Tony Oursler is interested in magical thinking—a belief in the causality of unrelated phenomena despite the lack of proof. Or, the idea that random occurrences aren’t really random, but connected in some unknowable way. He’s had time to consider this notion while quarantined in New York, and has adapted this preoccupation into a new body of work that looks at the interplay between viewer and interface.
The culmination is an online exhibition presented by his New York gallery Lehmann Maupin that will be on view July 22 to August 7. Titled “Magical Variations,” visitors to the online viewing room will find a series of gestural works on paper, depicting a mixture of urban legends, clinical imagery, and internet culture—think a bar code overlaid on a landscape. And to further animate the work each hand-drawn illustration is accompanied with video components. For Headless (2020), video of the 1969 moon landing is layered atop a scene of the eponymous folk villain.
Oursler is perhaps best known for creating work at a large-scale—video projections, sculpture, cacophonous sound immersion—but “Magical Variations“ is a more intimate experience.
“I’ve had to scale everything down,” Oursler told ARTnews by phone. “Suddenly, I can’t work on outdoor projects or installations, so I scaled things into a space that I have now: writing and painting and digital features.”
Being confined to working in the digital realm, Oursler said felt like “a return to my roots.” The quarantine, he said, has offered the internet “a digital repurposing.”
“We’ve fallen in love to the screen again,” he said. “This utopian idea of the old internet, that there’s always a moment when the new tech comes and there’s a kind of fluid moment where things are not defined yet and experimenting that can happen.”
And one form of that experimentation is via a new Instagram filter, called Facewreck, that Oursler created with graphic designer Katharine Wimett. Once activated, eyes and mouths—aggregated by the artist from facial recognition software—rapidly shift over users’ features. The filter also emits similarly sourced voices, both hushed and abrasive. A woman whispers, “The machine may help you, hurt you, love you.”
The point, according to Oursler, is to make users cognizant of a new form of portraiture, one that can learn from its sitter, as opposed to a painting like the Mona Lisa (“old portraiture”)
“I’m interested in raising people’s consciousness in how we interface with the world through our technologies and how the technologies look back at us,” he said. “Facial recognition has resulted in this rapid ramp up of this aggravation of information. Now, maybe the image you create on your phone knows more about you than you even can.”