Spring visitors to the MOA’s Sculpture Garden might feel they’ve stumbled into a life-size arcade game when they encounter the work of post-minimalism artist Mike Whiting.
The exhibition will feature the large, geometric shapes Whiting is known for and the interpretation of everything from animals to people in bright or pastel colors. Whiting has even created three new large-scale sculptures for the BYU exhibition.
Whiting, who received a master’s of fine arts degree from Pratt Institute in New York City, said his inspiration is drawn from a comparison of minimalism art and vintage video games.
“Conceptually [my work] is somewhere between the digital or pixelated image and minimalism as an art form,” Whiting said. “In the 1960s minimalists were trying to reduce things to basic shapes and [my work] makes a connection between this and early video games when things were very minimal, not because they intended to be and not for aesthetics but because they were limited technologically.”
Whiting first had the idea in graduate school, during a visit to The Museum of Modern Art when he encountered the piece “Broadway Boogie Woogie” by Piet Mondrian for the first time.
“I walked in and there was this painting which I kind of assumed was about a digital image and I was just kind of blown away,” Whiting said. “In reality the painting must have been done in about 1941, before all this, and I thought he was already talking about this visual language of pixels and video games because that was my background. I played video games and watched TV as a kid more than going to museums.”
From this experience Whiting explored how gaming almost mimicked minimalism not because of aesthetic reasons but because of an inability to create more advanced digital forms.
While Whiting’s pieces, which often juxtapose new and old or natural and virtual themes, provide interpretations for viewers, Whiting said he simply enjoys exploring with his art.
“I am kind of just playing around in history and art and visual history and making a connection between those things and things that I’m interested in myself,” Whiting said.
As a frequenter of garage sales, Whiting said he has a special interest in the past and admitted this appeal to antiquity could be where his Atari-themed work stems from.
“I’m interested in old things,” Whiting said. “I like to go to garage sales. Sometimes I find things and I don’t really know what they are and I have to figure out what they might be.”
Whiting’s process with his art starts with sketches either on grid paper or in the program Paint. After drawing pixel by pixel, Whiting decides an image and then plans the sculpture in a 3D modeling program. He then decides scale and how the steel plates will lay over each other and has the steel cut on a computer controlled plasma or laser cutting table.
Using cranes and forklifts, Whiting places the sculpture and welds the steel into place. When the sculpture form is finished, the steel is then sandblasted and painted with automotive or industrial paint. Whiting then puts his final aesthetic touches to the sculpture by wearing the paint down through things like sandpaper, concrete blocks or rocks.
“It gives the finished sculpture a sense of history and an easy to maintain finish,” Whiting said. “The paint ends up looking like something you’d find on an old pickup truck.”
Jeff Lambson, curator of contemporary art at the MOA, said he thinks Whiting has found an interesting aspect of our world in the modern age.
“I think it’s really powerful, by taking something that’s pixelated and making it solid he’s exploring the idea that things that happen in the pixelated world still have impact in the real world,” Lambson said. “This exhibition is really about that turning point and looking at the question of what is real and what is not real, and it’s not reprimand against the virtual world, but it’s celebrating it too,” Lambson said referring to the fun, fantastical creatures that will be on display.
Lambson also emphasized Whiting’s commentary on art history minimalism.
“Minimalists wanted to convey their message with the least amount context, he said. “Video games want to convey the most information they could with a limited vocabulary, so they both have a similar aesthetic for different reason. It’s about understanding this past historical movement through our experience.”
The exhibit will open early June.