One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the doors to Touchstone Gallery remain closed to the public. Despite attempts to recreate the beloved experience online, Touchstone’s virtual exhibits fail to inspire the same wonder as their in-person counterparts. However inevitable the downgrade may have been, the coronavirus has proven that the full majesty of art cannot be forced into a digital box.
This February, Touchstone included three solo virtual exhibits: “NADA” by Linda Bankerd, “Mass Balance: Endgame” by Gale Wallar, and “Myths of Creation” by Steve Wanna. Each exhibit is presented in its own three-dimensional online space which viewers navigate either with arrows for a structured tour or by clicking and dragging their mouse to roam around. There are certainly upsides: Virtual exhibits allow visitors from around the world to appreciate art during a difficult time and give artists a platform to continue sharing their work, despite the closed galleries. Even so, these online adaptations are a mediocre replication of the experience of seeing art in person. The impact of the art is extremely limited, as much of the texture, color, and sense of scale are lost when confined to a computer’s screen.
“NADA” by Linda Bankerd includes a series of colorful abstract pieces. The artist’s nonsensical approach gives the collection an air of confusion, as though some mystery were residing underneath the wide swathes of pigment. The exhibit’s description explains Bankerd’s concept for the collection: “Even though line, color, shape and form come together and feelings of exuberance or a sense of mystery are evident, it really is about nothing in particular.”
Abstract art’s success relies heavily on the emotions it evokes from the viewer, but with Bankerd’s “NADA,” these emotions are dulled through the screen. Each painting is roughly 36 by 36 inches of pure color. Vibrant paint is dripped, thrown, swirled, and smeared across the canvas. This passionate mix of techniques creates an array of textures—at least, presumably. The translation from canvas to screen takes its toll, muting the effect.
The biggest loss with presenting this exhibit virtually is the lack of depth and physicality. There are hints of drip marks or scraped lines in the photographed works, but they do not add to the painting in the same way they could in person. The fact that some of these features are visible in Touchstone’s photographs at all suggests that texture is an important component of the in-person exhibit, yet it fails to carry over. And then, of course, it is almost impossible to get a sense of scale when the painting is only about three inches tall on a computer monitor. Art that would normally dwarf the viewer instead requires careful peering.
Without physical characteristics like texture and scale to set these pieces apart, the exhibit felt repetitive. Every piece was ultimately just swirls of color on canvas. The color combinations fell into two groups: vibrant red, yellow, blue, and green or a more earthy orange, olive green, and brown. Though in person there may have been more to set the individual paintings apart, online they felt very iterative, only differentiated by slightly different palettes.
“Mass Balance: Endgame” by Gale Wallar is slightly more successful online; however, it is still hindered by the online presentation. Wallar’s exhibit is a series of landscape paintings depicting the snow-covered peaks of mountains. Without the physicality and presence of a real canvas, though, details that illustrate the impressive craftsmanship necessary to create these majestic views are lost.
In the exhibit description, Wallar explains the meaning behind the title, saying, “MASS BALANCE, defined in glacier terminology, refers to a measure of the change in mass of a glacier; the balance between accumulation (growth) and ablation (loss) in a glacier system.” Drawing inspiration from climate change issues including the melting of glaciers, she focuses on the mountain tops where water, the source of life, sits in the form of snow until it eventually melts to feed rivers and creeks.
These acrylic paintings are realistic recreations of stunning landscapes, with a relatively simple yet still effective selection of colors. Though the subject of these paintings is something rugged, cold, and harsh, the paintings make the mountains appear soft and warm.
The technique and talent is certainly there. Wallar includes a wide range of angles and lighting in his works. He depicts the peaks during many different times of day, capturing the unique ways light and shadow cast onto the snow. His work with shadows is especially impressive considering the varied topography of the mountains.
Unfortunately, this success faces a unique problem due to the virtual presentation: The carefully constructed landscape paintings look like stock photographs. While generally a huge achievement for realistic artwork, all the viewer sees is a literal picture of the painting plopped onto a virtual wall—aesthetically pleasing, sure, but common. Photographs, though majestic in their own right, do not have the same effect as seeing a realistic painting, wondering at the artist’s ability to recreate life while walking closer and closer to the canvas to discover new details and textures.
Like Bankerd’s “NADA,” the impact of “Mass Balance: Endgame” suffers from a lack of sense of scale. The paintings are quite large—the bigger ones are around three feet in length. With such an enormous subject, the viewer expects to feel a sense of majesty when viewing the painting. And yet, that enormity does not arrive. The viewer is left wondering how much more inspiring Wallar’s exhibit could have been had it been seen in a physical space.
Of the February exhibits, “Myths of Creation” by Steve Wanna is most successfully translated to an online format. The concept behind the collection is uniquely captivating. Wanna captures a moment in time with colorful explosions in circular canvases.
Each piece was created by exploding materials onto a prepared board. Nothing was done to alter the piece after; the result of the explosion is the art, and their titles reflect the exact date and time of detonation. To preserve the exact moment, the works are fixed in cast resin. Wanna was inspired by world creation myths, as well as by NASA’s Hubble Telescope, to try and artistically replicate cosmic events. The unique method of creation gives the pieces a feeling of paused movement; they truly feel like frozen moments of time. The relative success of this virtual exhibit suggests that the pieces are certainly worth seeing in person.
The most striking element of this exhibit was that the pieces simultaneously felt like both macro and micro views of nature. The explosions of color are reminiscent of supernovas, planets, galaxies, and other deep space phenomena. The circular frame surrounding the majority of the works reminds the viewer of looking through a telescope. On the other hand, the abstract nature of the explosions and the splatterings of small particles evoke an image more reminiscent of the cellular level. The same circle frame that can be seen as a telescope could also remind the viewer of a microscope—the brightness of the works similar to the illuminated view of a tiny slide. Wanna succeeds in capturing the attention of the viewer with unique and thought-provoking pieces.
This exhibit was the most successful of the three, as the specific medium was well captured in a photograph—the only major downside was how reflections caused by the resin occasionally made the photographer visible in the shot.
Touchstone’s attempt at replicating an actual gallery in a virtual space is an impressive trick and, when you first open the exhibit, seems like a nice touch. However, at best it adds nothing to the experience and at worst it takes away from the art with frustrating controls.
The viewer can take a guided tour in which the perspective jumps from piece to piece, zooming in automatically. However, this option is essentially a slide show through the exhibit, which negates any environment created by the three-dimensional rendered space.
It is also possible to navigate the space by dragging the mouse and clicking arrows. This option provides a more free-roam experience, but is very difficult to operate—especially around half walls and corners. The guided tour is much easier and allows the viewer to focus on the art, but with both options, part of the physical gallery experience is lost.
These virtual exhibits were only ever supposed to be a temporary solution while galleries were forced to close. Though the pandemic has lasted over a year, they are still temporary, and one day Touchstone Gallery will return to in-person exhibits. There is no way for virtual exhibits to perfectly replicate the gallery and, as a result, the in-person experience will always be better.
However, virtual exhibits have one significant advantage—they are more accessible. Virtual displays make it possible for a viewer to appreciate the exhibit from anywhere at any time. This can greatly expand the audience for these pieces and allows those unable to physically attend to have access to the world of art. Certain alterations should be implemented to make the current virtual system easier to navigate, but there is a lot of potential, certainly more than a year ago. Though virtual galleries are a limited imitation of the real in-person experience, continuing to provide the virtual alternative even after galleries have reopened would help spread the exhibits to more people.
If there is anything that can be learned from Touchstone Gallery’s virtual exhibits, it is that physical art is irreplaceable. In an increasingly digital world, it is too easy to forget the value of art galleries and museums. Why visit the Louvre when pictures of the Mona Lisa are all over the internet? Because art cannot be reduced to pixels on a screen; it is more than just an image.
Touchstone Gallery’s February exhibit felt a little underwhelming. However, much of what was lacking can be blamed on the limitations of the virtual gallery format. With a true sense of scale, better presentation, and the ability to properly see texture and color, these exhibits would have had a much larger impact. These three virtual exhibits are evidence that seeing art in person adds something to the experience that cannot be captured digitally. Technology provides new opportunities for creating and accessing art, but physical works cannot be replaced by virtual records.
In the future, when the world has found a new sense of normal, it will be important to remember the mediocre virtual exhibits and appreciate the beauty of in-person art with all its textures, majesty, and vibrant colors.
This article has been updated in order to fix Gale Wallar’s name and pronouncs