A solo exhibition
September 23 - Oct 31, 2021
Over the past decade, Pilat has deployed her classical training to work at the intersection of technological progress and artistic tradition. The twelve canvases featured in her first exhibition at Modernism Gallery are meticulously executed in oil on linen, taking inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, as well as Marcel Duchamp. But her art is no mere copy of the masters. She has not only replaced their human subjects with robots but also ingeniously portrayed these new entities in a gestural language evocative of robotics.
“I’m interested in questions of authorship,” she says. “Authorship has traditionally been associated with the hand of the artist. What happens to authorship in a time when machines are capable of endless repetition?”
To explore these issues, Pilat has sought to embody the cutting-edge technology she witnessed at Boston Dynamics by making multiple copies of the same image. For instance, she has painted her version of Nude Descending a Staircase three times. The paintings are in different color palettes, all three evocative of the Pop art of Andy Warhol, who famously said “I’d like to be a machine”. However, the difference in colors is only the most obvious contrast evident in her three paintings. Unlike Warhol, who used mechanical techniques such as silkscreening in his best-known pieces, Pilat has worked by hand, resulting in expressive discrepancies in every detail. Her efforts to paint like a robot paradoxically betray her humanity.
For Pilat, this does not amount to triumph or defeat. As she observes, “Machines are humanity’s children.” In this familial relationship, neither is inherently superior – let alone an existential threat to the other – though she acknowledges that “machines are today’s celebrities, perhaps even the aristocracy of the 21st century”. By painting their portraits, she carries on a tradition stretching from Renaissance studios to Warhol’s Factory of the 1960s.
The majority of work in her Modernism exhibition focuses on the Renaissance, with images derived from Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco. Pilat sees an important connection between the Renaissance and the present moment, especially evident to her as an artist based in Silicon Valley. “Much as innovation changed the world during the Renaissance, innovators in technology are changing the world today,” she says. In tribute to this history, and referencing the language of software iteration, she has dubbed her new series Renaissance 2.0.
The legacy of Leonardo is especially important for Pilat, because he is generally credited with the invention of the humanoid robot. In her version of Vitruvian Man, Pilat has aptly replaced the human figure with a humanoid robot, Atlas. First designed by Boston Dynamics in 2013, and named after the most famous of pre-Olympian gods, Atlas is a direct mechanical descendent of Leonardo’s human figure. The robot also represents a new ideal, engineered by analyzing the physics of human motion. Pilat’s paintings provocatively show this new ideal in a classical visual language familiar to everyone.
Even more provocative is Pilat’s reinterpretation of Michelangelo. Her paintings are based on the most famous section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling where Michelangelo depicts God giving life to Adam. She includes only the portion where their fingers touch, substituting robotic arms for their musculature.
The robotic arm was one of the first fixtures of modern robotics. For all that they’ve changed over the decades that they’ve extended their reach from the factory floor to the surgical theater, the morphology has remained remarkably consistent. Much as God is said to have created man in His image – and all people today are said to be descendants of Adam – technology has a long lineage that can be construed as a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
Pilat captures the genesis of today’s most sophisticated machinery in a Biblical vernacular. Machines may be humanity’s children, but she suggests that (like the humans begat by God) they also have lives of their own. In the venerable tradition of Marcel Duchamp, Pilat is a conceptual artist as much as she’s a painter. Her Sistine Chapel paintings are philosophical essays on the nature of technology.
Pilat also moves her paintings into the conceptual realm through a literal amalgamation of oil paint with the latest digital imaging techniques. By holding a smartphone up to paintings such as Sistine Chapel and Nude Descending a Staircase, viewers can see the robots that inspired them and can watch the robots in motion. Evocative of Duchamp’s use of transparency in his Large Glass, this augmented-reality layer reconnects her paintings with his conceptual aspirations to advance human perception by carrying Cubism into the fourth dimension.