The term “new media” isn’t the most accurate descriptor for works that incorporate digital technology. On the one hand, digital has been a tool in the art-making process for half a century now, and on the other, the term could describe any media that the world has never seen before. Lithography, acrylic painting, and darkroom photography were all once new techniques. Perhaps there’s an expectation that so-called new media represents the most advanced and state-of-the-art technologies out there. Sometimes that’s true. But for Jonathan Morse, who describes his work in Currents New Media as low-tech, this presumption kept him from applying to the annual event for years.
“I come from a traditional photography and photo print-making background,” said Morse, a Santa Fe resident. The artist’s work is featured in the exhibit by invitation, after Currents organizers Frank Ragano and Mariannah Amster convinced him that it was the kind of thing they wanted in the show. In a way, Morse still works with ink on paper. He is showing digital pigment prints from a series called Artworlds.
The prints depict Earth-like spheres that appear to be unraveling or recombining, worlds composed of various designs and colors and overlaying a moiré background pattern. Morse is showing six of a series of eight prints. “They’re about how we create our own art worlds within and without,” he said. In a statement about the work, he talks about how the digital age has made us all editors and directors of our own lives, curating the version of ourselves we present to others through our online profiles. “To understand today’s world requires knowledge of editing techniques that do not remain static and without which we may not know what is going on around us outside our analog selves,” he writes. “Our re-mastered digital constructions now serve as objective correlatives of our inner experience. To repurpose the oft-spoken moviemaking term, we now can fix our lives in post.”
Despite using computer applications in the creation of Artworlds — Morse employs a combination of photographic imagery, digital drawing applications, and Photoshop — the artist sees himself as part of a continuum of mark-makers stretching back over millennia. An inky handprint appears in the first image in his series Artworlds 1, an allusion to some of the earliest forms of figurative imagery seen on the walls of ancient caves. The spherical world in this image, superimposed over the handprint, is the most globelike and cohesive in the series, with little fragmentation. It is as though Morse is reminding the digital age of its humble beginnings in the Paleolithic era. “I do think that mark-making is important. I’m very aware, when I make a piece as an artist, that I’m holding hands with generations and generations of picture makers. I think we’re not making anything new so much as we’re building on various traditions we see throughout our lives, and we incorporate them, sometimes unconsciously, and re-represent them in our own individual ways.”
The Artworlds prints show what could be a single object, ostensibly our Earth, as though it has been pulled apart and recombined, sometimes haphazardly and sometimes with a sense of order and precision. Morse notes that modern technologies have become so integral to our lives that they practically make us cyborgs. “Maybe I read too much, but I think that the world of technology is hurtling much faster than humanity can really handle,” he said. “We’re all sort of embedded in technology, and it’s embedded in us. I still like to be grounded with the mark in some sense, even with photography, because sometimes new media becomes a little too conceptual. I want to stay with both feet planted on the ground.”
For Morse, however, being grounded in the mark means using digital technology to expand mark-making capabilities. “I use Photoshop as an iterative assistant, in a sense. I can create marks through Photoshop that I would never be able to make on my own. As a self-taught user of Photoshop who knows only a small fraction of what it can do, I can take its very accomplished tools and turn them at cross-purposes to what they were meant to be. Photoshop was, I think, inherently created to be a digital darkroom, to bring out the detail in the shadows, to make the sky bluer, remove the blemishes, and all those types of things. You can take all those tools and literally use the program to help you generate imagery one might not have expected. If you work for many hours and allow it to enthuse you as you use it, you can surprise yourself.”