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Virtual Reality Paintings Destroy Notions of the "Still Life"

Rachel Rossin's new body of work, 'Lossy,' is based on data compressions that degrade over time.
All images and GIFs courtesy the artist

Much like surrealism was a movement to unlock the potential of the unconscious mind, virtual reality looks to unlock our conditions from reality. In looking to regard entropy as a form of beauty, the artist Rachel Rossin presents a new body of work titled Lossy, based on data compressions that degrade over time.

Currently on display at Zieher Smith & Horton, in New York, Rossin’s Lossy paintings and virtual reality simulations created in game development software reveal the process of loss in the transference of the digital to the physical. This reduction is felt most particularly when a JPEG or an MP3 file loses its form. Like Dali’s dripping clocks, gravity is unhinged and so is time and memory in Rossin’s works.


The beauty is in her ability to capture somewhat recognizable and relatable objects as physical objects, because then the sublime of lack of perspective in VR charges the experience with nostalgia. Are we entering moments of the future, or backtracking to adhere to the past?

Perhaps the best example of this is in I Came and Went as a Ghost Hand, a live painting that exists without a beginning or end. It is a 3D world in a feedback loop. To understand more about the artist’s investigations in creating paintings and VR art experiences, The Creators Project interviewed Rossin about her compositions and her experience as a virtual reality research fellow at NEW INC, the New Museum’s incubator for art, design and technology.

The Creators Project: What is your artistic process? Did you encounter the idea of Lossy and then get painting, or start experimenting with VR technology first?

Rachel Rossin: I started programming and working digitally when I was eight. I was hacking video games and erasing their architecture, building computers and teaching myself beginning languages. There was a long history with me feeling like the physical and virtual worlds were very separate entities and pairing them always felt clumsy or forced.

As an adult, I've always been a painter and installation artist and slowly started incorporating new med. Virtual reality came in during a residency at Borscht in 2014 and I had a VR show I was really happy with at Signal Gallery, but Lossy was the first show where I dovetailed the virtual with the physical.


Your images are reminiscent of still lifes.

Absolutely. So the process of making these begins in the physical world with photorealistic photogrammetry captures and then I bring them into the virtual and build 3D simulations and structures with them. Because I'm using game engine software I can manipulate physics and use reality as a medium. People get to experience this firsthand in the VR piece but I'm translating the still moments into my paintings.

The subject matter (still lifes) is exactly where you're getting at—it's a still life that I'm decimating, extruding all while acknowledging the subject matter's history and in the context of a different type of ephemerality. A huge subject matter for still lifes was the memento mori—so that's where the repeated imagery of fruit, skulls, flowers, etc., comes from in those paintings. It was all about entropy. I like being able to touch on virtual ephemerality. There's a self-portrait in there too. A 3D scan of my face using motion capture software with gravity applied to the top of my head so the effect looks like a visual swoon.

How do you decide on your color palette?

I follow my gut. I just like what I like. There's probably all subconscious reasons for this, like the amount of blue I use because I grew up in flatland Florida where the only terrain is the sky.

What is the relationship between what is on the canvas and what is present in VR?


That's the heart of what Lossy is about—the communication between these two places and where one leaves off the other begins to talk. I start by capturing the physical and then bring into the virtual and then back out again to the physical as paint and because I am working in true 3D as the reference point. I can begin to manipulate the image with physics, change reference points and light. My favorite one to work with right now is gravity and I can't help it.

I have always loved that in video games, dropping away from the world when you walk off the side of a collider—and in video game language, it's transcendent. This was a major pillar in my show at Signal.

Tell us about your VR fellowship with NEW INC. Are you being hyper productive or slow and focused on new realms?

NEW INC has given me a tremendous amount of support for my work. I always feel slow but when I zoom out it seems like I've been pretty productive. I've done two solo shows, a panel at MIT, and four separate VR pieces (three built primarily for the gear and one focused for Oculus) all while during my fellowship there since April. It's nice to have the current show finished to start some of this other whimsical research I've been wanting to do through NEW INC.

To learn more about the artist click here. Lossy is on view at Zieher Smith & Horton in New York through November 14.


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