My Visit to a VR Art Gallery in the Cloud

Artist Gretchen Andrew has taken her classical talents into the modern world. Her oil paintings are on display in West Hollywood California’s Design District, but long after the exhibition closes fans can still visit her work through the magic of virtual reality.

 

*Video from Andrew’s website at: http://underscoreg.com/

 

Each of her paintings has an added feature only available for VR visitors. Some of the paintings include footage of her in the process of painting, snapshots of the canvas when it was half-way finished, or footage and photos of the things that inspired her work. The effect of these VR additions makes me feel as if each painting is telling a story about itself, and the experience is more mentally engaging than simply walking through a silent gallery. If other visual artists built VR galleries like Gretchen’s, it would likely encourage more interest in the fine arts and grant some people access to artwork that they would not have otherwise been able to enjoy–not everyone lives in the art-friendly cities of California, for example.

The other nice thing about this VR gallery is, although it is compatible with Oculus Rift, I don’t have to fork over hundreds of dollars to use it. All I need is an apple product with iOS 8.1 or later, or iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Then I can download the app and view it through a pair of cheap cardboard VR goggles or suffer the split screen and just view as it appears on my phone.

It took me a moment to adjust to the VR controls.

There is a small white dot in the center of my vision, and I “click” on the screen controls by moving my head so that the dot rests upon the button. It’s a little counter-intuitive when I am so used to using my hands–with hands, you can control a thing without focusing directly at it–but then, this is just the adventurous part of learning how to use new technology. The controls let me wander the room and look at paintings in whatever order I wish but there is also a prescribed circular path around the room, much like a real art gallery.

The first one I viewed was Andrew’s painting that was inspired by her wedding. The piece transitions between the painting and an actual photo of Andrew’s wedding. Her wedding photo is set in an autumn woods in the mountains, the bride and groom kissing while their family encircles them along the bottom half and the autumnal mountains encircle them along the top half. Andrew’s painting follows the same composition but it is flush with Prussian blue and white instead of the opposite spectrum of the autumn leaves. It’s a wonderfully impressionistic painting and figures are so alight with movement they seem to dance. However, the transition is timed poorly on this one so that while I am given ample time to contemplate the photo of her wedding I have very little time to take in the actual painting. Fortunately, this is the only piece with a technical issue like this and will likely be an easy fix with an update to the app. Another piece, “Storms will Roll” corrects the technical flaw in Andrew’s wedding photo as the VR slowly transitions between Andrew’s painting of a river in Colorado with a photo of the real place, letting me compare and contrast the original and the interpretation at a natural pace.

The next piece is called “Freedom” and depicts a bicyclist traveling through a path bursting with colors of glowing peach and sunshine yellow hues. A recording of Gretchen’s voice explains to me the difficulty she has in depicting size through VR. The painting is around seven feet long but she says she finds it difficult to give the viewer a sense of this size through VR. Her solution was to have the painting slowly zoom towards the viewer. The effect works. It feels as though I am falling into this sunlit bike path, and by turning my head I can still take in the full painting. It’s a one of the most subtle uses of VR in the gallery but that is perhaps what makes it the most effective.

Then next painting along the path is my personal favorite. Called “Patient Hope in New Snow,” this one includes footage that Andrews took while wearing Google glass. The viewer sees through her eyes as she walks the halls of the New York Metropolitan Art Museum, glancing over paintings whose composition and style have clearly influenced this one. Then the footage cuts to Andrew in the process of actually painting the piece–it is this part that makes “Patient Hope in New Snow” my personal favorite. After seeing the paint drip and move across the canvas, looking at the finished piece feels like a much more kinetic experience. This is also where Andrew informs the viewer that the startlingly jewel blue color of the piece is from a paint mix that she creates herself. Usually deep blues give me a feeling of peace or solemnity, but something about Andrew’s particular mix gives me an additional thrill of joy and curiosity.

 

 

The paintings “Hope” and “Otto Dix and His Parents” fade back and forth between the finished paintings and the half-finished paintings. This effect draws the viewer’s attention to the structure and composition of the pieces. This makes me feel as if I can view the pieces with a more discerning eye than I could have otherwise, and allows me to consider the potential that VR has in teaching painters master’s level techniques.

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Andrew’s “Hope” in the VR gallery

The other piece that takes good advantage of the VR technology is Andrew’s version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. The VR application lets me view Gretchen’s piece with a picture of the original Van Gogh in its place in the New York Museum of Modern Art. This comparative viewing makes what would have otherwise been just another boring rehash of a popular painting into something quite enjoyable. It holds all the lure of a good fan-fiction; admiration for the original and interest at comparing it with a new interpretation. Andrews also uses the VR to add a movement of color and light across her own sky. This effect reminds me of the magical art that fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal describes in her Glamourist Histories.

 

 

Andrew’s portrait of her artist mentor, Billy Childish, includes more creative uses of VR. In keeping with her impressionistic painting of him, the VR adds footage of the real life Billy Childish. But instead of focusing on his face (the subject of the painting), it instead shows him at work, silently giving speeches and working on his own painting. The result is a blurred sense of a man’s mannerisms and action, rather than a clear image of what he looks like–much like the portrait itself does.

Andrew’s piece “Citrus Glow of the Old Orange Grove” uses the same technique as in the Billy Childish painting, but to give us a sense of place rather than a sense of the person. The added footage here is good but I think this piece would be one of my favorites regardless. I really wish I could fall into this one the way I could with her “Freedom” painting.

Given how new this use of VR technology is, I find myself imagining how the experience could be improved. The elements of a VR gallery like this could benefit from a stronger, coherent composition that ties each story together throughout the space. This could be done if Andrew talked about the order in which she painted each piece and how one project led to the other, for example. But overall, the paintings themselves complement one another well enough already. I did find myself wanting a little music. Nothing distracting, but perhaps a light, contemplative classical composition would have increased my feeling of entering a space separate from every-day “reality”.

Even so, the experience of this virtual gallery is immersive enough that taking off the goggles and returning to my living room is actually a bit jolting. In keeping with the narrative feel of the virtual place, I find myself wanting a transition back to real life as well. Perhaps some closing thoughts voiced over by Andrew as I leave, or some soft notes of music? Although, to be fair, I often feel this way as well whenever I leave the cool air conditioning of a real life art gallery for the brilliant and hot sidewalk outside.

Regardless, the way that VR is revolutionizing the art world and encouraging user interaction is beyond exciting. With this technology, I can immerse myself in visual art more than I can on an artist’s deviant art page and get more of a feel for what the artist intends to convey in the work. VR also frees the artist and viewer alike from certain limitations, such as having to physically present or visit an exhibition within a constrained time frame. Art galleries too can better build a following if they can share all the exhibitions they’ve ever had with their visitors. Established art museums, however, might find it more lucrative to limit the availability of their VR galleries so as not to cut into their tickets sales. Hopefully, this technology will also make it easier for artists to find interested buyers all over the world.

Reflecting on her exhibit, Andrew asks us, “When should we be digital and when should we be physical?” (Andrew). For my part, I am glad Andrews chose to allow faraway viewers the chance to visit and reflect on her work from the digital plain.

 

 

Sources:

Andrew, Gretchen. “Art Show Opening: You Are the Critic in Interactive Virtual Reality.” Immersivly. N.p., 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 25 June 2016.

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