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Deeply Artificial Trees (hands)

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Date Minted: August 13, 2020 (my mom's birthday, don't'cha know)

Artist Description: This work is not endorsed, supported or recommended by Bob Ross Inc. >>  "Deeply Artificial Trees (hands)" / 2017 / 1920x1080 PX 25 FPS H.264 AAC / 1 of 1 / V5AZY / $2b$21$q5I7d78jKT.Bnwo3yHpWSeevEt0Y7dNYXuYFAu6hedFVQ9oUBk

CohentheWriter’s Commentary:

This is deeply, maniacally, uniquely uncomfortable artwork. A startlingly-accurate representation of a powerful hallucinogenic’s effects, Deeply Artificial Trees (hands) is one of two pieces in Alexander Reben’s Deeply Artificial Trees series, this one featuring a mostly-horrifying and spastic AI-overlay set upon omnipresent TV painter, Bob Ross, whose catchphrase “Happy little trees,” provides inspiration for the series’ title. Just as the title is a warped version of Ross’ catchphrase, the resulting content is a warped version of Ross’ show. In this manic 20-second video, the actual Bob Ross appears to be holding a small animal in his hand, stroking it gently and whispering it comforting words. But golly gee, watch how the AI algorithm attacks every part of the piece, manically contorting and shapeshifting every color, surface, texture, appearance. An innocuous finger might, in the span of three seconds, grow eyes, no wait, a mouth, no no, it’s an entire dog’s skull, or is it spikes? A parakeet’s beak? It’s impossible to tell, and everything is sloshed over in goopy swirls of drippy, trippy color.

This effect is imposed upon literally everything here. Deeply Artificial Trees (hands) makes my eyes hurt, and my brain hurt even more, as both attempt to process the sheer amount of visual information presented here. Bare, innocuous color suddenly sprouts over with eyes. Faces twist and contort in empty spaces. No color is spared. No space is spared. Nothing is spared; it all becomes part of the hellscape.

But its the actual physical objects in the piece, Bob Ross and the animal in his hand, which are subject to the most bizarre metamorphoses. The AI must be somewhat able to recognize living things within the objects it is programmed to warp, and so when its computing power is set upon the small animal in Ross’ hands, the AI changes it —a few times a second— from a dog to a lizard to a monkey to a worm to an owl to a chipmunk to another and another and another and and and... It’s really impossible to keep up, so quickly and frenetically is the entire piece psychedelically shifting. Bob Ross’s off-hand, curled over the small animal, suddenly bulges and becomes the head of a Pug. Then it becomes a long-legged iguana stretching across the length of the screen. I can’t really capture what’s happening here in words, you have to watch it for yourself, but know that it completely disrupts any sense of normalcy or stability. This is a feverish nightmare of nausea-inducing transformation, and it’s hard to look at for too long without feeling one’s gag reflex beginning to throb. 

I love it.

And all of that description isn’t to say that Deeply Artificial Trees (hands) isn’t beautiful, because it —weirdly, confusingly, noxiously— is. It’s just mighty uncomfortable. It’s like having car sickness; not the car’s fault, nor the road’s, nor the scenery flying by. It’s simply the movement and sensations it communicates which make us nauseous. Deeply Artificial Trees (hands)  is visceral and confounding. It’s difficult to draw anything conclusive from observing it because every facet is ever-changing.  It’s collage turned helter-skelter. It’s pell-mell abstraction. And all of it is a mere skin placed over that most innocuous of subjects, the soft-spoken Bob Ross, painter of happy forests and quiet meadows and nice trees, petting an assumedly-adorable baby animal. Except, when slurped up in the AI generator, Bob Ross becomes a fever creature devoid of form. The animal in his hand is something devilish and unstable, an isotope. And we, the observers, need to look away, overwhelmed but interested, nauseous but needing to see more. 

We can probably approach this piece from two avenues, that there is a “why,” behind it, and that there isn’t. It’s easier to start with the isn’t. Because the piece justifies itself by being hilarious, irreverent, and technologically-advanced. The AI itself is doubtless impressive at what it does, spitting out countless images a second, pulling from a sizable bank of outside images, managing to warp sizes and shapes and attributes of things while nevertheless leaving their essences recognizable. That’s a thin line to walk, and yet Deeply Artificial Trees (hands) walks it.

But now let’s assume that there is some hidden “why.” It seems pretty clear that the veneer of kindness, cuteness, and comfort provided by the uncorrupted image of Mr. Ross are the subjects of the artist’s interest. Reben turns this all-too-innocent image into something horrifying, nauseating, and as mesmerizing as a car crash. Is he saying something about the truth of the man underneath? Is this what we’re supporting when we watch and exalt someone like Bob Ross, who made his bread on the empty commodification of art, mass-manipulated for a braindead TV audience? One can then understand all the horrors which would be borne from him, a million-million horrifying versions of reality, all stemming from Mr. Ross’ outwardly-innocent proceedings.But then, he wouldn’t be so innocent, would he? To a concerning percentage of the public, Ross represented possibly their grandest and most expansive formal exposure to art, its purpose and its capabilities. Crypto artists, engaged in a guideless, structureless, slapdash world of colliding and confrontational sensibilities, must bristle at such a sentiment. Anyone like Bob Ross, whose body of work suggests that art might well be one thing, or that it should be, or that it’s okay for it to be, is doing more damage to artistry and expression than they know. As if responding to that, Reben suffocates Mr. Ross with more varied visuals than can be counted, perceived, or understood. “Art is one thing?” the artist seems to chide, “You yourself aren’t even one thing. Look how many things you are! More than you or I or anyone can even know, and all at once.”

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