Making Art Off The Grid
Santa Fe New Mexican
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
— “Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley
In the 2016 documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, director Werner Herzog ponders the long-term effects that modern technology may have on the evolution of humankind. Technologies advance so fast in our time that entire infrastructures that are built to sustain them sit — like the monument to Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem — as remnants of a declining empire. In the shadow of Amazon and other giant online retailers, more than just mom-and-pop stores have become outmoded vestiges of a very recent past. Cell-phone apps only months old require frequent updates to still be usable. Can we live without the internet, cell phones, and computers? Those who go off-grid, disconnecting from the connected world, say “yes.” There are few places left where communing with the natural environment, free from technology and its distractions, is as impactful as at Chaco Canyon.
In the fall of 2016, local artist John Vokoun completed a monthlong artist residency at Chaco, sponsored by the National Parks Arts Foundation. His time there marked the foundation’s inaugural residency for a new-media artist. “The National Parks Arts Foundation has been doing residencies out there for a long time,” Vokoun said. “But typically, nature residencies tend to get more realist artists, landscape painters, things like that.” Vokoun’s residency was unusual in that he’s an abstract painter whose previous bodies of work — and to a lesser degree, his new work, on view at David Richard Gallery in the exhibit Horizons/Structures — incorporate imagery derived from corrupted data files from hacked computer systems. The images are printed onto aluminum substrate panels in an industrial process called sublimation, which is not normally used for artistic purposes.
In his new exhibit, Vokoun uses linear marks, much of it laser-cut into acrylic or oil paint on panels, that are reminiscent of the line work in his earlier pieces. While not intended to be read like a language, the marks resemble a written lexicon, but one of his own devising. “I’m in this place where I’m pretend-writing my own esoteric language,” he said. “I’m more interested in its ability to modally replicate other concepts.” Architectural structures as well as the structure of natural forms inspired the marks. “These are all supposed to be reminiscent of brick and adobe structures as well as things like clouds and the movement of clouds,” he said.
Vokoun started several pieces at Chaco, where he converted a small living space into a working studio. “They let me stay with the park rangers so I didn’t have to camp for a month. They have a studio apartment there — really nice, with floor-to-ceiling windows and an overlook of La Fajada Butte, so I woke up and watched the sunrise over La Fajada every day.” A few paintings in Horizons/Structures reference the the light of the sun as it makes its daily transit. Vokoun paints bands of colors, like a series of horizon lines, in varying degrees of thickness. In the pieces that have been laser-cut, the bands were painted first, the thin linear cuts were made after, and the panels were then repainted. In a sense, they are abstracted landscapes and cloudscapes. The colors correspond to the transitions in the light at Chaco throughout the day. “The style of painting I’m doing right now is kind of the earth and the sky intermixed in layers. There’s not exactly a clear horizon line where this is the earth and this is the sky but the sky is moving into the layers below and the earth is moving into the layers above. I’m trying to push as much chaos as possible but not have it feel too overwhelming. That’s hard to do. I’m trying to leave the structure somewhat ambiguous because a really clear structure means someone’s in charge, someone’s planning this out.” To that extent, irregularities appear in his work. Horizontal bands of color angle slightly away from each other, for instance, instead of running perfectly straight from right to left.
Vokoun’s compositions are mounted on panels made from compressed aspen fibers which are naturally acid-free and archival. He worked with Arroyo Studio in Santa Fe to make the laser cuts. “They’ve been very patient with me because we pushed the laser cutter to its limits doing these,” he said. “They were, at some point in time, using my work to calibrate their cutter because of the detail involved. We’ve done a lot of experimenting, trying to figure out what methodologies work best.” It was the first time Arroyo Studio had used their laser cutter, typically used in sign-making, on a painted surface.
Vokoun seeks new ways to incorporate technology into his artistic process. At the same time, he has an objective awareness about technology as it relates to people on the whole and has concerns about how it will affect future generations. “I consider my art to be a thought process about the hyperactive influence of the media and data in our lives,” he said. “Maybe what we all eventually want is a way to deal with the rampant media and multiple things grabbing our attention these days. Maybe we’re looking for balance and maybe we’re looking for natural beauty.” Vokoun was surprised when a friend remarked that his work was “pretty,” because making an object of beauty is not his primary concern. Rather, his aesthetics come into play because of his interest in exploring color theory and color relationships and merging that interest with the conceptual ideas that relate to humanity’s use of technology — ideas that coalesced further for him while he was out at Chaco.
“I spent a lot of time just sitting and thinking out in the ruins with no cell phone and no media distractions of any kind, just listening very quietly, and at night, just trying to see as many stars as possible in the dark, dark skies. It’s an interesting time to look at cultural centers from 800 or 900 years ago and think about our cultural centers now. To some degree, I’d like to see America, with all the wealth we’ve created for ourselves, create like a new Library of Alexandria or some kind of landmark to who we are and what we really care about — our goals and our ideals. There’s plenty of brilliant cultural places to go to and to share, even in our own city, but there aren’t that many that unite everyone as a whole because we don’t necessarily have a true ideology to follow. One of the interesting things we have here in America right now is we have something like twice the amount of retail square footage per person than any other country. In the last few years, all these major retail corporations are having a really hard time keeping up with Amazon and Wal-Mart online sales, and everything else. And so we’ve built all these structures around the country to deal with our demand for retail, and there’s all these shopping malls and stuff now that are mostly vacant. There’s all these strip malls we’ve built. How long of a life will those have?”
Chaco, also an abandoned civilization by 1300, represents the endurance of human-built environments over time, but also their ultimate subjugation to untamed nature — because Chaco now lies in ruins. “Our structures have been very reactionary,” he said. “What do we do with all that? Tear it down? Eventually they’ll get buried and covered over with something else because they’re not functioning for our society anymore.” This is an idea with which the Ancestral Pueblo peoples, if we could hear them speak, would probably agree.