Casey Reas’s Disconcerting Software Paintings


A software painting is generated from code that puts a set of ideas into motion. Artist Casey Reas, whose fourth solo show, “There’s No Distance,” is on view with bitforms gallery, describes this programming process as an aesthetic mode, in which he plays with code structure “as if it were a drawing — erasing, redrawing, reshaping lines” intuitively.

His work is rooted in the early instructions-based conceptual works of John Cage and Sol LeWitt, artists who altered provisional rulesets to generate constantly changing artworks. Reas has actively investigated links between earlier and newer forms of generative art, most directly through a Whitney series in which he implemented LeWitt’s drawings in software. In his pieces, code provides the instruction; it outlines how elements from elegant linework to geometric shapes will interact.

In the current show, Reas presents fresh works in this vein: three ever-morphing “paintings” created by his new Still Life software. (The software is written in Processing, the open-source programming language he began creating in 2001 with the designer Benjamin Fry.)

Against the rear wall is RGB-AV A, a massive projection that dominates the room. Fuzzy red, blue, black, white and green pixels swirl and jab, crossing the screen at a dizzying, mesmerizing pace that pushes the viewer to step back, to absorb and process. Two smaller pieces on screens, HSB A and HSB B, boast crisper resolution and more muted greens, blues, blacks, and whites. These pixels flicker and merge; colors replace one another; at a distance, the intersections of blue and black somehow read as purples. The morphing geometric shapes are, at first glance, reminiscent of old screensavers. In RGB-AV A, curtains of colored light pass; a helix-like tornado spirals across a single-line horizon. At points, HSB A and HSB B offer the viewer a bird’s-eye vantage-point over swathes of green digital land, their boundaries shifting. Black lakes bloom suddenly and white gaps erupt; vertices jump across the screen; lines appear jagged and constrained, then loose and expansive.

Reas is hesitant to define or elaborate on his code. “The code isn’t interesting,” he tells the Voice via e-mail. “The ideas and systems defined through the code are the focus.” Show curator Kerry Doran describes the process more precisely: Platonic, three-dimensional solids are flattened into one synthetic visual field. The viewer experiences continual simulations of solids collapsing, expanding, and morphing, one to the next.

“There is no distance between you and the image being made,” Reas says of the series. I instantly felt this collapse, between the medium and myself, as I tried to gain mental purchase on the divergent speeds of thousands of pixels in motion without pause. I would figure out a pattern in one segment of the work, only to blink and find the entire field and geometry had changed, any discerned organizing principle lost. My eye was quickly strained by the exhausting flow.

As a nod to his origins, Reas has also included Path (Software 2), a work of his from 2001, updated in 2014. Projected against a side wall, it introduces the space. White filaments curve like worms across the screen, intersecting and disappearing easily. Path’s sparseness highlights the baroque, insanely detailed works of Still Life.

A low hum, varying in intensity like a plane crossing the sky, creates a haunting atmosphere in the gallery. It’s not a novel effect, but it’s new territory for Reas, who started integrating sound into his artwork earlier this year (working with a former student of his, Philip Rugo). Data pulled from the “painting” process auto-generates ambient sounds. (With these sounds, Reas intends “to focus attention, to bring more of the body into an active engagement with the work.” But it has the opposite effect: As the audio breaks in, pitching and receding with each shift in image, the effect is more distracting than complementary and the experience feels jarring and poorly integrated.)

Reas’s work is often described as absorbing and immersive, as though immersion were an innately positive value. In contrast, Still Life imposes discomfort, agitation, and friction, perhaps unintentionally. There are moments in which the viewer becomes adrift, subsumed by data-driven landscapes. But more frequently, the viewer is thrown into confrontation with the work’s illegibility. She has to do the hard work of contextualizing these frenetic pieces and by extension, our relationships to the computational systems that increasingly organize our lives.

Casey Reas: ‘There’s No Distance’
bitforms gallery
131 Allen Street
Through October 16