Working with algorithms is nothing new for Rome-based artist Davide Quayola. He’s used them to create mesmerising videos full of geometry and sound and make robots carve abstracted samples of classical artworks into Renaissance-era marble. For his latest show, Iconographies, Quayola abandons video and sculptural form to explore the intricate craft of engraving, but in his usual dance between man and machine.
The works in Iconographies are algorithmically sampled and abstracted, then either engraved on anodised aluminum or made into large ditone prints. The project started a long time ago with the series Strata. Quayola describes the geological term 'strata,' the stratification or layering of rocks, as a metaphor for much of his work.
“The strata are very different from one another, but with the ages, the erosion and other different processes you end up with very unexpectedly beautiful formations,” Quayola tells The Creators Project. “In a way my work is about the collisions between ways of looking at things and so on. Iconographies is very personal for me having grown up in Rome around these images. It’s about reconnecting with them in a different way once I left Rome.”
While Iconographies is personal for Quayola, he says the broader topic is about looking at these iconogrpahic artworks through electronic mediation or lenses. This approach is a way of looking at the works from new angles or even “misunderstanding things.” Chief among these technologies, as Quayola says, was the Google Art project, which allowed users to look at paintings close up with the same technology as Google Maps.
“It’s fascinating in a way because you’re not really supposed to look at the paintings like that—they’re not made that way,” he says. “And I think this misunderstanding enables new discoveries, new ways of looking at things.”
“In Iconographies, I am very much focusing on paintings that have different kinds of stories but generally high iconographical content—they deal with very strong iconographic themes,” Quayola says of the new exhibition at NOME Gallery. “Specifically to create this contrast of removing altogether these iconographic layers and you’re kind of left with these sort of bare instructions, and then what happens to these paintings when you remove these layers, when you look at them through these algorithms using computer vision that perhaps will not understand this layer or that one.”
Quayola insists Iconographies is not really about any point of arrivals. It’s about the linguistic difference between start and end points, or the spaces in between. “These pieces can be defined as translation of certain subjects or paintings into abstract formations,” Quayola says. “All of them are abstract apart from the Venus.”
For the etched aluminum pieces, Quayola worked off of iconographic paintings of the "Judith and Holofernes" theme by Caravaggio, Guercino and others. Quayola explains that the Judith and Holofernes story, in which a young heroine seduces a big, evil general and cuts off his head, is Biblical and probably the most painted theme in the history of art.
“It’s interesting because when you talk about iconography, generally you end up talking about this theme—it’s often taken as an example of iconography,” Quayola says. “Many artists painted several versions of the same scene, maybe even exactly the same scene but they change some colors. It’s almost like it was a pretext to explore different visualisations.”
Riffing on multiple visualisations of the same scene, Quayola extracted data from the paintings using algorithms, then tweaked them in order to generate what he calls an “abstract entity.” As a result, the viewer cannot fully recognise the subject or human form of the paintings in his chemically-etched works. Instead, they see point clouds or lattices that might some amorphous form about them.
The extremely high-resolution ditone prints, which have Botticelli’s Adoration and Rubens’ Venus & Adonis as a few of their sources, are so detailed that Quayola says the viewer can get close enough to explore the space in a new way, which isn’t possible with his video works. This resolution, Quayola insists, makes the prints more akin to objects than mere images.
“When you have a photograph printed, it has some type of scale so that when you get close up you’ll end up seeing the grains that comprises the photography,” Quayola says. “But these prints are completely artificial in that they don’t have any of this grain or scale—they’re rendered at exactly the same resolution they will be printed, so they’re more like objects behind glass than photographs of an object. There is kind of an illusion of them being reliefs.”
Quayola’s remix of Botticelli’s Adoration is presented as a triptych of prints, each focusing on specific areas of the painting. He also presents a conceptual piece inspired by a piece of text by Giorgio Vasari, arguably the world’s first art historian. The text is Vasari’s description of Botticelli’s Adoration painting, which Quayola combines with the painting and renders as engraved computer code in a way that almost seems to be a wavelike optical illusion.
“Using algorithms, using computer vision is as an opportunity to be able to detach fully from historical narratives and really look at the image in a way that our eyes would struggle to do,” Quayola says. “One is this religious figurative painting, and on the other is this digital abstraction, but in a way they’re both based on very similar rules and principles behind the visual characteristics.”
“These important historical paintings are also based on these universal rules—they were studying the classics and trying to create a set of rules that would define how a composition should be made to be pleasing to look at,” Quayola adds. “In a way I’m almost continuing that tradition but approaching it in a completely different way, where you’re not influenced by your own eye or judgment about the narratives in the painting, but about this mathematical analysis and what you can really understand from that.”