By Gulnar Tuli
At first glance, artist Tim Portlock's digitally generated illustrations might be mistaken for photographs. Created using a combination of gaming software and 3-D animation tools, Portlock's work is permeated by a distinct sense of melancholy. Ethereal sunsets cast their glow on dilapidated, toy-like buildings, each landscape seemingly stretching back for miles.
Portlock's second artist residency at 18th Street Arts Center is supported by a grant from the Alliance of Artist Communities, awarded to previous recipients of the Pennsylvania-based Pew Fellowships in the Arts. The program awards up to twelve Pew Fellows annually with residencies in other states. 18th Street Arts Center hosts a Pew Fellow each year. The program's mission, to support artists "to push their artistic practice and expand their horizons," runs parallel to that of the 18th Street residency program, which provides artists with time and space to explore new approaches to their work in a new and stimulating environment. 18th Street Arts Center also offers Portlock opportunities for artistic exchange through public programs including a Champagne Social on July 27 where his studio will be open to visitors including curators, art collectors, and artists; as well as panels and artist talks that contribute to a general creative dialogue within the community.
During his residency, Portlock will be executing a project conceived during his first residency at 18th Street in 2012 in which he depicts the extreme economic decline of the nearby city of San Bernardino. Portlock's work, which is centered on the de-industrialization and subsequent decline of specific cities, strives to unravel a historical narrative that is deeply rooted in economic adversity. Having spent his first residency at 18th Street creating images about Las Vegas, he plans to use his current residency to further develop this new body of work about San Bernardino, neighbor to Los Angeles and, until last year, reigning foreclosure capital of the United States. He has investigated the evolving economic climate of the city, and found that there is a new and significant story to tell there. He says, "It's not so much that the foreclosure situation ended, but rather it's morphed into something else... there's sort of a longer-term story about how there used to be more employment options there. The short of it is that there used to be three military bases and a steel mill near San Bernardino, and they all closed in the last 30 years." Through his explorations of San Bernardino, Portlock has narrowed in on a few key facets of the culture that he is planning to highlight in his work. "There are several types of buildings there that you see very frequently," he says. "One is law practices, another is bail bonds, and the third is churches. I think the volume of these three kinds of buildings tells a story. For instance, the abundance of law offices implies that there is a lot of crime, a lot of law enforcement, and a lot of economic adversity."
In an effort to emphasize the neglected nature of the cities he portrays, Portlock consciously includes only images of buildings that are vacant. Though these deserted buildings are integral to the message of his art, Portlock also depicts them because of his own fascination with these structures. "There's something kind of spectacular about abandoned buildings, not in the positive sense but in the way that you can't stop looking at them," Portlock says. "I grew up in Chicago, and my earliest conception of that place as a city was, back then, in decline. You saw a lot of grand structures that were dilapidated and empty."
Visually, Portlock's images are jarring; though realistic, they are clearly rendered as facsimiles, using animation techniques. The juxtaposition of a very real subject with a medium that is characterized by simulation creates a sense of foreboding in the viewer. This feeling is further amplified by the dramatic skies that frame Portlock's images; often, the sun is either rising or setting, indicating a shift in time, and perhaps the advent of change. The sky is a prominent feature in all of Portlock's images. Highly realistic, it is deeply contrasted with the hollow, artificial aesthetic of the buildings. This induces a sense of fiction around the buildings, almost as if they don't belong to the landscape that they inhabit.
Trained originally as a painter, Portlock shifted to his current medium in the late 1990s, realizing that the digital tools with which he now creates his art were better suited to the content of his work than more traditional media. He says, "One of the big factors in the rise and decline of these cities is the advent of technology, and that has to do with computers. One of the things that interests me is using tools that are very much of the time that we live in, and also tools that are somehow related to the subject matter that I'm focused on." By using tools that are based in technology, Portlock casts an added layer of meaning upon his work. Even so, his work is deeply tied to the conventions of early American landscape painting, with their ambition to portray a particular national identity in visual terms. He does not use these traditions literally, instead twisting them to suit his purposes. Portlock explains this methodology by saying, "I use these contrasts that are meant to convey an American, democratic identity. If you were to use those conventions seriously I think galleries would laugh at you... I'm using them in a critical way. I'm contrasting the distance between the ideals that motivate this society to be better, versus the reality of many present day urban spaces."
After his residency at 18th Street, Portlock will be working on a series of images about Camden, New Jersey, one of the largest cities to declare bankruptcy in the US. He plans on incorporating some of the personal narratives of local residents, as well as their thoughts about the city, into this new work. Though his work addresses economic hardship and the decline of the American city, he does not see his art as activism. He says, "I would like for people to be more aware of these issues, and if people think more about this stuff as a result of seeing my work, that would make me happy. However, I don't actually think that me making this work is going to catalyze any big movement... I think this is the wrong way to go about it, if that's what I wanted." He does, however, believe that the work might contribute to a growing awareness of his message. According to Portlock, "There is a sort of 'ambient message,' where if people see things enough people become more conscious of certain issues. It can be in popular culture or more obscure art-gallery type culture. It's acclimating people to think about certain things... That's a side-effect, that's not what I'm intending, but if that's something that comes out of the work I'd be really happy." This interest in sparking collective thought and dialogue through art is very much in keeping with 18th Street Arts Center's own mission and values.
Further Reading on Tim Portlock:
Tim Portlock's Chronicles of De-Industrialization
Tim Portlock uses a range of digital media platforms to investigate the social and economic impact of America's rapid de-industrialization.
Top Image: Tim Portlock, "Blue Angel 2", archival pigment prints, 54" x 72" (2012)
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