WINTER HARBOR — In the old days, the divide between abstract and representational art was distinct. The latter reflected the outer world while modernistic abstract art was an exploration of the artist’s inner being.
Ben Lincoln, whose exhibit “Interface,” is on display at the Littlefield Gallery in Winter Harbor, through Sept. 15, says those dated distinctions may no longer apply in the digital era and in a digital world.
“I am interested in how this blurring may alter our understanding of these two modes of painting,” said Lincoln, who was born in Anchorage, Alaska, but grew up in coastal Maine and now works from a studio in Pretty Marsh on Mount Desert Island.
Lincoln believes the digital age has changed what was once a search for “truth” has become a campaign of persuasion. “We curate our lives on Facebook,” he said. “We only show the best, not our real lives.”
Although Lincoln is immersed in nature as much as possible with his brain’s visual recorder hard at work, he also draws sustenance and inspiration from some of today’s biggest thinkers in science and the effects of technology.
One expert, Sherry Turkle, Abbe Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explores how technology is changing humans. One of her best known books is “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”
Lincoln said one aspect of Turkle’s more than 30 years of studying human/machine interactions that is particularly interesting to him is her observation of what she calls the experience of “real enough.” Study participants, for instance, know a mechanical pet is not real, yet they still find themselves developing an emotional bond with the toy.
The further implications, Lincoln said, are that people in the 21st century are operating in a hybrid space where they are vulnerable to a visual rhetoric with an agenda.
“When pundits today talk about living in a ‘post-truth world,’ I think that is about more than the normalization of unscrupulous actors online who deliberately utter and repeat false or misleading statements,” the artist said. “What we are really talking about here is a much more fundamental change in the basic architecture around how what we feel to be a ‘true’ experience is shaped.”
So what is “real enough” painting?
Lincoln sees it requiring significant participation from both the painter and the viewer and it proposes a different way of relating to images.
“‘Still Life with Nautilus Cup’ (shown above) is not a picture of specific objects in the previous sense, but represents instead the product of a network or exchange in which images are searchable, discoverable and tradable and that link multiple times and places.”
“For me, abstraction and representation proceed from the same source and are part of a common practice that reflects the blurring of the boundary between subject and object,” Lincoln continued.
In terms of his abstract art, Lincoln said he works with what he thinks of as an internal language of expressive form. The grammar and syntax of the form, however, derives from the external phenomena of light, shadow, space, surface and reflection more generally associated with representational painting.
Lincoln’s unusual and detailed oil paintings at times almost border on fine illustration, but also are infused with a definite artistic point of view. He begins a still life with a kind of story board assembled from a few dozen images out of hundreds or thousands browsed online. Once he has a basic idea of the elements to be included, he proceeds to a rough digital mock-up to see how everything fits together.
Next, each element is drawn separately onto tracing paper, composed to make the scene and transcribed sequentially onto a panel.
“The ultimate effect I’m striving for is a kind of seamless collage,” he said. “There are no literal cut and paste lines to be seen, but the aesthetic of cut and paste is inherent to the process.”
Another influence on Lincoln’s work is the “Superflat Manifesto” (2000) originated by artist Takashi Murakami. Murakami’s theory tries to explain how Japanese society has become more and more flat, superficial. He believes that after World War II, Japan was traumatized and started to deny its past and, in the process, lost a large part of its identity by embracing certain aspects of American culture, such as cartoons.
Lincoln believes the same two-dimensional aspects also might be or become a byproduct of the digital age.
“I think Murakami was prescient in so far as he articulated a way of relating to information that has become the norm online,” Lincoln said. “I would not call my still lifes ‘superflat,’ at least not in the way Murakami’s imagery is.
“Rather I am exploring a tension that I believe exists as we attempt to adapt a mind shaped by millions of years of evolution in the physical world, to a new space in which physicality is absent.”
Despite Lincoln’s interest in technology and science, his painting technique is decidedly old school. It is adapted from the method practiced by the Renaissance masters. Subjects are first modeled in multiple thin layers of black, white and earth tones, with the more vibrant colors applied last. The process results in images that seem to glow from within.
Lincoln does not see digital technology as the death of painting, as was predicted by others years ago with photography.
“Whenever powerful new media emerge, there is a temptation to assume that older ones will become obsolete. Sometimes this is the case, but it is also often true that the older media — freed from whatever assumptions and expectations burden it — finds a new path to explore.
Modernist abstract painting might not exist had the invention of photography not freed painters from the expectation of making representational images.”
Lincoln earned a diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he studied painting in the studio of Domingo Barreres. He continued his studies there with a year of independent study and was awarded a prestigious traveling fellowship and accompanying exhibition of work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
He has participated in a dozen group shows and had a solo exhibition at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth.