable and powerful enough to do anything. A friend of mine spent $20,000 in 1992 for a system!

What program do you use?
Aftereffects. When I found it I felt I was someone discovering my medium. I finally felt at home. I think I would have been a mediocre painter. I think I have the eye for painting but don’t have the zest for the medium. I still draw and do watercolors.

Did you play a lot of video games as a kid…like all those artists in Bit Map?
I never played video games as a kid. I’m interested in technology. I’m not into the video games like the others in that show. All I care about is the visual not the back end.

I’m not narrative.

I’m obsessed with Wittgenstein’s aphorisms. You can take them out of context…I think of him as an artist…his notes on color. I got to teach color at Drexel so went and read 19th Century philosophers on color. I’m figuring out I like color. I like line. I like aesthetics.

I’ve done still images with animation inset. Some are color photos and I’ve inserted black and white animation. I’m trying to make something flat and 3-D at the same time. A photo suggests space but it’s flat and an illusion.

You’ve been showing work all over Philadelphia, painted bride, fleisher ollman, drexel, vox…
I still haven’t had a solo show. One day…

You said your work is not narrative but I find it narrative–in a non-linear poetic way. It’s narrative kind of like Fischli and Weiss’s The Way Things Go is suggestive of narrative but abstract too.
Funny you should mention Fischli and Weiss. I show The Way Things Go to my students every semester. Maybe I’m influenced by that. ALso La Jetee, Chris Marker‘s sci-fi post-apocapalyptic movie that’s all still photos. It’s a 30 minute movie. You can get it on Netflix. It’s beautiful. 12 Monkeys is based on La Jetee.

As an artist that puts work online that can be embedded in other peoples websites what’s your feeling about copyright issues and public domain?
I don’t care (if someone grabs it for their website). It’s not like a one-off painting.

Have you ever sold a digital animation?
I’ve sold some paintings but never sold a digital piece…I was talking with Tom Moody (who was in Bit Map). Someone collects his work (he makes digitally animated gifs). Moody said someone organized a show to sell digital art but that’s not the way to do it. He said the artist needs to become a name brand (Cory Arcangel) and then it will sell.

You have to put stuff on YouTube but it’s bad quality (compressed images, fuzzy). Vimeo is good. It’s fast loading and better quality.

I’m making my new stuff in HD. I would want to show it on the computer which is very high res. Video is a light projection. I like the fact that it’s totally dematerialized.

Vimeo and other websites are useful to get the word out. They’re like slides used to be. But they’re not the thing itself.

Are you ever terrified you’ll lose your backups and your computer will crash and you’ll lose everything?
I have backups of my backups.

Where’s your studio?
My studio was my couch. Now it’s my lap.

What are you doing this summer …besides moving and getting ready to teach at Drew in the fall
I’m going to SIGGRAPH. They asked me to be a juror on the committee.  I get a free pass to the convention.   Gerfried Stocker (the artistic director of Ars Electronica; Europe’s premier CG festival) is on the jury with me.

Do you know Harris Fogel? He’s a Philadelphian — a techie guy and a photographer who goes to Siggraph. He covers it for a Mac techie blog. You should know him. Anyway, what did you jury?
We juried the art gallery. I had a piece in a previous Siggraph art gallery exhibit that’s why they asked me.

A little more bio please
My mom’s German and my Dad was born in America but has lived in London for a very long time.   I was born in London and lived there 3 years. When I was a kid we went back and forth between Bucks County and London in the summers.  I have dual citizenship.  I hope to live in Europe some day.

My wife, Jennifer Hsu, works at WNYC public radio. She does videos for their online site. She works for The TakeAway online, John Hockenberry‘s live morning show that competes with Morning Edition in NY.

We’re living in Jersey City so both of us commute.  (He to Madison, NJ and she to NY).  I hear Jersey City has a good art scene.  I’m going to investigate.
Maybe you can send us a post about what you find?  Want to do a video post?
Yes!  I’d like to do that.

Read Arnold’s report from the SIGGRAPH convention here.