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A Digital Curiosity Cabinet 

The Jennicam, alas, is dead. It went out with the old year. Founded in 1996 by a college student named Jennifer Ringley, it consisted of a camera hooked up to her computer and continued after she graduated and got her own place. Over the years anyone could watch her play with her pets, do her nails, change clothes or go to bed with her boyfriend. Along the way, she got famous as a precursor of reality TV, but when Paypal dropped her credit card subscriber service because of the occasional nude content, she decided to pull the plug and get a real job.

Patrick Lichty and his show at Barrister's have nothing to do with the Jennicam except that he, too, is an exponent of what is broadly called "new media," and he, too, is fond of candid cameras. Although something of a techno-freak with many digital devices, his favorite may well be his Casio camera watch, a watch that takes pictures. The resolution is low, but Lichty pushes the limits, even using it to make primitive videos, one frame at a time. One such work is 8 Bits or Less. Of it, he says, "An artist who has become blind (physically or ideologically) resorts to viewing his world through the devices that constitute his senses, like cell phones and wristcams. The result is a distorted landscape that considers Situationist theory, surveillance culture, identity, and alien abduction."

Pretty heady stuff. More visceral is an installation with Astroturf, lawn ornaments and a flickering video of a lawn as seen from a lawnmower -- actually a camera and transmitter affixed to a power mower as it slashes St. Augustine grass into a uniform sea of green. Although it has its own sturm and drang, like a Lilliputian Apocalypse Now, Lichty sees it as a "materialist meditation" of sorts. A social and political critic, he often focuses his attentions on contemporary consumer culture. For instance, Child of History features two framed portraits, one of a beaming Sam Walton, the Wal-Mart founder, the other of an Asian girl at work. Both feature "Made in Singapore" garment labels below the portrait, and just as Wal-Mart's suppliers "outsource" manufacturing to Asian nations, Lichty "outsourced" his images of Walton and the child laborer to a Jackson Square artist who, in typical fashion, made them both look radiantly happy. To fully appreciate the irony, or even to have any idea what is going on here, it helps to have a prior understanding of the concept.

A more flagrant example occurs in Louisiana Saint, a large painting of an alien mutation crucified on a Spanish baroque cross. It is bound in chains, and floating in the air in front of it are weird bulbous things with smokestacks and parody corporate logos such as "EXXOFF" or what have you, and it's all sinister and surreal, if proficiently painted. But this too is an example of "outsourcing" as he created the original as a digital graphics file and then sent it via email to China where it was laboriously hand-painted by low wage artisans.

Lichty seems to enjoy that sort of role reversal. A series of "portraits" appear as square grids of eight 1-inch tiles, ostensibly cobbled from images transferred from his camera watch to the tiles, which reduced them to a much lower resolution -- one pixel per inch -- making them abstract, unrecognizable for the most part. Not one to be pigeon-holed, he also dabbles in traditional media, but with his own techno twist. Orange Alert is an oil painting of the White House under alien attack, rendered also in a jaggedly squared-off, one-pixel-per-inch style reminiscent of 1980s computer games such as Space Invaders. Like much postmodern conceptual art, it all makes sense if you know the references.

If not, it might seem a tad too self-consciously enigmatic, too much like an in-joke. And this can be a paradox because, while all art relies on the viewer knowing something of its context, having to intuit what the artist was thinking may raise the bar a bit. On balance, Lichty's strength lies in his willingness to take chances, his novel execution of challenging ideas. What remains to be seen is whether that is enough to truly communicate what those ideas might be.

click to enlarge The allure of Patrick Lichty works such as - Orange Alert, with its Space Invaders-like - attack on the White House, often depends on your - knowledge of postmodern references.
  • The allure of Patrick Lichty works such as Orange Alert, with its Space Invaders-like attack on the White House, often depends on your knowledge of postmodern references.
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