ERIC THALLER: HUMANITY, ONE BLOCK AT A TIME
By Peter Frank
Our lives are broken up – everything in the same manner. Even as science plummets us into the merest morsels of being, smashing atoms into much smaller components, we have settled on a common unit of perception, if not existence, one also dictated by technology. The pixel, used in computation to build the representation of all information (pictorial and otherwise), has become the universal currency of communication. We see in pixels, we talk in pixels, we think in pixels. Of course, on an ongoing basis we don’t recognize this consciously, or at least don’t pay attention to the fact that our existence has been – what, reduced? Homogenized? Atomized? – down to myriad square fragments; if we could not avoid seeing the world shivered like this, we’d comprehend nothing at all. But it’s as real and given a circumstance as the cones and rods in our eyes. When we go granular, we go to pixels.
Eric Thaller is as aware of this as any of us, but he is especially taken by, even preoccupied with, the metaphoric potential as well as the graphic reality embedded in the pixel. Thaller wants to articulate this basic unit, bring it forth rather than blend and blur it into seamless imagery. He would have us share with him its mystery and its ubiquity. He would even give it physical presence. Many artists play with pixelization, the standardization it brings to (especially visual) information and the abstraction it offers when exposed. But Thaller wants us to feel and to know the materiality of pixels, how real they are unto themselves.
To bring forth the structure and facture of pixels Thaller has turned to another common "tool": the Lego brick. One of the most successful toys of modern times, Legos have achieved near-universal recognizability. Their distillation of a natural and architectural factor, modularization, down to an infinitely repeated, infinitely repeatable unit speaks to the logic and inherent simplicity of nature. That same logic and simplicity determines the very human employment of the pixel, which, handily enough, manifests visually in the same square form as does the Lego block (or, more accurately, half-block, the full block comprising two square blocks into a rectangle). In putting a favorite childhood toy to aesthetically ambitious use, Thaller has given our pixelated environment a different kind of body, one that you might say comes pre-animated.
The broad familiarity and positive associations people have with Legos gives an inviting cast to Thaller’s work, but its graphic force – underpinned by the blocks’ rhythmic pixelization – is what truly grips and holds the eye. Thaller renders his images as stark and readily readable; he gives them iconic status no matter whether they already have such status in the larger world or not. Some are in fact instantly recognizable, while others are only to various social subsets, and some others only to those who know the subjects personally. These latter are the most intriguing among Thaller’s “portraits,” their anonymity (until now, at least) a democratizing factor that contrasts with the visages of the likes of Einstein and David Bowie. One set of unknown faces, three American veterans of 20th century wars – men known to Thaller – celebrates not only their and their peers’ service, but the tenacity and memory of G.I. Joe in general. Another set of three is presented as synecdoche to three scourges of our time, hunger, homelessness, and forced migration. As with his famous-people “pictures,” which look for humanity in the features of the famous, Thaller follows a time-honored strategy by putting a face to these griefs; but he employs his Lego technique to drive home the anguish of those caught up in such woes. These personages are now “art” and will be displayed on a wall. But, frozen in time and context as such, they drive us back to our newsfeeds rather than provide relief from them.
Certain of the pieces, including both those bearing well-known likenesses and those with the veterans’ visages, also display words, descriptions of the subjects, or brief excerpts of things the subjects said. The words do not appear in the same two-dimensional plane as the figures they refer to; indeed, they do not appear graphically at all. Rather, they burgeon from the surface, relief constructions that capitalize on the Lego device. They interrupt the surfaces – the “skin,” as it were – of Thaller’s images, seemingly rippling beneath. At first, they are hard to discern at all beyond an odd sense of visual perturbation. But they gradually come into focus to provide these renditions with an added, discursive dimension. A more oblique engagement of language also engages pixel-dependent technology on a functional, not just metaphoric, level: in several pieces (none, notably, a human headshot), Thaller has included QR codes, readable with iPhones. While any number of artists have already incorporated QR codes in their work, Thaller’s use doesn’t just expand the experiential purview of his art, it grows out of, and reflects back on, the theme and structure of his overall project.
Eric Thaller would seem to be making work that is easy to like and easy to understand. It is indeed easy to admire and respond to, but it is more challenging than is at first apparent. Thaller has a message to bring us, an admonition to be engaged in, or at least aware of, our world and our time. It is a subtle wake-up call, couched in the clever re-purposing of playful material, but a firm one. Thaller couches medium in medium, and message in message, nothing by itself too imposing but all together a powerful signal. The world, sad and fun, urgent and wistful, must be with us, Thaller says, in all its toylike construction, all its pixelated drama, and all its human glory.