During the emerging artist Cameron Welch’s 2016 Columbia MFA Thesis Exhibition panel, on which I served as a member, a conversation broke out between artists John Kessler, Ralph Lemon, and I about the qualities in Welch’s work that make his paintings qualify as digital art. The three paintings that were on view during his show—Peekaboo, Prom Night (For Bigger Thomas), and Window Painting—combine collaged materials that the artist hand-stitched into the canvas, with printed images of his family he pulled, without permission, from Facebook, to form works that create tension between formal aspects of painting and the ways in which people live online.
“I’m really interested in visual information and how materials have histories inherent in them,” writes Welch in his thesis statement. “My practice originated in painting but is more concerned with its utilization as a signifier. The finessing of a paintbrush to illustrate isn’t really an interest of mine.”
“Paint can only go so far," he explains. "The reference to collage in my work is an important one. I find myself intrigued by the haste in the gesture.”
Welch adds, "It all points back to information. I’m interested in the juxtaposition of images and materials. It’s an attempt to create a space where content is in direct collision with formal play.”
Peekaboo and Prom Night (For Bigger Thomas) are paintings that feature images, found on Facebook, of Welch’s family. In Prom Night, his mother and father pose over an abstract background of blue jean fabric, black glitter, and pink paint. It is the only image of his parents together the artist has seen. He came across the image, in fact, when he was scrolling through his Facebook feed.
For Welch, the painting is about how we come to find information, and ourselves, online. The painting’s title, which references a rite of passage for his parents, also alludes to the 20-year-old protagonist, Bigger Thomas, in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. “I’ve always been obsessed with Bigger Thomas’ narrative because it talks about the trauma of the black experience,” says Welch. The artist believes that the title allows the painting to take on new meaning and to explore many different narratives at once, including one on the internet.
Peekaboo features an early photograph, found using social media, of the painter’s grandmother and cousin. The work similarly explores themes of information and identity. Window Painting is about a different kind of information. “It’s my footprint, next to a jersey, next to paint. If you have your browser window open, things collide in a similar way.” With all three paintings, Welch seems to be saying that all things bear a weighted materiality that is informed by histories, and these histories distort the meaning of identity and the information one encounters.
“For the 2016 Columbia MFA Thesis exhibition, the works reference the binaries I identify with,” explains the artist. “I have many formal concerns which allow me to explore my personal ideas of self, family history, and the identities we create online.”
He adds, “There is a sense of unrest present in all those things.”
For more information on Cameron Welch’s art, click here.