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Artist Lucien Smith Asks If Digitalism Means Anything If A Giant Flood Will Drown Us All

See his solo show at Salon 94 before it closes this Friday, October 25th.
Gallery images via Salon 94, Photos of Lucien by Sydney Smith

Artist Lucien Smith has been described as a grandchild of Warhol, though maybe he has more in common with Gary Shteyngart or Oneohtrix Point Never. Whereas his past work has included canvases that mimicked the pattern of rain falling or ready-made gas tanks filled with bullet holes, his current solo show at Salon 94 focuses on concepts such as digital decay and what in human culture is truly infinite and ever-lasting (it's definitely not technology).

"Nature Is My Church," the exhibition split between Salon 94's locations on Freeman's Alley and the Bowery, imagines what it would be like if a massive, Abyss-style flood hit the world and wiped out everything we know.


If an alien species visited the planet, post-Apocalypse, how would they understand our culture? It wouldn't be through texts and Twitter and computers, but trash, detritus, and print. "Nature Is My Church" is the ark that protects our artifacts from extinction.

Outside the Bowery space, there is a video loop of Michael Jordan dunking. If this was an alien's only encounter with technology, with context-less pop culture, it would probably believe that this basketball player is our God, the figure we worship. Jordan is The Superbrand, after all. Once inside the gallery, all technology disappears and there are basic, silk-screened copies of encyclopedia pages covered by plexiglass (as if already protected for impending damage) that are left to preserve mankind.

Even weirder is that there's a yellow light that's part-heavenly, part-nauseating, glowing over the prints. From one context it's reminiscent of stained glass windows in churches, but there's something more sinister about the yellow. It disorients all gallery-visitors so that natural light looks purple, and it's near-impossible to look at an iPhone screen without getting a migraine. This is all intentional, and work in the exhibition is not meant for sale, but rather a coherent project that only works with all the parts in motion. It's a must see before it closes this Friday.

Smith has extremely curious projects in the works that he could only mention off record, though he hinted one will be a performance piece inspired by Buffalo Bill that includes surveillance cameras and live video streaming. The 24 year old spoke with The Creators Project about his relationship with technology, and how this show is the closest explanation to his feelings about modern religion.


The Creators Project: Do you actually consider yourself a religious person, and do you have any ties currently to religion?

Lucien Smith: I mean, I grew up religious. On my dad’s side my grandpa was a pastor and my grandmother taught Sunday school in Louisiana, so I went to church all the time when I lived down there. My grandmother on my mom’s side is super Catholic, so I wound up going to church all the time. I hated it so much, you know, and found reasons not to go until my parents finally gave up. But I was always interested in Sunday school, especially the stories they were telling.

Was it the images that caught your attention?

Smith: No, just the ideas and narratives of, say, Cain and Able. But ["Nature Is My Church"] is the closest explanation I can give to like any sort of belief of mine.

What was the original reference point? Were you reading religious texts or digging through encyclopedias?

Smith: Actually, Hurricane Sandy was a cool thing for me. It really created this, no pun intended, storm of ideas going on and I developed multiple concepts off of it. One of the things I became interested in was this idea of flood, or like some sort of cleansing.

I wanted to sort of create something that not only like expressed the way I felt about religion or nature but as an artist -- to start simplifying ideas and not pay too much attention to the aesthetic or how things look or the process. I just used silk screen for most of "Nature Is My Church." So those art pieces for me became my versions of Noah’s Arc, information that I thought was worth saving.


I think that a lot of information is stored digitally. You may have a whole entire photo album on your phone, but if you drop it in water then you lose all those photos. And I thought about how our culture has used the same primitive forms of storing information through physical means like carving into stone and painting on walls for hundreds of years. Whereas CDs and floppy disks and memory cards, all that stuff is deteriorating. Eventually that data gets lost.

I became interested in storing printed matter and protecting it. And that’s why they’re placed in those plexiglass boxes, as a way to foreshadow an event or some destruction. I hope that these things will like be protected. Of course it’s still silkscreen and that will deteriorate itself, too.

What’s your actual relationship like with technology today?

Smith: I'm interested in it but it's hard because it just becomes a tool. They become preliminary things used to make something. And lately I’ve been trying to use technology slowly, more as an initial phase, and make my work have a more lasting effect.

For example, there was a sunset painting in that show that's a body of work I want to continue doing. There are a few more sunsets I"m interested in painting, but not the same way. That first one was a really traditional oil painting, but we had almost too much fun, using as much glaze and other stuff as we could. With the next ones I'm using tabs in illustrator to create a vectorized image based on a photograph.


The computer registers 256 million colors, and I'll say, well you know we only want to have five hundred colors. The computer simplifies that and gives us a template with those five hundred colors. Then we have a set list of colors and can turn the photo into more of a line drawing which can get printed on a canvas. From there, I can start to build layers and slowly define more simplified areas given the colors I have, then I can elaborate more on certain sections.

So I'm using technology to simply, filter, and distort the same sunset. Then I can create a more gestural painting based on a set rubric, or a firm line, in this paint-by-numbers fashion.

When you were making "Nature is my Church," what were you interested in outside of your own work?

Smith: My most obvious references were like McCracken and Turrell, in regards to art historical references. But something that really interested me was old horror films and references. Frankenstein, things like that. Um, with that hand sculpture [at the entrance of the Freeman's Alley space], I was really interested in like model making and like zombie hands and weird grotesque blood.

Also, Kirchner. He has a self-portrait as a soldier from World War I and I saw that painting while watching some weird Shock Of The News-type documentary. It’s so funny that he paints himself as a soldier with a missing hand and the colors he uses to describe the arm are so odd. He uses toxic greens and stuff and it’s like those weird hammer house films, but it was made so much earlier. He was already on that with the red stub and the little white bone. It was just so on point.


There's something about that, you know. I can go on to the concept of the piece, but what I’m saying is that it was those aesthetics I was thinking about in regards to this show. That toxic yellow [in the lights above the gallery]. I can imagine it depicting a hallucination state where everything starts turning colors, like LSD, but at the same time there’s a subtle gesture. I was also thinking about stained glass windows in churches, and the light that they cast down, and I really wanted that Bowery space to function as some sort of like church, some sort of place of worship.

When you leave the gallery you really feel like a zombie or that you're sleepwalking.

Smith: What interested me more than anything, is that I knew that spending any amount of time in that space, when you left, you had to like adjust to reality. Everything starts looking normal to you in there until you realize like, oh wait a door opens in the gallery and you’re like what the hell is that purple light? And then you go outside and it takes a few minutes to like get back to the normal. And that’s what I was interested in, this place being this hypnotic form where you start to believe what you’re seeing.

That room is sort of the way I feel about most religion, where it becomes sort of like this hypnotic verse, and you start to believe the shit that you’re seeing or hearing. And then it takes one simple gesture to remove yourself from that and realize the falsities and things that are being told.