Smooth Appearances: Contemporary Painting and Other Art as “Double Agent”

Theses on smoothness: the contradictions, among other topics

1 One of the classic problems in cartography is balancing the functionality of the image (i.e., positioning, ranging, marking) with its verisimilitude (i.e., the ability to capture the topography within the context of earth sciences). Behind all sorts of two-dimensional geographical visualizations, there lie several determining factors: the support from tools and equipment, the push and pull between divergent interests, the degree of technological advancement, and the decision-making process guided by functionality. Such a miscellany of factors could be exemplified by the visualization and navigation systems used in specialized cases, which are themselves variants of maps. Thus, the “flat” view visible to the users, in reality, reflects complex networks of time-spaces, technologies, and interests—they are anything but “flat.” To give another example: the mathematical operation of convolution in modern statistics is devised to obtain the “good” data that are “smoother,” more manageable, and more easily fed into visualization and application schemes in real life; in contrast to these data, the reality is much murkier and more labyrinthine. What is smooth is merely the interface where people and images meet. 

2 What the fast fashion industry is after, is rhythmic and accelerated consumption, as well as trend shifts with increasingly shorter intervals. This is usually achieved through the rotation, mix and match of several lookbooks. As a result, the industry is hardly capable of producing any breakthroughs in sartorial concepts and functions. Similarly, despite their variations, the gigantic fashion billboards in urban centers tend to showcase the steady flawless style, which evokes no superfluous desire to scrutinize other than the will to consume. After all, the nature of the act of consumption is the exchange for information or goods to fill potentially missing realities (regardless of the fact that those realities are already in excess like the layers of smoothed-out cream on a cake). Consumption is an act that approximates “smoothness.

3 To gauge the smoothness of filtered and retouched social media imagery, there is only one criterion, and that is the immediate “like-ability” of the image. From online social networking—where it is easy to surmise the worst of one’s intentions—to courtrooms—where evidence is presented—there is a great range of applications for the identification of modified images. The main principles behind portrait-retouching software consist of noise reduction (“smoothing skin”) and layer overlay. With this knowledge, one can readily find out whether an image is retouched or not: there is an inconspicuous border or seam between the apparently noise-reduced part and the part retaining the original image noise. The online tool “Forensically” can identify whether an image has been retouched or not by scrutinizing the pixels and pinpointing local variations. Specifically, the tool functions through heeding characteristic differences between clusters of pixels and their surrounding pixels, looking for panning traces between highly similar clusters, and confirming if the pixels appear uniform throughout an image. With this tool, it is now possible to analyze the dialectics between the “singular and smooth” final image and the “multilayered” editing backend.

Ou Jin, Untitled 227, 2023, wood, acrylic, composite materials, 164 × 124 × 8 cm
Courtesy the artist

4 From industrial assembly lines to calendars and memoranda, smoothness occurs where minimal shifts between operations take place. Only by breaking down labor into the smallest consecutive units can the goal of scaled production be achieved smoothly. Hence, in this sense, smoothness could be interpreted as a brute, tedious, and exploitative industrial texture. That is one side of the coin. On the other side: one of the most distinguishable signs of modernity is its “acceleration” or, namely, the increase in the operational efficiency of an object or system achieved by having its non-essential friction eliminated. The smoothness characteristic of the maglev train technology is reflected in its high speed—here, the temporal-spatial alignment of smoothness and high speed can be observed.

5 In art, one of the earliest representations of “smooth surfaces” is classical oil painting; turpentine-mixed oil paint allows an image supported by canvas/linen or wood to retain its luster long after it “dries.” So are Women’s satin skin or floral still lives’ vivid vitality achieved. Having experienced numerous “cubist movements,” even contemporary art seems to have passed from a phase of formal smoothness to a phase of systematic smoothness. As it happens, a heavily “damaged” painting full of tears and seams can be presented as “smooth” under the trading logic of art as aesthetic currency—when content abdicates, and when circulation is enthroned in its stead, the internal rules of an industry and its capital will reveal their potential in engulfing and assimilating everything. Frequently surfacing in the stream of social media images, the now appeased and recruited tears and seams arrogantly remind us of this fact: friction belongs only to the premodern times, and the current world ruled by instrumental rationality will no longer have to face any rugged and troublesome situation. Just as the interpretive protocols adopted by most exhibitions have rendered in-depth exchanges and reflections (which also translate to a way of seeing that is long-term and multiple) almost obsolete, a mode of art production that is modeled on “interfacing (with employers/clients/contractors/etc.)” and “dispatching (orders),” along with its concomitant activity of making “small talk”, is likewise dedicated to building a frictionless and uniformly high-speed transmission system. But where this one-way and one-dimensional street should lead us remains something as unknown as it is daunting to be anticipated.

6 The fundamental difference between co-conspirators and revolutionaries is elusive, and so is the hideout of the latter. The art world is a glossy place smeared with the artifice of immanence, or, for that matter, a Trojan horse with no opening or closing mechanisms yet still concealing a murderous intent. The part worth ruminating on in painting and other art mediums, which is the part of contemporary art that tests the viewer’s power of judgment, is always confrontational, fractured, and negating, contrary to the smooth surface that is flawless, subservient, and compliant. In his book Saving Beauty, Byung-Chul Han refers to a series of smooth surfaces represented by Jeff Koons’s oeuvre as “vast walls of air and space”—but how could there be air and space if there are no fissures? 

Furthermore, which sort of painting—or a kind of art that appears smooth and shows the potential in acting as a “double agent”—can be obedient yet rebellious, creating smooth surfaces while overcoming the very smoothness from the inside?

Ou Jin and Zhang Ji
“Procedural Smoothness,” or the Instrumental Rationality in Labor

In the duo exhibition Augmented Labor, which opened in May at SAISENART, artists Ou Jin and Zhang Ji present recent works of theirs that strictly follow their respective image-making procedures.

Ou Jin has been long concerned with the fractal mathematical logic as well as the visual representation of its operational results. Programmed techniques would prefabricate the images used in his works; then the artist would input the algorithm of image production into a digital carving machine, which would cut and carve wooden panels applied with thick layers of acrylic paint, until the machine runs through the entirety of the programmed code. Each panel from the Untitled series (2023–) presented at this exhibition is beautifully intricate, showcasing abstract patterns resembling ferns, seaweeds, and conch shells in an endless variety. Reminiscent of representations of invasive species, such patterns display astonishing vitality on the panels, as if growing incessantly to the extent that they obscure their points of origin. Under the precise control of the carving machine, the solidified layers of paint produce extremely fine patterns distinguished with sharp edges—from a distance, the panels visually echo some digital prints whose degree of contrast is set to the maximum. The robotic arm that can carve from a height is steady and accurate. Here, the artist’s mental reflections on the image are compressed and sculpted, allowing the final works to appear as beautiful yet devoid of traces of manual handling.

Ou Jin, Untitled 180, 2020, wood, acrylic, composite materials, 200 × 200 × 8 cm
Courtesy the artist

In contrast to Ou Jin’s choice to let machine labor take over, Zhang Ji’s Ultima series (2023–) and The Skin of Truth series (2018–) alternatively demonstrate the artist’s utmost quest for applying his own hands-on work. Repeating and arranging certain design elements of buildings such as mosques, synagogues, and Catholic churches, Zhang would treat these elements as small building blocks for larger hand-sketched patterns, which would then be scanned and projected onto canvases. Afterward, in the spirit of near-ascetic craftsmanship, he would proceed to outline the patterns and fill in the resulting outlines with paint from a syringe (like the delicate art of cake decorating with cream or frosting)—until the entire image is completed. In Zhang’s work, the exquisite layering and folds formed by the thin line of paint remain independent from each other as they squeeze against themselves. In a glimpse, the paintings recall either a piece of fine and charming lace fabric or the ornate European-style wallpapers favored by Chinese middle-class home decorators during the early days of the 21st century. The subtle undulations of paint are almost completely irrelevant to the visual experience.

Zhang Ji, Ultima-20232, 2023, oil on canvas, 97 × 101 cm
Courtesy the artist

Augmented Labor raises this key question in the current technological context: is it the human that makes the path to art-making “rugged,” even if that ruggedness might not reveal itself? In her introductory texts, curator Kaimei Wang writes that “augmentation” is the central tenet of transhumanism; What connects Ou Jin and Zhang Ji is the alteration and extension experienced by the once traditionally understood “art labor” under the rapid development of technologies and algorithms. From a techno-progressivist point of view, in terms of both the procedure and product, “augmentation” implies an orientation toward super-smoothness or prioritization of instrumental rationality. The respective image-making procedures followed by Ou and Zhang, along with the machinic or manual labor exercised in the process, are hidden beneath the plane of semi-inborn beauty; interrogations can only arise upon close examination. Such “procedural smoothness” can be understood as the spreading and reduction of the artists’ brainpower—the artists’ work is diluted and distributed into the many creative and practical stages, a smoothing out of the thoughts’ folds. Eventually, the work becomes the polished epilogue of the creative procedure, generating contrast with the complex preparation and the preempted wish of the artist to evoke the viewer’s reflections. The illusion of being level and square and wonderful will temporarily tuck away, in a rather aesthetic manner, the artists’ thinking about deep-rooted crises and cultural anxieties, but only then can the awaited revelation be thought-provoking.

Lin Ke
The “Interface Mood”

Artist Lin Ke “grew up” in the same generation as computers, the Internet, and various image-processing softwares. It is perhaps this synchronicity that explains why Lin’s early work rarely departs from the computer desktop: his iconic screen recordings consistently display the on-screen representations of software technologies while intentionally avoiding demonstrations of their actual functions. From the vast range of images and information extracted from the Internet, to the artist’s investigation into a plethora of applications, the selected jocular and provocative materials are often shown directly through “digital drafts” formats such as screenshots and screen recordings—some of which incorporate the artist’s improvisations to become his “desktop films.” This unadorned style that opens up the creative backend to the audience is on the opposite end of the moving images spectrum from the meticulously crafted artists’ films and mainstream studio productions. If the latter can constitute a “black box” of filmic images, then Lin’s screen recordings and his prints representing the screens of electronic devices will constitute a conceptually overflown “messy box”—an electronic box belonging to a bionic Pandora.

Lin Ke, Plants Massage the Eyes of People, 2011, computer Screen Recording, 1 minute 50 seconds
Courtesy the artist and BANK / MABSOCIETY

Sometimes aimless, sometimes mischievous, all while deliberately bypassing the original use of the software—Lin’s screen-recording experiments transform the paths familiar to screen users into frames and mere frames, inviting the “heavy user” to take a back seat in the face of the superficial, playful spirit. Efficiency and purposefulness are rendered irrelevant. In Lin’s work, the movement of the cursor and transformation/opening of windows expand the viewer’s mind into an infinite plane, in a similar vein to the latest mind-mapping iOS application “Freeform,” where all sorts of graphics and texts can move, jump, and rotate, can be viewed and deleted at any time, where the user interface can be scaled up and down infinitely while no concept will ever have any depth. Ultimately, every single idea of Lin enters the “desktop” that can be viewed unhindered. When the chaos is in full view, the fundamental differences between elements are dissolved in favor of a homogeneous aura—a kind of “smoothness” that remains doubtful, a “interface mood” that is ever-changing but unable to infiltrate anything.

The experience of viewing a body of Lin’s work in a relatively short time span is like roaming between various digital meditations, each lasting two to three minutes. At times, the artist seems to be manipulating the “interface mood” so that the interface is perceptible by and relatable to people—these are also the moments when the artist allows his mind to completely integrate and be in tune with the computer interface. In Plants Massage the Eyes of People (2011), the cursor keeps dragging around plant images inside an open folder, resulting in a stretch of green sliding, circling, appearing, and disappearing from the screen. Electronic music makes people dance 01 (2011) entails Lin moving the cursor in the title bar of an online forum. As the lines of text turn blue and red, and the emoji of two people on a chat page vibrate at the sound of 1990s disco music, the “dancing” effect becomes self-explanatory.

Many of Lin’s photographs are also invaded by computer desktops and application icons; their titles often recall automatically generated computer filenames and evoke the precision of engineering diagrams. This fusion between the real world and digital interfaces brings forth a type of absurdity that belongs to the still image. For instance, Jet Folder & Data Tree (2013) shows on the bottom layer a photo of a deciduous tree in winter; the icons of over thirty empty files created by Lin “hang” from the branches of the tree as “leaves,” whereas the only folder icon trails diagonally downward to form a “contrail”—in other words, the digital icons parasitize the real-world image to an extent that their relationship is reversed. The bottom layer in Screenshot 2016-04-17 P.M. 11.46.20 (2016) indicates a living-room environment furnished with couches, a rug, a television, and cardboard boxes; yet the desktop files scattered on top have utterly dispensed with any sense of “home.” Such a strategy of misplacement also appears in Lin’s spatial projects, where three-dimensional renderings of virtual exhibition spaces are designed and exhibited as adhesive wallpapers. Bigger Bigger Bigger (2012) shown at BANK in 2016 is one such work: the three “paintings” hung in a virtual space rendered on wallpaper can be seen as representations of the infinite enlargement of a background layer in Photoshop. At this point, the perception of real spaces and that of virtual spaces are shattered thoroughly and then fused. The smooth surface begins to give an ironic look back at its original operator.

Lin Ke, Screenshot 2016-04-17 pm 11.46.20, 2016, photography, installation, 281 × 450 cm
Courtesy the artist and BANK / MABSOCIETY

By printing the iconic checkered layer which represents transparency in Photoshop with UV ink onto a series of flat surfaces, mostly aluminum panels (but also sponge, silicone, and acrylic boards), Lin’s recent paintings achieve yet another real-space presentation of screen interfaces. Aside from representing works by canonized masters such as Cézanne and Matisse, these paintings often adopt the artist’s signature rough and lightly colored lines to represent religious figures, although it should be noted that, here, an icon such as the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child would be titled “Spongebob.” Once having entered real life from the Photoshop layer, the flat and evenly distributed checkerboard grid starts to resemble a fabric of hip streetwear, especially with its slight oily sheen. Supported by the smooth aluminum panel, the “cult-ified” Christian icons can somehow readily resolve any potential charges of cultural appropriations. Meanwhile, Toolbox—a work that was first created in 2020 and occasionally appears next to other aluminum-supported works—represents another powerful instance of “dragging” exercised by the artist on a computer interface. The “tools” are directly on-site, but their processed trajectories are gone; the processes of image production are missing, having fallen into a haze, but anyone could easily speculate or even copy from the final product this particular creative path. At least, that is how it seems.

The extensive build-up of fragments from the Internet has encouraged Lin Ke, the “data hunter,” to consistently produce “exhibitions that resemble exhibitions” and “works that resemble works” (to use the artist’s own words). Such materials cannot be woven into an evidentiary thread; instead, they act like a heap of lotion, which is applied in circles to seep into Lin’s already diffuse body of work—in this process, they eliminate the “lineage” or “phase” that critics never fail to declare when judging an artist’s work. The many “interface moods” that Lin generates from manipulating “hedonist soft technologies” (according to Bao Dong) are neither profound nor meaningful in terms of sociocultural commentaries.[1] This attribute of the work gives his humor an air of feebleness, which in turn pushes the work to exude an eagerness toward superficiality; here, an analogy can be made to TikTok users’ general attitude toward those emotional arcs reserved only for TikTok. However, it is still possible to drive our thinking a step further once we lock the phone screen: what if there is ingenuity lurking right beneath the smooth surface? What if our post-Internet world, after being incessantly diluted and thinned out, becomes so flat and reflective that our faces of amorphous boredom and melancholy are eventually clear like mirror reflections?

Vivien Zhang
Carbon-copied Views

If you look at a painting as a whole without zooming in on any of the brushstrokes, you will find Vivien Zhang’s works to be analogous to some works-in-progress pulled from image-processing software. This is especially the case when viewing them on a digital screen, which allows one to easily tell the pixel areas copied by the Clone Stamp tool, the trails that mark dragged selections, the gorgeous grain clusters sprayed on by the Magic Wand tool, as well as the cut layers stretched, folded, and slightly offset from their original areas after being cropped. The highly saturated colors of Zhang’s works make her motifs lose clear significations other than some formal references; sometimes, these motifs resemble the cascading popup windows on screens, which appear after early computer software suddenly encounter errors during their operation. Gömböc shapes, file stickers with monochromatic rims, manicules adapted from medieval European manuscripts, and the butterfly-shaped outline deriving from the Cahill-Keyes map projection—variations of these objects appear in Zhang’s work, threading together a network of symbols broadly applied in her paintings. When these visual vocabularies are accumulated to a certain level, Zhang would begin to work in a circular, regressive, and self-referential manner, thus making carbon copies of the views of symbols.

Vivien Zhang, Again, 2022, acrylic and oil on canvas, 170 × 140 cm
Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias

Symbols are virtual texts intended for categorization, reduction, and sequencing, but they are also placeholders for real-world phenomena. Vivien Zhang incorporates into her work her experience of living and studying under multiple identities in many places in the world, eventually transforming this experience into abstract and variable painted surfaces. Just as intricate function transformations can organize discrete events in reality into smooth curves, Zhang’s fabulously colorful visual language constitutes a summarizing translation of these complicated cultural encounters. When the visual impact smoothes out real-world folds and endows the audience with a general cognitive impression of the events, it would, to a degree, set up a communicative barrier in real life. This hardship corresponds to Zhang’s feelings under different cultural contexts that cannot be exhaustively expressed—it also reflects her reasoning as a digital native to ultimately embrace the notion of the placeholder.

Vivien Zhang, Hung Platforms, 2020, acrylic, oil and spray paint on canvas, 95 × 75 cm
Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias

The canvas plane bridges together the fragmented visual and cultural experiences of the real world yet leaves them only vaguely determined. Occasionally, the viewer could discern representational imagery in Zhang’s paintings, such as a sterculia tree loaded with nuts, an emerald-green bergamot, and a grove of hardy banana leaves. But such imagery would soon evolve to become the meta-units of new images, which Zhang, through her cycles of reprography, transforms into waterfalls of colors or pixel edges that can no longer afford yet another round of enlargement. The imagery always appears as the mise en abyme of phenomena, and the artist’s collection and digestion of information have arrived at a situation where seemingly distinct divisions between them exist (evident through the contrast between surface elements and their surrounding blank margins) but in a contrived way—a harmonious mutual negation or, rather, a compromise on the verge of changing. This interweaving of disarray and rationality usually appears as a palimpsest on the last page of the booklet of carbon copies. It is also a slip of prescription for the digital age and culture—heal the spirit with forms, the advice goes.

Strange Communities, Fluid Spaces, and the Meditating Membrane

Unlike many contemporary paintings that use paint to create textures and undulations on top of canvases, WangShui’s works recently exhibited at the Rockbund Art Museum—the aluminum-panel installation poiesis I-VIII (2023) and aluminum-panel paintings including Encounter II (2023)—are a form of “intaglio”. The artist uses tools to scape, engrave, and press on the panels; after polishing the surfaces with stones, the artist then scrapes the surfaces again before coloring them, thereby creating a visually fluid finish. Because of the reflective quality of aluminum panels, the works glow like silk in the particular lighting condition created by the museum, connecting themselves with the space to form a fluid, breathing body as a whole; and notably, the rich imagery on the panels resembling landscapes and floral still lives is inseparable from the non-binary artist’s longstanding interest in fabulous creatures recorded in Chinese ancient myths. At the same time, however, WangShui’s aluminum-panel paintings also possess a dense opacity—the light panels would all of a sudden transform into hard shells during the viewing experience, as if they were to wax-seal the flowing material imagery. For instance, the work Queen produced in 2021 shows a sort of almost frozen “tranquil flow”; its texture appears to have varying thickness even though it is applied on a smooth and flat aluminum panel.

Such a feeling of rotating strangeness and foreignness reincarnates to form a perceptive and cognitive membrane between the viewer and the work. Looking back at WangShui’s recent works, we can see that this invisible membrane not only mediates between touch and vision, microcosm and macrocosm, transparency and obscurity, and organics and inorganics, but it also serves as a communication interface between the artist and their intimate creative partner—artificial intelligence (AI).

WangShui, Encounter II, 2023, oil on aluminium, 244 × 152 cm
Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York

WangShui’s close collaboration with AI is apparent throughout their painting, installation, and video sculptural practices. According to the artist, the collaborative painting process with AI is a “recursive feedback loop”: the algorithm generates new images based on their earlier sketches, which the artist then transfers for presentation on polished panels; by balancing “improvisation” with “control,” the artist leaves on the abraded material surface the latent space for paint to reflect light. Hapticity becomes a crucial phase in the viewing experience, and the sensory agencies belonging to AI and the artist are successfully integrated on these carefully polished surfaces. In addition to being part of the physical work, AI has also permeated the exhibition spaces occupied by WangShui’s works, in turn pacing the viewer’s audiovisual perception. Sensors set up in their work can collect invisible environmental information including the ultrasonic frequencies of body movements, the temperature and moisture level of the space, and alterations in the lighting condition. The algorithmic data generated according to such information will go on to rearrange the work (see poiesis I-VIII at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai) or change the vantage point or layout of the work [see Gardens of Perfect Exposure (2018) at the Julia Stoschek Collection (JSC) in Berlin], transforming invisible substances into medial imagery. These suspended, galloping, and entwined reactions to information constitute the transitional space within the exhibition, shrouding the hall with an imperceptible air film and landing gently on the viewer’s hair and skin. Everyone ends up being enveloped by the film.

WangShui, Weak Pearl, 2019, three-channel video installation, flexible LED mesh, mica; video, 5 minutes, color, surround sound, loop
Photo: Alwin Lay
Courtesy the artist and Julia Stoschek Collection

In Weak Pearl (2019), a work exhibited at the JSC in Berlin in 2019, WangShui uses generative adversarial networks (GANs) to generate videos, which flow on a soft screen woven from LED lighting strips draped from the ceiling. However, the striking glamor of the luminous soft sculpture is actually a trap: when the audience is attracted by the light and walks directly toward the loosely woven, columnar screen made from LED strips, they automatically forsake the opportunity to view the video in its full scale. In a way, the surface of the screen has become as perceptive and as animated as a cellular membrane, which would continuously adjust—per the audience’s chosen position—the tension-resistance between the desire to look and the distance. The pixels that sparkle on the fringe-like grid interpenetrate and complement one another through the interstitial spaces available on the installation, enabling one to envisage the layers of convolutions and shadows in the wheeling between image, object, and light. Similarly, Scr pe II (Isle of Vitr ous) (2022), which appeared during the 2022 Whitney Biennial, consists of two skin-like LED films collaged on a main screen; they are responsible for receiving GAN data from the main screen and translating the data into 3D animations. In the meantime, the complex circuit of the built-in sensors gathering environmental information and feeding it into the process of image production gets concealed by a dream-like and translucent image. The audience requires a certain temporal-spatial distance (this is further necessitated by the fact that the brightness and playback speed of the night scene change based on the light emitted by the main screen and the carbon dioxide level of the room), instead of “the desire to suck [the smooth sculptures]” (according to Byung-Chul Han), to see WangShui’s work in its entirety.

The various “membrane/film-forming” conditions in WangShui’s works certainly also concern the biological nature of the materials they use. These materials include the hydrographic film and snakeskin used in the installation 12354 (2019), as well as the live silkworms that crawl above the lab workstation made out of many found objects, recycled materials, and metal parts in Gardens of Perfect Exposure. Of course, the desire to transcend differences between species and migrate toward symbiosis can be partially achieved by the hybridizing mixed-media practice. Despite this symbiotic wish, it is perhaps this perceptive, transitional, and mediating membrane—which commits itself to the invisible space of manipulation—that remains the longstanding theme of WangShui’s practice, even if it, as the artist has admitted, “also presents the self as a void.”[2]

[1] Bao Dong, “Lin Ke: When New Media Becomes Old”, LEAP magazine, 2014, issue 4, p.p 50-53.

[2] Giovanna Manzotti, ” Ulterior Space: WangShui at Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin “, MOUSSE MAGAZINE, October 2019.

Translated by Jacob Zhicheng Zhang