September – October 2013 In The Studio
Zach Nader, like many other Brooklyn artists, is a recent transplant, having moved to New York after completing an MFA in photography at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Nader and two partners, Eric Shows and Grant Billingsley, comprise Useful Pictures, a curatorial collective that promotes and showcases contemporary artists whose work, according to their mis- sion statement “complicate[s] photographic understandings alongside a networked digital culture.” It was at this group’s eponymous exhibition at Michael Mat- thews, a small Harlem gallery, that I first became acquainted with Nader; I later met with him in his Brooklyn studio in Flatbush. Nader’s own work is also concerned with the place of photography in the larger world of digital culture. He employs a variety of digital tools to alter preexisting images in a way that highlights the operation of the tools themselves. This methodology results in surreal compositions that speak to the way digital post-production mediates our experience with photographs. In his series Counterweight, Nader presents family snapshots that he has scanned and from which he has removed all traces of human subjects. To do this, he employed one of the increasingly “smart” software technologies within the Photoshop application, which attempts to judge for itself how to best conceal a selected portion of the image by using the outlying areas of the photograph as a template from which to graft image information. The effect of this procedure (known as “content-aware fill”) is disturbing and at times psychedelic.
Prismatic shifts in sunlit backyards and the wildly unfurling patterns of a homemade quilt add a sense of disquiet to otherwise mundane family documents. While many artists employ similar technological means to fictionalize moments recorded by the camera, Nader’s work is unique in that he does not hide his hand. Indeed it may appear that he has put little effort into creating these pieces, merely allowing an algorithm to run its course. Each image, how- ever, is the result of many renditions of the same method, from which the artist has selected the most compelling versions. “I am interested in using tools excessively and in ways that do not conform to their design,” says Nader, adding, “The growth or overrun that is created in this work is the software’s vain attempt to fill in what is missing—to create meaning. Without people depicted, these pictures become odd wastelands with digital artifacts in the place of prominence.” The jarring distortions that Nader creates in the Counterweight series are in direct dialogue with the way contemporary photographic images are both created and consumed. His work investigates the assumptions of those who shape one of the most prolific commercial and creative applications. By doing this, he highlights the ramifications of a handful of programmers in the aesthetic decisions granted to a global audience. Despite, or because of, their glitchy disturbances, Zach Nader’s self-cannibalizing images appear as a breath of fresh air in a sea of over-produced and over-sized monoliths.