“I almost don't want to think of how many years of my physical lifetime I've spent sitting in small dark rooms with computers,” says artist Matt Elson. At the end of his time at Pratt Institute in New York, Elson started working with computer graphics. He got into the medium early in the 1980s and found work with a company that stemmed from MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab.
While standing outside of Melrose Avenue gallery Exact Science, Elson describes the first computer he used to make graphics. “It was the size of a larger refrigerator,” he says. “It did a fraction of what you can do on your iPhone and it was $350,000, but nobody had this.”
He beams with pride when he talks about the old job. “Every day, we were inventing the future. Every day, we were part of this community worldwide that was evolving this technology forward to become what it is today,” he says.
Elson's work now as a fine artist is a reaction to his former occupation. He is currently working on a the Infinity Boxes series, mirrored pieces that reflect light and the images of the people exploring the pieces with you. Only one of the Infinity Boxes is mean for a single user. “They aren't just about what's going on in your head or my head,” he says. “It's a shared space, a shared experience.”
In three years, Elson has completed 10 infinity boxes and has two more in the works. He says that there are another “dozen-and-a-half” that are in the early stages of development. He has taken the works to Burning Man, where he works with the collective Fractal Nation/Fractal Planet, and to festivals like Lightning in a Bottle in Southern California and Beloved in Oregon. The Orange County Museum of Art has included them in an event and they will appear at the Palm Springs Art Museum on April 24.
Last Saturday night, two of Elson's boxes were displayed inside Exact Science as part of a Cannibal Flower art show.The Unseen Consequence of Circumstance, the tenth piece in the series, is meant for two users. Each participant sticks his or her head into a corner of the box and each box reveals a slightly different view. What remains the same, though, is the seemingly never-ending field of reflections. From the outside, this is clearly an enclosed space. Inside, though, it become a room with no ceiling and no floor.
Ménage à Trois , Elson's third Infinity Box, is intended for a trio of users who nestle their noses up to a line in the unit. The intent, the artist says, is to create images that are only in the participants' heads. Faces might blur together into a single image. “It's as subjective as I can possibly think to create an image,” he says. “You can't photograph the experience, you have to have the experience in that particular box.”
Elson made his first box out of foamcore when he was an art student. It was an attempt to create a painting where people could see different things out of each eye. The experiment didn't work. “I kind of made everybody ill, including me,” he says.
A few years ago, Elson decided to give the box idea another shot. Inside FASTFRAME, the framing shop he owns in Long Beach, Elson put together two pieces of mirror, back to back. He had his framer put his nose up to the edge on the side of the mirrors. The Infinity Boxes were born. Elson, who also has a studio in Mar Vista, continues to make the boxes in the Long Beach shop.
At first, Elson feared that the concept would get old after a while. As he took the infinity boxes from event to event, though, he noticed that people who had already seen the works would bring their friends over and check them out again.
For a while, the boxes existed as an underground phenomenon. Elson wasn't sure how a more mainstream audience would react, until he brought the pieces to ArtPrize, a massive show in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Elson estimates that between 50,000 and 60,000 people experienced them over the course of 19 days. He also took the project to the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, where the pieces were set up amidst an eclectic collection that includes everything from Mesoamerican art to 20th century works. He's excited that his own work stood so close to a Maxfield Parrish piece.
While the nature of the boxes suggests a connection to the amusement parks, haunted houses and other spaces that incorporate mirrors into the fun, Elson is actually using the mirrors for a different purpose. “Some mirrors are meant to hide and obscure, like a magician's mirror is meant to hide things from you,” he explains.
Elson's mirrors, though, show the things that aren't noticeable on a daily basis. Participants may notice things about themselves, something as simple as how your own face changes at different angles. They may also learn things about each other— who avoids eye contact, who nervously bites a lip or starts playing with his or her hair— during the experience.
“How we see and how we relate to each other, that's the core of what it's about,” he says. “I'm not trying to hide. I'm trying to reveal.”
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