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At the climax of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop falls apart: His mental state becomes “one circuit diagram out of hundreds in a smudged yellowing sheaf.” James Huckenpahler finds that sort of breakdown appealing: He used a working title of Pynchon’s epic for his new show of digital prints, “Mindless Pleasures,” now on display at Hemphill Fine Arts. “That title seemed like how people approach abstraction,” says Huckenpahler. “I’m sure that’s the way a lot of readers approach Gravity’s Rainbow—like it’s the equivalent of written wallpaper.”
The pieces on display are carefully staged landscape photographs—though the landscapes are imaginary tableaux the artist created after graduating from Illustrator and Photoshop to more sophisticated 3-D software. “I got to a place where I wanted to do richer, more complicated forms,” says the 38-year-old Dupont Circle artist.
The landscapes are products of using the software in ways for which it wasn’t intended. The technology is meant to make a 3-D digital rendition of a photographed object, Huckenpahler says, “which, you know, if you use the software right, is a reasonably accurate model. If you use it incorrectly, as I did—all kinds of really cool, weird, interesting stuff.”
The genesis for all the images in the show was a figurine of the Japanese superhero Ultraman. As processed by the artist, the figure isn’t recognizable: Huckenpahler concentrates on the warped spaces that the software creates around the figure. Having settled on the figurine as an anti-model in place, creating the works in “Mindless Pleasures” was merely a matter of exploration: finding vistas within the 3-D spaces and photographing them.
The negative imprints left by Ultraman produce what look like bizarre roads and bridges crisscrossing space. But Huckenpahler also means to comment on mechanical reproduction; even though his work exists in a stream of ones and zeros, “Mindless Pleasures” mimics the evolution of photography.
“There’s stuff that looks more photographic because I’ve blurred it out or added film grain,” he says. “There’s the engraving stuff, which is definitely the heart of the 19th century. And then there’s stuff where you can definitely see angles and stuff—definitely computer-generated, 20th-, 21st-century thing.”
Huckenpahler recognizes that the images are distanced from larger concerns. “At least not explicitly, this doesn’t deal with bigger stuff outside of, you know, James, James’ head, James’ world,” he says. “I am starting to wonder, how is this a reflection of what’s going on in the world?” But he sees echoes of human abstractions in his digital ones. “That’s analogous to what goes on in your brain when you’re dreaming,” he says. “Computers do the same thing—just not as elegantly.”
“Mindless Pleasures” shows at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW, to Dec. 22; call (202) 234-5601.