While Justin Bower’s artworks may look computerized with their neon colors and digital glow, they are large-scale paintings (often spanning 11 feet) that are created entirely by hand through an analog process. The juxtaposition of a digital aesthetic with traditional techniques is not accidental: Bower uses his holographic portraiture to investigate the contemporary relationship between humanity and technology. With mobile devices semi-permamnently affixed to our hands, constantly in a dialogue of information with the world, how much of our autonomy and freedom will we give up as technology continues to permeate our daily existence? This is a question that perturbs Bower — one that drives him to obsessively, painstakingly render these giant faces interrupted by fluorescent sparks and eery reflections. I spoke with the artist about his views and his artistic process. Read the exclusive interview below.
Your work tackles the theme of the digital world, though through traditional media. What’s the intention about this seemingly-opposing juxtaposition?
Well, my work is foremost about the destabilization of the contemporary subject in an increasing control society, and often I use the digital realm as the environment to place them in. It’s almost an ontological build up from scratch, building a new idea of who we are. So from that vantage point, I paint the current status or crisis of humanity today, and in doing so I am participating in an age old practice in paint. The digital is just a new context or environment to be studied. I feel as though I am carrying on a dialogue of paint and humanity that have existed since the dawning of paint itself.
Your compositions have a “glitchy” effect. The color palettes look like the neon colors that show up when a laptop screen is cracked. Is this a comment on the fallibility of technology?
It’s more of an affirmation that technology is always already inside the subject today. In my paintings this technology infects the subject, moving seamlessly through the body, warping and displacing the integrity of its form. I also see the glitch as a happy failure, to which I mean this glitch or fallibility in the system breaks open a rainbow of acid color, it’s quite beautiful. This fallibility in technology will ultimately manifest itself in the human form with each encroaching technological breakthrough.
Though your work has a digital feel, the canvases are very large and your loose, expressive brushstrokes have a tactile, physical quality. Do you believe physicality is important to your art practice? To art in general?
I use many tropes to develop my work. I use “loose and expressive” strokes because it enables the painting to look as if the subject is in a paused state of “becoming” new and reborn. I also contrast the mechanical/digital with what might be seen as the more authentic individual human mark (Ab-Ex). This dichotomous approach has a contrasting affect I enjoy. I’m also questioning if the two ideas are able to exist together.
Describe your painting process. Do you work with models? How much of your work is pre-planned? Do you use a sketchbook, Photoshop, etc?
I use Photoshop as a conceptual sketchbook. In the beginning I used only random subjects found on the web. Now I use anything that sparks an interest in me. For instance, in one series of works, I wanted a genuflecting subject looking to the skies to God. Based off of the Renaissance paintings of Mary looking upwards, and El Greco did many of these types of paintings also. I wanted to introduce a redemptive quality to the paintings, asking if science is the new religion, if so what are we looking upwards towards…is there a different kind of redemption/salvation today? In that case I had to use a model.
How do you feel about smart phones, Google Glass and the ever-presence of technology in our moment-to-moment existence?
An ever-presence of tech can and will birth an architecture of control. A control society that leverages the power of technology for its control needs. This mitigates the autonomy of the contemporary subject. Another theme I attack: Are we autonomous/free in our contemporary world? I am not an alarmist when tackling these concerns, but I always want the decisions we make within this system of technology to be ours, and free.
In your artist statement you mention Da Vinci, who was known for pushing the technological advents of his day. Do you think it’s important for artists to have a relationship with technology?
No, I don’t. I really don’t think one has to be thinking of tech to be an artist. I have chosen a theme that inherently bothers me and fascinates at the same time; that being the question of an autonomous subject in an increasing tech/virtual culture and a serious ratcheting up of a control society. We are at the precipice of not being made in the image of God, but in the future image of man. I paint as a way to study our ever warping and protean definition of who we are.