Originally trained as a muralist, Tim Portlock began experimenting with digital media platforms in the late '90s. He has since mastered a variety of tools, from gaming software to 3-D animation, and has used them to make art that investigates the social and economic impact of America's rapid de-industrialization. A member of Vox Populi in Philadelphia, and a professor at Hunter College of The City University of New York, Portlock's works have been shown around the world, including solo and group exhibitions at the Tate Modern, London; Los Angeles Center for Digital Art; the Ars Electronica Museum, Linz, Austria; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois. Portlock is a recent Pew Fellow, and is in residence at 18th Street through a partnership with The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.
My work is created using digital technology and is informed by the western painting
tradition. I create large inkjet prints based on the empty and abandoned buildings that
are typical to post-industrial cities. While my work appears photographic the imagery is
actually constructed from 3D simulations of real world buildings. To create these images
I use 3D special effects software and computer game authoring tools. Because I am
combining technology and subject matter that are not typically associated with each other
in an art context it is not always easy to briefly explain my work.
Who is your ideal audience?
Ideally a broad audience. Through my work I want to spark an awareness of the contrast
between an American national identity that was developed at the start of the country
and communicated around the world through landscape painting with imagery from
contemporary American post-industrial cities.
Do you get different responses to your work when you show in different cities?
For the last several years I have been making work based on the architecture in and
around Philadelphia. I suspect that because Philadelphia holds such a historical
significance within the United States many people are surprised to learn that it was a
major industrial manufacturing center for a good part of the 20th century and that it
currently shares many of same problems that, unfortunately are typical to many other
American cities going through major industrial decline. For some people my digitally
constructed work appears to be photographic and is sometimes read as objective
documentation of Philadelphia. As someone who was trained as a painter I am still
sometimes mildly surprised by the authority that comes from the aura of objectivity
associated with photographic-looking images. Paintings, on the other hand, are
almost always assumed to be an expression of the artist's subjective outlook or purely
By contrast, in Philadelphia there is the occasional debate about the degree to which
my work accurately depicts the city visually. I do consciously take a certain amount of
creative license with my depictions of real world spaces.
Much like the 19th century painters whose conventions I borrow from, my work skirts the
line between being visually faithful to the subject matter that the images are based on and taking creative license to communicate specific ideas about what is being depicted.
I am thinking about how early American landscape paintings were constructed to look both realistic and to also convey a particular set of notions about the American national
identity as if these notions were a natural part of the environment. I am both comparing
and contrasting the visual conventions and ideals expressed in these earlier images with
scenes that are familiar to the typical post-industrial American city.
According to various authorities, Philadelphia is said to contain approximately 40,000
vacant properties. This is such a large number of empty buildings that they could
actually make up their own ghost city. To convey the visceral impact of this fact I have
created realistic-looking images of a city populated exclusively by computer generated
likenesses of the actual empty buildings that exist in 20-30 block radius of my house in
Philadelphia. While I could use many other mediums, such as painting, to construct these
types of images, special effects and computer game software is uniquely suited to the task of making hyper-realistic visuals that approximate the real world. A good example of
this from popular film is the way special effects were used for Lord of the Rings to create
landscapes that seemed "real" but also conveyed an emotion that supported the story.
I am also interested in using computer software, which is specific to the post-industrial
age, to create images that depict the decline of a way of life centered on industrial
You are married to a sociologist. Do you think the ongoing conversations you two have about the state of US cities has given your work further context?
Definitely. Among other things my wife has been researching how cities develop policies
for attracting new industries to ignite economic activity and to generate jobs. In many
cases there is urgency to this process due to the rapid decline of the more traditional
industries. Our conversations also make me think more intently about how the numbers
I read about differ from what we perceive out in the world. When someone tells me
how wonderful a city is and I know it contains 40,000 vacant properties, it gives me a
sense that we all use urban space for own individual uses which give us very different
perceptions of the overall city.
For the last couple of years I have been reading some history and sociology. I also
try to talk to people who are experts on different aspects of the subject matter I am
making work about. To prepare for some of my past projects I met with an economist
to learn about some of the indicators that are used to determine the health of local
economies. Recently I was in Las Vegas where I met with a journalist to discuss the
home foreclosure situation there. I learned about the ways this crisis has touched on other major issues such as employment and immigration. One of the most interesting things I learned in my conversations with the journalist is that, like Detroit, Las Vegas in its heyday was known as a place to get into the middle class without a college education.
Beginning next summer I will be developing a new series of images based on San
Bernardino which, as of this year, officially has the highest home foreclosure rate of any
city in the United States. I had been thinking about this project before coming to Los
Angeles and, while here I have been refining my approach to this subject for a second
visit next summer. At the same time I am staying open to completely new creative
directions based on locally specific experiences. A few weeks ago an urban planner,
James Rojas, gave me a tour of different areas around L.A. where local communities
have incorporated architectural features from previous generations' countries of origin.
The way buildings in Vernon have been modified over time from their initial purpose
reflects changes in the economy as well as the cultural make-up of the local community.
Some of the buildings in Vernon, for example, have gone from factories, to warehouses
to mercados over the span of their lifetime. I find this very interesting, and will consider
how this kind of activity could make its way into my work.
Top Image:"Salon," digital print, 2011.
About the Author
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