The New Romantics Collection: Romanticism in the 21st Century

By Nicholas O’Brien

The New Romantics collection on Sedition is a curated selection of artworks by artists in an exhibition of the same name presented at Eyebeam, Center for Art and Technology in New York City. The exhibition explores the ways in which contemporary digital artists are working in ways that are either deliberately or unconsciously speaking to a Romantic tradition. The equivalences between the artists represented in this collection and the painters, poets, and flaneurs of the 19th Century show a growing desire within contemporary digital media for self-reflective, personal, and transgressive visions to be more present within our ever-emerging digital landscape.

By borrowing and adapting techniques, motifs, and strategies popular within 19th Century Romanticism, these artists evidence a shifting cultural paradigm underway within network culture. As the pervasiveness of digital technology continues to take over and consume our daily lives, these artists are attempting to find respite and pause using contemporary 3D technology and computer imaging. These artists are considering – just as their Romantic predecessors – the ways in which the body, the landscape, and the built environment are all radically changing as a result of the development of new technology.

'Synthetic Statues' by Sophie KahnSynthetic Statues, Sophie Kahn, digital edition, HD video, 2014

Artists like Tim Berresheim, Claudia Hart, and Sophie Kahn are using contemporary digital tools to investigate the female form. In doing so each artists is questioning the ways in which 3D technology not only shapes contemporary representation, but also informs current understandings of narrative, history, memory, and myth. Where Kahn use 3D scanning to recover the traces left over by memory and encounters, Hart uses animation to breathe life into the drowned heroine, Ophelia. Berresheim in turn uses the body as a canvas to map the burden of time passing. Though each artists approaches the human form with a different set of tools, all share a fascination with how these devices not only frame the ways in which we view the world, but also the ways in which we interpret the past.

'Composition 1' by Sara LudyComposition 1, Sara Ludy, digital edition, HD video, 2012

Looking outwards from the body and into the landscape, Ryan Whittier Hale and Sara Ludy create serene environments for quiet contemplation. In Hale’s work a craggy landscape undulates like an ocean, creating a soothing and majestically transient space. Ludy, however, opts for a flattening of the land into an 2D image of overgrown grass plastered along a labyrinthian structure. As we side-scroll through the walls, imperfect geometric forms loom into view emanating ominous yet seductive tones. The space created by both works create a kind of diode for the ways in which digital technology is modifying and changing our perspective of nature. On the one hand, we see it as an abundantly rich environment in Hale’s work; on the other we see it only as a backdrop to house our built world.

'Alien Sonata' by Jonathan MonaghanAlien Sonata, Jonathan Monaghan, digital edition, HD video, 2014

The saturation and opulence that comes with contemporary technology is put front and center for the work of Shane Mecklenburger and Jonathan Monaghan. Both artists deal with the iconography of wealth, access, and luxury within their video work. Mecklenburger focusses on the decadence of the precisely cut diamond, multiplying the object into an unsettling menagerie of glamour. Monaghan creates densely constructed and puzzling environments that borrow iconography from Baroque royalty. The extravagance of each artists work asks viewers to consider the iconography of our time, questioning how we value objects and brands while reveling in the absurdity of abundan

'Ceremonial Chamber Liquid Hand' by MSHR
Ceremonial Chamber Liquid Hand, MSHR, digital edition, hi-res image, 2013

This abundance is measured against an introspectiveness that occurs within the work of MSHR (an art collective including artists Brenna Murphy and Birch Cooper), and Katie Torn. This contemplative spirit is approached through the creation of meditative abstract spaces that borrow from representations of landscape, architecture, and the body. Murphy’s dense environments resemble totems, shamanistic talismans, and temples that appear to come from an ancient and alien civilisation. The unique symbolism found within Murphy’s 3D renderings read as a language all on their own, spelling out a new mysticism and ritual vernacular for 21st century cybernetic culture. Torn’s semi-sculptural 3D animation, Vacation, presents the viewer with what appears first as a formal study for a speculative beach house. However, as viewers rotate around the object in this video, the built space mutates and shifts to become an entirely different structure that drastically differs from the initial vantage point. As a result, the structure becomes more than merely a collage of architectural motifs, and begins to take on it’s own distinct language and tone.

The collection overall presents a group of artists that use 3D technologies and contemporary digital imaging to complicate the ways in which these tools have become pervasive in our daily lives. As a result, the artists curated in this collection share a common desire in examining the ways in which Romantic contemplation, abstraction, poetic irony, and exploration of the body can become prescient, powerful, and meaningful gestures within a current digital culture.

The New Romantics is currently on at Eyebeam from 17 April – 10 May 2014. The collection will launch on Sedition on 8th May 2014 and and at the closing reception of the exhibition during Frieze New York. Eyebeam is located at 540 W 21st St. New York, NY 10011.

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Nicholas O’Brien the co-curator of The New Romantics exhibition at Eyebeam along with Katie Torn and Claudia Hart. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.