Visual Arts

Cy Fi Fan

Too much digital or '' suffers from an anemia that comes from a steady diet of neo-Conceptualism and raw, uncut theory," sputters Mark Dery, author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, during an e-mail-generated discussion with several prominent museum curators in March's Artforum magazine. "Let's face it, a lot of this stuff is deeply sucky."

Dery's assertion probably would be seconded by Tempe artist Jon Haddock, who happens to use digital technology as his choice of art medium. However, Haddock's digitally drawn and manipulated work -- recently hand-picked to appear in one of the country's most prestigious cultural institutions -- easily sidesteps being lumped into Dery's sweeping pronouncement about digital art's general vacuity.

That's because, instead of dredging the muck-filled pit of ungraspable art theory for inspiration, the artist dives head first into the easily navigable mainstream of television news footage, video games and pop culture to search for meaty metaphorical muses.

Haddock has quickly acquired a reputation for deftly using technological tools to wrestle with serious cultural issues. Four images from Haddock's Screenshots, a computer-created series of original drawings, have been included in "BitStreams," a highly touted mega-exhibition of digitally produced art now showing at New York's trend-setting Whitney Museum of American Art. "BitStreams," running in tandem with "Data Dynamics," a companion Internet art exhibition, has been billed by the museum as ". . . a provocative and stimulating presentation of contemporary art that harnesses digital media to achieve new dimensions of artistic expression through the transformation of images, space, data, and sound."

Using the same skewed bird's-eye, open-roofed perspective as SimCity and The Sims, two of the best-selling and most addictive video games in computer history, the Valley artist has taken snippets of real, nightmarish, media-driven history forever burned into our brains and reconfigured them both spatially and stylistically to simulate the look of these popular games. While Haddock's eerie images may look like mere fun and games, they pack the firepower of real philosophical artillery.

His "game" images include Martin Luther King Jr. being shot at the Lorraine Motel, Rodney King being beaten by L.A. cops, Buddhist monk Quang Duc burning himself to death in public to protest the Vietnam War and the infamous 1963 Birmingham Church bombing -- all of which have been chosen for display by Lawrence Rinder, curator of the Whitney's "BitStream" exhibition.

Haddock's Screenshots takes on an even more macabre aura if the viewer is familiar with the video game from which the work borrows its unmistakable look. The Sims, which stands for "simulations," has been described by writer Noah Robischon as providing "a Peeping Tom's-eye view into daily life while offering the chance to play God in the bargain." The solo game player digitally creates a basic Sim life very similar, so to speak, to our everyday reality, down to the most mundane details of living, working and playing. The premise of the game, according to its developer, "is to create an environment in which your Sim can thrive." In a recently released sequel, Livin' Large, "fantasy" elements such as a robotic housekeeper have been introduced. A player's Sim now can be made to die, so that surviving Sims have to deal with grief and death.

Haddock's Screenshots were first created for an exhibition curated by John Spiak for ASU Art Museum's Experimental Gallery. The 40-year-old Tempe artist's increasingly acclaimed, often unnerving Screenshots have taken both the art world and the cyber world by storm since they were shown locally last September.

Among other developments, ASU Art Museum has purchased several images from the series for its collection (and the Whitney has added one of Haddock's pieces from his older Modifications series to the museum's renowned permanent collection). Haddock's work has been featured, reviewed or touted in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Newsweek, Wired Magazine, Spin, Yahoo! Internet Life, Computer Gaming World, New York Magazine and METROPOLIS, as well as in the online magazine Reviews and mentions of Screenshots appear on the Web in a variety of languages, including Spanish, Russian, German and Korean. Entire chat rooms have buzzed with give-and-take about Haddock's computer drawings, which appropriate instantly recognizable news events from the past 30 years or famous movie scenes -- most often violent or tragic in nature. And 10 Screenshots are now appearing in an exhibition titled "Cyborg Manifesto, or The Joy of Artifice," at Laguna Beach's Laguna Art Museum. The exhibit, curated by Tyler Stallings, has been lauded by both the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register.

Not bad for an artist who almost gave up making art completely several years ago and, by his own admission, still doesn't make any appreciable money from selling his work.

"From the time I graduated from grad school until 1996, my art career was on hold," says Haddock, who earned an undergraduate degree at ASU and both an MA in drawing and an MFA in painting at the University of Iowa. "I continued to paint and do other things, but more and more, I found it necessary to have a real full-time day job."

The shy, soft-spoken artist, who looks younger than his stated age, eventually became a Webmaster for the Roosevelt School District, while simultaneously working at repairing and maintaining rental houses. "From the time my son was born, I pretty much just quit [making art]. I worked a day job," Haddock explains. "I also stayed home and took care of my son. Art was becoming less and less interesting to me, I think."

At one point, a hard look at the content of the art he had been creating forced Haddock to seriously reevaluate what he was doing: "All my work previous to 1995 fit into this genre of surrealist, dream-based personal discovery. I became dissatisfied with that particular genre. And I noticed that I really didn't like other examples of [surrealist] art I was seeing.

"I think I cooled to the Mexican surrealists, particularly the women Mexican surrealists like Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varos, who for a long time had been my big inspiration. I started having this inferiority complex as an artist -- I felt, 'What could I really contribute to the world besides mediocre, pretty pictures about my own dreams?' What I think brought me out of it was this idea of making art that was not about me, but was about the people who were looking at the art."

That's when Haddock began dealing with the concept that what one has to say is infinitely more important than the way in which one says it. With the encouragement of Seattle artist and friend Mark Takamichi Miller, the artist started working on his ISP (Internet Sex Photos) series. The series involved downloading homegrown porno images from the Internet, then manipulating them in Photoshop, a powerful photo-editing software program, to eliminate any trace of a human figure.

"I started to notice the backgrounds of the images, rather than the actual thing going on in the middle," Haddock says. ". . . By looking at the backgrounds of these photos, you learned a lot more about these people than just seeing a naked body. My intention was to make [the missing people] more human by looking at the spaces these people actually exist in and our human relationship to that."

Also fascinated by the hobbyist subculture of toy model making, Haddock began producing small sculpted resin toy models of nonfictional characters in various gruesome scenarios taken from the news (murderess Susan Smith, an L.A. rioter and police action figures beating Rodney King were among the models he crafted). Out of that and his interest in popular video games came Haddock's Screenshots, which he drew on a digitalizing pad that fed the drawn images into his computer, then edited via Photoshop and ultimately made into large prints.

Haddock's aperçu about the subliminal connection he initially made between toys and violence came through the eyes of his son, Jaxon, who at 2 or 3 was starting to watch television and be exposed to scenes like the Rodney King beating. "That connection was still there when I started Screenshots, though the violent quality to the images finally chosen -- which all mean something personally to me -- was not intentional when I planned the series," the artist says. "I think it says something that I didn't necessarily fully understand about our culture -- about the problems of violence and how much violence interests us."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kathleen Vanesian