A Sutured Sea and Sky: A Letter from the Curator by Nato Thompson

Land Sea and Sky by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy confronts the viewer with a recognizable jumbled environment; a dizzying array of disparate, jarring, familiar and synthetic images sutured together. Redwoods scroll by like an early 80s television locating a channel. Gray snow-covered mountains tower up into a moody, dingy sky above. Sage grass plays along the banks of flickering ponds and bathers with twisted Francis Bacon-like faces gather along glitchy shores. Strip-mined hilltops mingle with pine tree branches and puddles and gently rippling lakes. Any one of these elements would be quietly odd in their own right, but the aggregate of these disparate landscapes, bodies of water, trees, and sky provides a world askew and hypnotic. The mind reels to comprehend the complex information coming across on screen. And in fact, as is the purpose of this essay, many complex factors provide that visceral gut feeling one initially experiences in encountering these digital artworks.

One of the more immediate observations is that these works are separated by what feel like rough-hewn coordinates. Hand-cut zones appear to delineate the various sections that comprise the overall image. As inspiration for this work, the McCoys utilized a series of cut-out zones that lend shape to the various parts of these digital collage artworks. The results were a series of areas that correlated to various typographies of the landscape such as water, land, sky, trees. Being quite literal in their interpretation, the McCoys cut out spaces for land, sea, sky, and trees.

“Stormy seas off the Alabama coast” and “Skys above the desert near Las Vegas”

Their next step is to create archives of AI-generated source material by feeding in prompts such as “Stormy seas off the Alabama coast” and “Skys above the desert near Las Vegas”.. Using the popularized AI image generator StableDiffusion, the resulting images are culled from various materials representing the geography of the American landscape in all 50 states. This collage imagery is the aggregate of these source materials randomly fed into the various zones and thus, creates a bricolage of sourced images; a generative, digitized and highly hybridized landscape.

A short-form collage work from Jennifer & Kevin McCoy's collection with Artwrld, Land Sea and Sky

The McCoys' methodology appears straightforward enough, and its origin not only develops out of their nearly 30 years of making art, but also borrows heavily from a long history of art-making processes and innovations. The one I want to discuss in more length is the history of collage. Collage, that art form that initially meant images made using glue and sticking things together. Collage is by nature disjointed and developed by way of found materials. Art history often begins the story of collage in the early 20th century with the Cubists George Braque and Pablo Picasso and the pioneering spirit of the modernist avant-garde. In their anti-representational spirit, they found true energy in sticking wallpaper, bits of magazines, and even found domestic objects onto the canvas itself. They wanted the viewer to understand that sight itself was a construction. And that this simple act of bringing disparate materials together allowed one to appreciate a basic lesson through the juxtaposition of different forms of sight. And clearly, I bring this up due to that same maneuver in Land Sea and Sky.

Collage, of course, dates back before the early 20th century. And to state the obvious, it did not begin with two famous male painters. Paper was invented in China AD 105. It doesn’t take long before the invention of paper, that people are sticking and gluing materials together to produce new and inventive meanings. For much of its history, collage was considered a craft using materials around the home and at times, magazines or wallpaper. When in art history, people say “craft” they also mean a few factors that run counter to the western avante-garde narrative. Craft was often female, often found inside the home, and often incorporated traditional forms. Crafts use ordinary materials and its results clearly indicate the everyday qualities of its representation. Why say this all? To make the case that craft and collage are deep friends, and that history still travels with collage today, even in these artworks as they deal with Artificial Intelligence and modernist photographic techniques.

When the surrealists took up collage, they of course couldn’t but dwell on the more sexual and intimate qualities of what collage implied. For the surrealists, collage meant “to cohabitate” or in  a more dicey manner, “to live in sin”. Things that shouldn’t be together (under one roof, in a bedroom, with the door locked) become intrinsically bound together. Images that are meant to stay at arms distance, are conjoined. Unnallowed couplings emerge. The subconscious, as they loved to invoke, did not differentiate histories and materials, but instead synthesized these various symbols into a language of desire.

"Let’s face it, is not an art-making couple, a collage in and of itself?"

The history of collage sits well alongside the McCoys. Looking over their vast career of merging cinema, technology, developed software, ready-made techniques, semiotics, personal narratives, performance art, and the list goes on, a history of mash-ups, peculiar couplings, discordant juxtapositions and a deep awareness of the viewer emerges. We find a collaboration and/or an aberration as ever integral to each work. Let’s face it, is not an art-making couple, a collage in and of itself? Do they not, in making art together, embody a certain living in sin of the artist? As the Dadaists enjoyed collage because it de-centered the author so too does the artist-couple duo inherently challenge the author-genius narrative.

Jennifer & Kevin McCoy in their New York studio. Photo credit: Dan King

In previous artworks by the McCoys, various experiments transpire in landscape, depictions of urbanism, juxtapositions of historic technology, and always, a self-awareness around the mediums of representation. Take for example, their Cloud series of 2005 with works like Clouds #1, Man (2005), Clouds #4, UFO (2005), Clouds #8, Airport (2005). Each work is inspired by the Equivalence Series (1925-1934) by early photographer Alfred Stieglitz wherein he photographed numerous clouds in the sky, and because they became so abstract, the photograph is credited as being the first to liberate the subject from its context; to make the subject abstract. For their Clouds series, the McCoys created small media surveillance contraptions equipped with a video screen and a small cylinder with cotton wool attached. As the cylinder rotates, the camera captures the movement of the wool, presenting it as the backdrop on the video screen which has a variety of subjects painted on its surface. The result is a poetic dreamy image wherein its construction is readily present and part of the work itself.

There is a tinkering quality to their oeuvre where cinematic and photographic images integrate into a larger artwork that overtly demonstrates its technological and at times, quaint, construction. Building on the Marshall McLuhan adage that the medium is the message, the McCoys’ work presents both the message as well as the medium.

And as part of that strategy is ever a combination of antiquated and contemporary. In their work from 2014, Terminal Beach, the McCoys painted a fantastical landscape inside a shadow box equipped with a video screen, photographs, and sculptural palm trees and ferns. A physical and technological collage of materials, Terminal Beach presented a dreamy depiction of the Adobe headquarters in San Jose, California. This is just one of many uses of landscape by the McCoys.

Jennifer & Kevin McCoy standing in front of their work, Terminal Beach. Photo credit: Dan King

Wrapped up in the eye of the beholder, artists have long sought to paint the majestic qualities of what they see. What the McCoys have achieved in their ongoing use of the technologies of seeing, is that we come to appreciate the specific vantage point, and perhaps promise, that each technology has to offer. And perhaps by stitching these different forms together, the viewer comes to appreciate and contextualize the inherent technological and social formation of these promises.

So what do our mediums say to us today? What is their promise? Albert Bierdstadt, as an example, in painting the great frontiers of the American West not only illuminated the majestic qualities of the great wilderness, he simultaneously lent a visceral reality to profound American expansion. Each medium and its connected artists often present the ambition of the era. And so, of course with this artwork, we must also ask what is the promise of AI-generated images? Before we answer that, allow me to quickly recount an important question that Jennifer McCoy proposed, “But what about the monster?” The monster she refers to has come up again and again in their early work and certainly presents itself here. That monster is the making of Dr. Frankenstein.

In 2000, the McCoys conducted two versions of what they called Radio Frankenstein (one online and one in an installation setting). Each version presented an auditory collage of fragments from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1818. Using custom software, these tidbits of text (much like the William S Borough’s version of cut-up and the Dadaist version of sound poetry) were re-organized into  ongoing and randomized blurts thus creating an entirely new creation. A reflexive artwork to say the least, but to spell it out, the collage that became the art embodies the spirit of Frankenstein himself. A jagged rough-hewn body developed by the technologies (old and new) of its era.

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”Mary Shelley

And of course, Dr. Frankenstein gave life to a monster, did he not?  A corpse reanimated; his flesh sewn back together, soaked in contemporary chemicals, and brought to life by a spark of electricity. This mythic being conjured not only by way of Mary Shelley’s wonderfully dark imagination, but the zeitgeist of the industrial revolution. Famously, neither Frankenstein’s monster nor the villagers he encountered understood the seismic shifts in daily life that were occurring during this time and as Mary Shelley wrote, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” This monster, of course, embodied this change in all its promise, flaws, hubris and visceral depravity.

So, as we end on the subject of Artificial Intelligence, we will do so in the lap of Frankenstein. For not only did Dr. Frankenstein scientifically give life to dead flesh, he did so by cobbling together various body parts to make a whole. With thread and needle, he sutured together desiccated limbs and torso, he plopped in an old brain – in Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein, the brain was labeled Abnormal which the assistant thought said the name of the owner, Abby Normal – and lent ambulation with a bolt of the high wattage future. Frankenstein’s monster presented the villagers with a living breathing aberration, an ambulatory collage of life and limb.

Usher in the use of StableDiffusion, the text-to-image generator used by the McCoys and many other artists in the last few months. For all the uses of the term” artificial intelligence” what they really mean is associative big data softwares. In the case of stable diffusion in Land, Sea and Sky, the McCoys provided prompts for the generation of the various landscapes that fill these cut-out zones. What we see are not, in fact, actual landscapes, but instead a vision of specific landscapes developed with what is being called Artificial Intelligence. The images possess glitches and mistakes that point toward their fabricated origins.

A short-form collage work from Jennifer & Kevin McCoy's collection with Artwrld, Land Sea and Sky

And certainly Artificial Intelligence can be seen as a corollary for Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. A creature developed out of the potential and hubris of its time, met with extreme fear, hostility and set loose on a society still clinging to its old way of life. These landscapes provide not only a backdrop in this artwork but a vision of a place that is both recognizable, and simultaneously, never existed. That darkness, as it does in much of the McCoys’ work, certainly haunts these images.

But perhaps, to close out, let's do so in a glass half-full trajectory. For what stands out the most when one looks at Land Sea and Sky, is not the AI generated landscapes that collide and crash, but in fact, the hard edges of these zones that separate and arrange the image. The seams if you will. Rather than focus on what fills these zones, we can appreciate those hand-cut edges that bring them into contact. Rather than be afraid of the totality of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, we can appreciate that this lumbering body had to be healed and mended by way of prosaic materials such as a sewing needle and thread.

We can appreciate that this grand gesture of resurrection remains as ever a sympathetic attempt to ease the suffering of the human body. And in that attempt, like a living collage itself, we find the body a result of historic technologies ever shaping, twisting and perhaps, ultimately trying, to heal itself. In Land Sea and Sky, we witness a palimpsest of historic technologies and visual approaches, combined to present us with a discordant, jumbled landscape. We see something familiar and unfamiliar. A world topsy-turvy with different ideas of what vision, what landscape, can be. And yes, the reason they look ever so familiar, is that we ourselves, experience the world in this manner. We are all a living breathing collage. And magically, we are all Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.

Jennifer & Kevin McCoy's collection, Land Sea and Sky released on Artwrld's platform on April 5. The collection is comprised of 310 animated collage works – 300 short-form works available for random mint and 10 long-form works with audio available at a fixed price. Learn more about the collection here.