February 12, 2021
Tim Portlock’s immersive digital cityscapes—rendered using 3-D computer gaming and special effects software—attempt to make real the discrepancy between the ideology of American exceptionalism and our lived experience. Blending traditional aesthetic tropes derived from nineteenth-century landscape painting with PS5 verisimilitude, his uncanny composites of US cities such as Philadelphia, San Bernardino, and St. Louis—where he’s now based—glitch conventional narratives for built environments that have been palpably reshaped by deindustrialization, white flight, and the aftermath of the housing crisis of 2008. His most recent exhibition, “Nickels from Heaven,” continues his interrogation of realism and identity construction and is currently on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis through February 21 as part of its Great Rivers Biennial.
PEOPLE USUALLY ASK ME what my favorite video games were growing up as a way to understand how I came to make the kind of work I make, but the longest throughline is landscape. When I was a painter in my twenties, I discovered Black writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. My paintings were inspired by their books and how they used this device of a protagonist meandering through space, usually a city, as a way toward a kind of self-realization.
Like all the kids I knew who grew up in Chicago, I rode the subway from a very young age and accessed neighborhoods all over the city. It was and still is an amazingly segregated place, and you definitely had a sense of rules and definitions changing depending on what street you crossed. I wanted to address that through the landscape genre, and show how landscape painting is a kind of mapmaking—demarcating the qualities of familiar and unfamiliar places, inventing ways of characterizing the unknown. Postmodernism was an active part of the curriculum when I got my first MFA, so at that time I was also thinking about the use of multiple aesthetic languages in a single painting and how that conveyed meaning. Wright and Ellison were well aware of the experience of code-switching, and I felt like that term could also be used to talk about postmodernism.
There are details about cities that we comprehend on a cognitive level, but not a visceral one. For instance, people in Philadelphia and St. Louis may know that their cities contain around 40,000 empty buildings, but they don’t grasp the scale of that number or how weird it is. Since around 2000, I’ve made landscapes with digital software as a means of communicating the experience of that information. I definitely took this idea from computer culture, but I’m also trying to draw a parallel between the way data is understood and how artists who made landscape images in the nineteenth century were selective—and omissive—in order to propagandize notions of progress and “greatness.” When I first started making this work, it was perceived as exaggerated, as science-fiction. But in my mind, I was revealing reality.
I received my second MFA at this place called the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Chicago. They’ve developed a lot of important computer graphics technology used around the world. At the time I was there, they had just developed this thing called the CAVE Virtual Reality System. It was old school: You went into a room, and you’d see stereoscopic imagery on the walls. You’d put on shutter glasses that had a tracker on them, so wherever you turned, the vanishing point was always in sync with what you were looking at. It’s not explicitly gaming technology, but the basic set-up is very similar to what games use and how I produce 3-D imagery now. This was the late ’90s, so all of this was very new, and networked games were still very rare. We’d often do networked projects with other graphics research labs across the world. My role would be to build the environment and the avatars, and the labs would meet in these virtual spaces.
I’ve been thinking about what I enjoy about being an artist, how that’s changed over time. Rather than the novelty of the technology, which is constantly evolving, what now excites me the most about my work is exploring cities and meeting and talking with people, doing the research and planning, and then seeing the work displayed. Constructing the actual image is labor-intensive and involves a lot of problem-solving. When the work is done and hanging up, I feel like I just successfully robbed a bank.
The thing that’s most interesting to me about the technology is its capacity to build narratives of national identity through realistic images, not unlike the way artists of the Hudson River School fabricated representational scenes in the service of Manifest Destiny two hundred years ago. An important part of my work is showing how this tradition perpetuates cultural myths that contrast with the realities of contemporary American cities. Figuring out new ways to make a visually compelling image of urban space, which is also ever evolving, that still channel the fundamentals of historical landscape painting is a continual formal challenge. Drones have enabled me to capture a different perspective. And I’ve started focusing on this highly reflective style of architecture that’s increasingly pervasive. I think that seeing prismatic skies in the reflections of those buildings says something about how we’re now experiencing the sublime.
— As told to Jessica Baran