In Defense of Junk Culture, Part 2: Travess Smalley


One of my favorite miners of junk culture past and present is Travess Smalley, a young artist (my age, in fact) who’s laser-sharp appropriations of mass media & tech crud are at once witty and compelling. Working mostly in the 2d realm, Smalley wields a Memphis group mentality, exploring patterns, shapes, and production methods from the tackiest corners of the last 25 years. Default graphics swatches, Photoshop brushes, hastily implemented photo effects, magic eye posters, and primative 3d graphics are melded, isolated, magnified, and overstated into works that exude a sort of atavistic minimalism.

Smalley excels at reducing over-used graphic strategies like gradients, posterization & drop shadows (which are so ingrained now into our visual culture that they register as background noise) into high-impact statements. These montages and tableaus, as frivolous as they may seem, provoke speculation about the simultaneously dizzying and stultifying effect of computer-based creation.

While other artists working in these realms tend to embrace visual overload as their leitmotif (the internet as a torrent of technological garbage), Smalley gives each idea room to breathe, with the eyes and conceptual simplicity of a true modernist. Though the Donald Judds of the world would scoff at the format-hopping impurity of his work, he is a true reflection of art in the internet age. When 2001 years of art history are flattened to an iPad-shaped Black Obelisk, polymorphism is the name of the game.

As a culture, we have become blind to the long lasting effects that software such as Photoshop, Maya, and the like have had on our visual vocabulary, and collective unconscious. Smalley’s simple experiments, vacillating between stark pattern planes and reference-saturated assemblages, draw attention to both the peculiar idiosyncrasies and understood legitimacy of these truly bizarre formats.


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