From Screen to Substance

Joey Hill

Last Thursday the UMKC Fine Arts Gallery hosted an opening of “Arcadia Bound,” a new collection by the Assistant Professor of Digital Art and Computer Animation at Missouri State University Colby Jennings.


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The gallery was filled with a diverse collection of works by the artist, ranging from two-dimensional prints to multimedia displays. The exhibit revolved around the use of technology in art creation while still retaining direct action in craft. The prints that lined the front room were heavily pixelated film stills with various computer error messages placed over them.

“I work a lot with computers, as we all do,,” Jennings said. “[The images] are all examples of sort of upheld cultural models of hegemonic or normative masculinity. So for me it was just a way to juxtapose this text on top of it and sort of turn it on its head and make it a little humorous. It’s supposed to be accessible; it’s not supposed to be heady.” He gestured to a print hanging directly near the door to the gallery depicting Spock with the words “not responding” placed over his mouth. “Spock is this representative figure for masculine stoicism. Men are supposed to be intelligent, decisive –  they make decisions quickly, and that’s always been weird for me. That’s what all this work has something to do with: masculinity as a whole and the anxiety I have about it.”

The prints around the room depicted a variety of scenes, some recognizable regardless of the pixilation and others almost completely unrecognizable. Jennings commented on one depicting Superman lying on a gap in a train track with the word “BUSY” over his head.

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“Superman is another example of masculine stoicism as hero, and I particularly chose a version of Superman [from] a while ago,” Jennings said.  “Though to me that’s a computer error message, it can also be poignant and rather humorous. Here he is about to get run over by a train but you know, busy. Day at work.”

Although the prints were fully accessible, the variety of image and text comparisons created some ground for more conceptual thought.  One of the most arresting works in the front gallery was an image of two figures riding on horses in front of a sunset. The message on the images was simply “already exists.” Jennings stated that the piece refers to the referential existence of the image of cowboys on horses in the cultural identity.

“This could be any scene in any western, out of the idea that this was what we were supposed to be in the 1840s. Like, this is what masculinity looked like. This resurgence of westerns we went through in the 1980s, every film had a scene like that in it, a silhouette of people riding horses wearing cowboy hats off into the sunset. So for me, that computer error message just fit,” Jennings said.

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In the next room, the mediums changed completely with the doorway linking the two spaces framed by two televisions playing different works on repeat. One television played the opening scene from the 1956 John Wayne film “The Searchers,” but muted and slowed down, while the other played a continuous shot of Jennings himself being forced to eat an apple pie with his hands. “The Searchers” tells the story of Ethan Edwards after he returns home from both the Civil War and the Mexican Revolutionary War and how he tries to adapt back into society in west Texas. The scene Jennings used consisted of a woman opening a door while Wayne approaches on horseback and walks in the house with the woman. In removing both the dialogue and music to the scene, Jennings hoped to take away the “machismo” sense of stoicism from the war-weary Wayne. Through this, as well as some re-editing, the scene is “he shows up, sees this guy, and takes this guy’s wife inside. I wanted to spin it on its head and take this sort of sopping saturated level of masculinity and try to step it up a couple more levels.”

The other television playing the shot of Jennings eating a pie had a much more visceral quality. The footage is filmed from one point and is shown like a grainy video from a security camera. Jennings is floodlit by a single light and sits at a table in front of a black curtain. The pie is presented in a lone tin and Jennings begins eating it with his hands, digging into it with his fingers and putting the pieces in his mouth as he is directed by an individual off camera.

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“The pie represents this national pride that’s getting force-fed under the spotlight,” Jennings remarked. “It was a process – it was a way for me to test myself, and at the end I start to slow down as I get full of this as I get tired of eating it.”

Filling the other room of the gallery was a lone computer flanked by two walls. One displayed a collection of four photographs from various areas in rural Missouri, and the other four televisions splayed looped footage of four intersections also in rural areas. The computer showed a Google map of the United States with various streets pointed out in red and blue markers. The red markers showed streets called “Liberty” and the blue ones named “Freedom.” As Jennings explained, the piece was an ongoing project cataloging “spaces that have been named in sort of this new national pride that we’ve experienced after 9/11. All of these streets have been renamed or named ‘Liberty,’ ‘Freedom,’ ‘Justice.’ Streets that have been labelled this in this new found push for national pride.”

Jennings himself is developing the work by visiting the streets and photographing them. “By the time it goes down on Dec. 12, I’m hoping it’s grown to double the number of images it has,” Jennings said.

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“Arcadia Bound” is an intuitive and thought-provoking exhibit. The use of technology and digital media make it an interesting alternative to what many come to expect in a gallery. It will be open until Dec. 12.