How do you 3D-render spray paint? “I just paint, then I scan it,” Santtu Mustonen tells The Creators Project, making the process of converting pigment to pixels sound simple.
For a commission at the New York City Ballet, in the foyer of Lincoln Center’s iconic mid-century, Philip Johnson-designed David H. Koch Theater, the Finn artist turned his aesthetic paintings into a towering, prismatic video installation that lights up the building’s crystal facade like an LED light in souvenir lucite. Every speck of colorful 3D abstraction was once a fleck of paint, from buttery ribbons spooling across the space’s quartet of giant screens to confetti-like particles dancing through digital space.
A puff of spray paint frozen mid-flight takes on a gaseous quality, paused before dissipating into the breeze. Mustonen’s installation at the ballet, titled Cross Pollination, was created for the fifth iteration of the yearly NYCB Art Series. For the past four seasons, the ballet has commissioned up-and-coming modern artists—previously FAILE, JR, Dustin Yellin, and Marcel Dzama—to install original art in the theater for the months of January and February. On three nights during the Winter season, the ballet sells every seat in the house for $30, distributes take-away art to audience members, and throws a post-performance party with free beer and DJs.
But months before audiences of young people were flocking to Lincoln Center mid-winter, Mustonen set to work applying his particular style of abstractionism to the landmark building. At the start, the artist says he went “nuts for a couple of days, [spray painting] different versions of stripes, different color combinations, then piling them on my table, like making a collage,” pairing particular hues and textures. Mustonen then rendered everything in 3D and animated it for the screen.
“Some of the movements, they kind of look like napkins, but in my mind, it’s more like the spray paint, like how it’s bursting,” Mustonen explains. I say the conical indigo-and-daffodil mottled shapes look a bit like blooms. “That’s something that I very much like as well, but I don’t want to point to them as flowers,” the artist says.
“I don’t ever want to tell a straight story, or like, show a thing that makes people say, ‘Oh, I know what that is.’ That’s why I, at first, was unsure about the statues [that permanently preside over the space], because my work is never figurative. I want the imagination to take over everything. I more work on emotion and the abstract feelings that you build by yourself,” Mustonen says.
At either end of the foyer in the Koch Theater, two colossal Elie Nadelman sculptures, Circus Women and Two Nudes, square off in marble. It’s not the first time the statues have caused conflict—the nude forms were controversial when Lincoln Center was being built in the 60s. But the architects arranged to have the giant sculptures installed right before the fourth wall of the theater was built, so they’d be impossible to remove.
Mustonen thought about hiding the Nadelmans, but he ended up incorporating them. As particles drift across the screens behind the sculptures, like digital snowglobes, colored light bathes their glossy marble in shifting, chromatic hues. Two additional screens form a lean-to in the middle of the hall. Underneath them, a mirrored floor creates a kaleidoscopic effect, giving visitors mild vertigo if they step inside and glance down to see themselves floating in multicolored space.
Mustonen interrogates motion with a dancer’s eye, aware that, unlike the expressions and gestures captured in inert paintings, the movement choreographed into his projections is fleeting. Though not directly inspired by ballet, Cross Pollination possesses the same grace, its ever-evolving imagery echoing the motion of bodies through space. Its presence at Lincoln Center, the Upper West Side mecca for the performing arts, makes for fascinating dialogue between visual art and dance, 2D and 3D, and the progressive and historic.