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Digital Divide : Robin Eley explores online identity in "Loss/Less" – Sarah Lin

“Hyperrealism” is how some people describe Robin Eley’s remarkable work. His portraits have all the crisp precision and vivid detail of photographs, but they’re actually methodically crafted paintings created using oil paint, brushes and countless hours of concentration.  

In his latest solo exhibition, Eley uses technology to explore the intersection between our physical and virtual lives. "Loss/Less" runs May 20 through July 14 at 101/Exhibit in Los Angeles.

According to Sloan Schaffer, the gallery's owner and director, “Loss/Less” represents a “linear progression” from Eley's previous solo shows, which also played with fractured imagery.  Compared to “Prism” and “Flux,” he says “this body of work is much more disjointed. You rely upon your brain in a different way to assemble the pieces to understand the whole.”


The exhibition was born out of Eley’s own digital habits. Like most modern artists, Eley spends a large portion of his life online. He publishes images of his work on Instagram. He posts pictures on Facebook. He shares videos of his painting process via Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook Live.

"Personally I struggle to see the point of posting anything other than the occasional lame joke," quipped Eley, who grew up in Adelaide, Australia, but now calls Los Angeles home. But even he has to acknowledge the seductive power of social media. 

The guiding idea,” the Westmont College graduate explained, “is to physically recreate, in an analog fashion, a digital phenomenon — the errors that occur in information transfer. When things get jumbled, information get degraded, things get lost.” (In tech circles, the term “loss less compression” refers to compression that allows for the complete recovery of data.)

Painted on one-inch squares of Dibond aluminum panel, the pixelated portraits in “Loss/Less” feature purposeful fragmentation. Tiles are painstakingly pieced together, painted, disassembled and rearranged in new patterns.

“The loss of likeness, the loss of recognizability in the subjects is intended to represent the actual damaging physical effects of over-investment in the digital space,” explained Eley, who took some of his inspiration from video chats.


The centerpiece of the show is “The Binary Project,” about eight months in the making. To celebrate the birth of his twin children, Fox and JoJo, in September 2016, Eley painted a 70-inch by 70-inch portrait of the pair, physically dismantled it and mailed all 4,900 tiles to more than 1,000 participants in 46 countries. He instructed recipients to photograph their tiles and email the images to him, resulting in the digital artwork “Binary.jpg.” For “Loss/Less,” Eley replicated that crowd-edited collage as another painting.

Eley recently chatted with Artbound about “Loss/Less.”

Sarah Lin : Let's start by talking about “The Binary Project.” Where did that idea come from?

Robin Eley : I had a thought of, “What would happen if I gave a painting to the Internet?” … Then when we got pregnant, the dots connected. I started getting anxiety about the desire to protect my children and provide for my children.

I'm a reasonably controlling person as you can see by my work (chuckles), and the thought that I wouldn't be able to protect them from everything was looming large in my mind: technology, the Internet, social media, all these things that kind of run away from parents despite their best efforts.

That's where “The Binary Project” came from. The thought was, “What would happen if I gave a painting of my twins to the Internet, symbolically turned the image of my children over to a crowd of people to see what they would do with it?” ... The results that came back, to my mind, were fascinating.


SL : What did "The Binary Project" teach you as an artist?

RE : One of the things I learned was how much art can mean to people. Because I was painting my twins, I was clearly, quite genuinely emotionally invested in the painting I was making. ...

I knew what I wanted to get out of it, but what other people derived from it was a great surprise to me. ...

I found, appropriately, a surge in vanity photos because people have made the photo about themselves. Really what it is is people are expressing what's important to them. There's one (man) who took his nine tiles and he tiled them together to make a photograph of him painting a “Jungle Book” mural on his son's bedroom wall with his son sitting next to him. ... This special moment of him working on a painting with his son is now immortalized in my painting and it's there for the world to see. ...

The main point is, the people who made a conscious decision not to photograph the piece that they got but to send back a personal image, almost every single one of them was something that really (meant something). That, to me, speaks volumes.

While technology can oftentimes drive us apart, in a lot of ways this project brought people together under one common banner, under one common purpose. Even though they were responsible for individual pieces, as a group they made it important enough to them to express something personal.


SL : In a way, you started from a place of fear and ended up in a place of hope.

RE : Absolutely. I think it's an example of a crowd taking care of something, rather than abusing it. … On the whole it gave me a very positive outlook on the power of technology to both take something apart and destroy it, but also to create something that is different yet equally beautiful.

SL : Did a similar philosophy guide your approach to the portraits in “Loss/Loss”?

RE : In a way. … The idea was to recreate in analog fashion the digital phenomenon of information transfer, and thereby address the collision of physical and digital identities, which is a driving theme in what I'm working on now. …

At some point every person in the developed world right now has to manage some form of Internet identity. The questions of how that affects us physically as people walking around on the street continue to play out daily.

That's what I'm interested in looking at and addressing in the work. Instead of trying to attack the broader idea of the sociological impacts of that, I tried to break it down into one sector or one kind of approach, which was information transfer. … You could talk about censorship. You could talk about privacy, network security.

SL : Walk me through the process of creating these portraits.

RE : I tried using screen stills from an actual video chat, but I couldn't get a resolution high enough to paint the way I wanted to paint.

I had a camera shooting constantly while I engaged the subject in conversion. They'd come into my studio and we'd just chat. The camera would be constantly taking photos.

I'd have to troll through at least a thousand photos per subject looking for the ones that engaged me the most. Then I would select two, and I'd paint them on these 1 inch-by-1 inch squares of Dibond aluminum panel. …

I would go into Photoshop and play for something hours, sometimes days, with different compositions of exchanging tiles, always keeping the same pattern of exchange on each side.


SL : Obviously, there's one pretty big exception -- Donald Trump.

RE : I was working on this exhibition when the election happened. ... I felt like I wanted to respond, in a way, to what had just happened.

My feelings toward (Trump) are, as most people in my profession, are extremely negative. However, I wasn't seeking to do a hit piece. I didn't want to paint him naked with a micro-penis or anything like that.

Mine is less a criticism and more of an explanation, an accounting of how … a man like that can become the leader of the quote-unquote free world. I was fully prepared for people to like it on both sides and hate it on both sides because I felt it walked down the middle. Clearly it's showing that this man is the leader of America, but at the same time others will read it as “This man is the leader of America?!?” It's all based on your perspective.


SL : As a photorealistic, figurative painter, what is the value to you of re-introducing a human element to a dehumanized artform?

RE : The process is what's important here. It's the rigor of actually taking the time to make something that could be represented digitally. With the knowledge of the history of portrait painting, reimagining that in a knowledge sense and trying to claw back relevancy. Especially as a photorealistic painting, the process is what is important. … It just seems to pop up in my work over and over again, the idea of process beginning progress.

SL : How much does process dictate form or substance for you?

RE : In terms of the gravity of the work, I think it's important for me because I don't think that the way I paint is enough. I don't presume for one second that there aren't thousands of other people in the world that can paint like me. They might not have been as fortunate as me to have had the opportunities that I've had.

While to the lay person, what I am able to do with a paint brush may seen unique, I know that truth.

For me there needs to be more. Sometimes that comes at a time in terms of time and literally the cost of making my artwork – and sometimes even the visual appeal of it.

That's why I'm in the game. That's why I'm doing it. It just circles back around to this idea of why I'm an artist – basically, to dig down deep into myself and find out more about myself. The process to me is a way of doing that.

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