‘It’s Memorializing How Unmemorable It Is’: Artist Michael Mandiberg on Painting Melancholy Portraits on Zoom

Mandiberg’s “Zoom Paintings” are going on view this week in a virtual exhibition.

Michael Mandiberg, PSC-CUNY Action I, 3:00 — 4:00 PM, June 23, 2020 (#13) (2020). Courtesy of the artist.
Michael Mandiberg, PSC-CUNY Action I, 3:00 — 4:00 PM, June 23, 2020 (#13) (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

Quarantining has no doubt had a dissociative effect on us. Think about the strange ways in which time passes, or the moments during video chats when you have to remind yourself you’re speaking to a real person and not just watching TV. 

It’s the old paradox of modern technology: the more it connects us, the more disconnected we feel. And it’s inside that paradox that Michael Mandiberg’s newest body of work, “Zoom Paintings,” lives. 

Stuck in place over the past seven months, the artist, who is immunocompromised, has meticulously painted the backgrounds of those with whom they’ve video chatted—albeit with the person removed. 

The resulting canvases, all the size of the artist’s computer screen, are going on view this week in a (fittingly) virtual exhibition hosted by Denny Dimin gallery. 

“What I was experiencing in that time was just a real feeling of aloneness and dissociation,” Mandiberg tells me over Zoom, looking up from their desk. The artist is painting my own backdrop as we speak; our conversation is punctuated with longer-than-normal pauses as they work through an unknown section of the scene.

“I was in all these different spaces but they all looked the same. Normally we would be in a specific room at a specific institution. Now it’s all this weird nowhere space,” Mandiberg says before nodding back to the artwork in progress.

So it goes for the project, which the artist has been working on since April. During most of Mandiberg’s Zoom calls—faculty meetings, studio visits, family members’ birthdays—they’ll quietly pick a participant’s video and paint the scene. Sometimes they’ll tell their subjects; often—especially in big group chats—they won’t.

Michael Mandiberg, <i>Eyebeam Rapid Response For A Better Digital Future Welcome I, 12:00 — 2:00 PM, June 30, 2020 (#16)</i> (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

Michael Mandiberg, Eyebeam Rapid Response For A Better Digital Future Welcome I, 12:00 — 2:00 PM, June 30, 2020 (#16) (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

The gesture of making the digital physical is one Mandiberg has turned to before. The artist’s best-known body of work, Print Wikipedia (2009–16), is built around the inherently sisyphean task of printing out the entire encyclopedia’s database. 

But this new project is not that. Though a literal materialization of an ephemeral experience takes place, the “Zoom Paintings” aren’t about capturing a particular combination of ones and zeroes. In true conceptual fashion, it’s in the act of painting—rather than the painting itself—that the heart of the artwork beats.  

Driving this point home is the fact that Mandiberg is not a traditionally “good” painter. The artist will be the first to tell you. (They were never formally trained in painting.) And for this upcoming exhibition at least, the works will be presented in the digital sphere where they were born. The gallery will present the artworks on a public Zoom every day through the run of the show.

“For me, it’s a way to think about how I can use these tools of the moment to talk about the tools of the moment,” Mandiberg says.

Michael Mandiberg, <i>Sara Clugage wiknic, 3:00 — 4:00 PM, August 16, 2020 (#23)</i> (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

Michael Mandiberg, Sara Clugage wiknic, 3:00 — 4:00 PM, August 16, 2020 (#23) (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

Unlike so many articles written in April about “what your quarantine bookshelf says about you,” Mandiberg isn’t interested in the decor of their subjects’ self-made lazarettos. There’s a blurring of details in these paintings. Stare at them long enough, and they all start to blend—just the way the gridded videos do on our own screens during a long meeting.

That’s why the subjects are removed, too. “It’s not about you,” Mandiberg sums up. “It’s about the interchangeability of people and places. It’s not memorializing a particular event; it’s memorializing how unmemorable it is.” 

Before this article was published, Mandiberg posted the painting from my Zoom screen to Instagram. I only half-recognized at it first, like seeing oneself in an old picture.

“Michael Mandiberg: The Zoom Paintings” will be on view on Denny Dimin Virtual November 12–25, 2020.


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