s∞” (pronounced “OS Infinity”) is a collection of small, intimate drawings by Otis Boat, assembled as the inaugural show of a small, intimate backyard gallery in Reno. The drawings address the flickering indeterminacy of alienation and connection that we negotiate when we enter our quotidian screen-space — the frame for each piece is a disassembled iPad, with the fixed graphite image swapped for the restless pixelated screen.
Boat, a Reno-based artist, acquired the junked iPads from a relative who works at a boarding school, where students abandon screens at the end of the year like spent notebooks — laced with tantalum and yttrium, in contrast to the antediluvian cardstock and spiral of low-carbon steel. It’s a very thin line whether the ascetic modernism of Apple’s design confers, as a frame, a kind of industrialized gilt, or if it’s merely a blank signal of ewaste —a line approximately 7.5mm thick.
Before moving to the content of the drawings, a word on the exhibition space — The Outpost, an extension of Outback Projects, curated by Kristin Hough. Hough, an artist, curator and educator, co-founded Outback in 2018 when she lived in Los Angeles — an artist-run project space, featuring shows in a one-car garage, as well as pop-up exhibitions. When she moved to Reno, her home included a modest workshop shed in the backyard, which she refurbished, with assistance from family and friends, into an “art shed.” Hough has a long-standing interest in non-traditional exhibition contexts.
“I’m always interested in seeing art outside of mainstream spaces,” she said. “In Nevada, I’ve loved seeing paintings in casinos.” She sees the “main event” of the exhibitions as their reception, though people can reach out to her to schedule individual showings for the duration of the show, which runs through June 30, at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Instagram @outbackprojects.
Boat’s drawings (accompanied by a sculpture set in the center of the space — a black wood post with a smooth, black, fist-sized rock sitting atop it — more on this later) have an extraordinary delicacy. Two observational drawings are essentially portraits of technology —one showing the interior of an iPhone, the other showing a pencil sitting on top of a sketchpad (the actual cover of the observed sketchpad, like the iPhone in the other drawing, has been deconstructed, and physically installed as a backing for the drawing).
The sense of patient detail attending to the rectilinear guts of the of the iPhone fooled me, for a moment, into thinking Boat had (insanely) reproduced in pencil the small-print text on the battery casing, warning of its hazards. In fact, Boat found a digital version of the text, and printed it on top of the drawing with an inkjet printer — a “cheat,” perhaps, but absolved because it maintained an element of risk. The printing had to be applied after the painstaking drawing had been otherwise completed, and any misalignment could have ruined it.
An even cursory glance reveals how time-consuming these images were to make — the care
given to every shade of metal, or to the grooved cross of every tiny screw-head. Boat doesn’t
know how long each drawing took, and has no interest in quantifying it — swimming against the digital stream of the instantaneous.
“I think of the medium being just as much time as graphite,” he told me. He remarked that, from the outside, it could appear to be an excruciating process, but that’s not his experience.
“Once I can get myself to sit down to do it, it’s the easiest thing,” he said. “To sit with a pencil and paper, the simplest instruments, and to look at light … it feels like a way to bring myself deeper into visual reality. To look so closely to the point where you can represent things as finely, and as detailed, and subtly as reality … it’s almost like creating reality, or recreating reality.” In that sense, the drawing of the pencil and sketchbook feels like a gauntlet thrown.
Boat’s fidelity to observed reality isn’t total, and in some drawings he uses it as a scaffold for
visual inventions. At first glance, the drawing who/whom/whose looks like a typical screen
capture of a FaceTime call — the screen dominated by the speaker’s face, with an inset picture-in-picture of the person conversing with them (so we’re implicitly looking through the eyes of the inset figure, peripherally watching himself in his stamp-sized island of self-consciousness).
But on further examination, the question of who is talking to whom — and who is seeing whom — becomes more complicated and mysterious. The dominant face (Boat’s self-portrait, shaded with peculiarities of light that make it both a bit spooky and statue-like) appears on the screen of a phone, held up to the camera by a hand. So the face (with its expression of spiritualized aloofness) is being offered at a remove — if the phone is on, the face could be a live feed or a recording. Though if it is live, it begs the question of his physical position in relation to both the phone camera and the camera on the device capturing both phone and hand (which would seem to of necessity present some intervening, obstructing — and in the drawing, invisibilized —plane).
In actuality Boat made the drawing of himself with the phone turned off, using it as a dark
mirror — as if presenting himself, on this imagined video chat, as a live image on dead glass. And then there is a disconnect between his face and the hand grasping the phone — dark, hairy, with a wild thumbnail that could double as a blade. It looked werewolfish to me, but Boat used an ape’s hand for reference, searching online for useful images of apes holding things. For the inset screen, he called his father and talked him through the technology to show himself, in order to capture his portrait.
This whole process of orchestration and invention, collaged together with graphite, broadcast, search and reflection, operates like a pocket-sized riff on Velasquez’s “Las Meninas.” Using a bewildering forest of mirrors, canvases, and paintings-within-paintings, Velasquez presented perception and presence as a riddle. That Boat’s drawing is similarly perceptually dizzying at a much smaller scale is, perhaps, a testimony to the forces of miniaturization and compression inherent in the evolution of cameras and computers, shrinking over time toward the realm of the quantum.
Boat has hung the drawings at chest level, so that you have to stoop a bit to meet them. It’s
tied to the somatics of our devices. We don’t just use our phones, we bow to them. “What does it do to the body to bow?” he asked. “We bow as a sign of respect, reverence – whatever it is.” He takes it as a posture that isn’t wholly arbitrary, but rather one that produces or reinforces internalities of submission, or abjection, perhaps.
“It does something to the body and mind to put yourself in that position — in opposition or recognition of someone or something opposite you. It’s doing something to us. … Steve Jobs wasn’t like, ‘People are going to bow to their phones.’ It just happened. And it’s in a sense what we’re doing all the time.”
The novelty of the phone-bow is its prolongation. It’s no longer a brief social signal. It’s more
akin to a default setting. It seems a less directly constrained form of body modification than
foot-binding or infant cranial modification, but nonetheless, through this technological
tropism, our cervical vertebrae have found themselves suspended in prostration.
At the reception for the show, Boat explained the purpose of the sculpture at the center of the space. He priced the drawings at $2000 (“A bit outrageous,” he told me, though I disagree), but said a person could have one for free, if they were willing to take their iPhone out of their pocket, place it on the funereal stump of wood, and smash it beyond repair with the rock. It had to be done in the moment —no backing up the data, no going back home and fishing through drawers for an obsolete model. He said some people seemed to think it over, but no one took him up on it, which genuinely disappointed him, without, of course, surprising him.
It’s not a purely monetary exchange to trade a phone for a drawing, it’s a calculation of degrees of symbiosis. Maybe it interrupts the terms of service on your payment plan. “You’ve put a payment plan on this extension of yourself,” Boat said. This is a nod to Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that technologies are “extensions of man” — the telescope an extension of the eye, the automobile an extension of the foot. The formula implies extensions outward, from the body to the world. The social and push-notification dimensions of current media imply an extension in the other direction, from the world into us. And it’s here I find the softness of Boat’s rendering, on his paper substitutes for screens, so suggestive. The
gauzy luminosity of his surfaces subverts the shiny, sterile glare of the oleophobic glass it’s
replacing. Our screens are porous, less a barrier than a membrane.
“OS∞,” (pronounced “OS Infinity”) Otis Boat’s solo show, is on view at The Outpost, a gallery in Kristin Hough’s Reno backyard, through June 30. To schedule a visit, email email@example.com or message her on Instagram @outbackprojects.
If you visit Oregon this summer, you can catch works by Boat and Hough in a group show at Carnation Contemporary in Portland in July.
Photos: Chris Lanier