On “Symbiosis,” Solo Exhibit of Digital Prints by Shirley Steele

Burrison Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, June 2008


Comments by Dr. Peter Conn, Vartan Gregorian Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania


Walter Benjamin published his influential essay, "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in 1936. The inventions of photography and the motion picture, in Benjamin's view, had fundamentally altered the assumptions and values that had traditionally been associated with the visual arts.


Uniqueness, Benjamin noted, had been replaced by replication and repetition. He welcomed the transformation as useful for revolutionary practice. The elite aura associated with originality would yield to the egalitarian opportunities of machine-made copying in the service of politics.


Benjamin's prophetic ideology has become shopworn over the decades since his essay appeared. And, despite his expectations, aesthetic uniqueness has not lost its appeal (at least not on the evidence of the prices that both old and new masters currently command in the art market).


At the same time, the core insight has retained its relevance. Indeed, our recent relationship to "mechanical reproduction" suggests that Benjamin didn't know the half of it. Over the past couple of decades, advances in the technologies of making, reproducing and distributing images have multiplied the scale and scope of copying beyond what anyone could even have imagined back in the 1930s.


As Shirley Steele says in her artist's note: the very fabric of our lives is permeated with electronics and artificial intelligence. The virtual threatens to replace the real, both in art and across broad swathes of our daily lives.


Along with their exceptional technical virtuosity, Steele's digital prints offer provocative comments on the possibilities of visual statement in these vexed but ultimately promising circumstances. Rather than merely capitulating to machinery, on the one hand, or retreating into some nostalgic space of rejection, on the other, Steele's pictures deploy mechanical replication in the service of originality and humane expression.


Take "Reconfigured Intelligence #13" as an example. Scores of identical silhouettes are distributed across the big (32 x 44) surface. The repeated small figures are shadowy outlines of the photographer taking photographs – in effect, a ghostly series of self-portraits. They are presented right-side up, upside-down, left-facing, right-facing, printed to varying intensities of blue, and arranged in both curvilinear and rectilinear patterns. In effect, they assert their idiosyncrasies despite their sameness.


In addition, hundreds of identical white rectangles are superimposed with unbending regularity over the shadowy figures. The two sets of images both interact and interfere with each other, against a background of color that brightens toward the center of the picture.


The result, to begin with, is a deeply enjoyable visual experience. The diverse shapes, the variation that alternates with repetition, the subtle juxtaposition of colors, all combine to animate the surface with a nearly tactile energy. There is a painstaking craftsmanship here, and a palpable pride in the coordination of pictorial elements.


Beyond that, in its conjunction of the rigorously placed rectangles with the freewheeling silhouettes, Steele's picture creates a zone in which the mechanical cooperates with the organic rather than threatening it.


All of Steele's pictures set about this task, but each also offers its distinctive characteristics and pleasures. "Reconfigured Intelligence #15," for example, also features the silhouettes, but fewer of them, arranged even more fluidly, and printed in a wider palette of color. In this case, the contrasting imagery consists of a swirl of stylized musical notation. Here the geometries are wavelike rather than rectangular, but they serve the same richly textured emotional and intellectual purposes.


Nearly a century ago, Ezra Pound famously demanded that artists "make it new." At about the same time, Frank Lloyd Wright spoke of a reconciliation that might discover "the art and craft of the machine." Shirley Steele's remarkable images provide a creative response to both those imperatives. In so doing, she affirms at once the aesthetic possibilities of the machine and the durable authority of individual vision.


Peter Conn

July, 2008