There have been some outstanding group exhibitions in Washington over the past few years, but none has carried as much pulse, import and promise as the Troyer Gallery's remarkable "Signal Signal," which features recent works by Colby Caldwell, Jason Gubbiotti and James Huckenpahler.
Informed by history, inspired by personal visions and derived from the digital world, the abstract photographs, paintings and prints by these artists are visually alluring, intellectually challenging and technically intriguing. One can't ask for much more. Even the title is apt, for the exhibition can be considered a signal in almost every sense of the word.
But the strongest reference is clearly to telecommunication, to TV signals bouncing off satellites, digital pulses zipping through phone lines and glowing computer screens. And the building block used by all three artists to create their diverse yet harmonious works is the pixel, that minute picture element that has radically altered the way we live and the way we see.
The pixel as common denominator isn't surprising, given the artists' ages. Caldwell, at 34, is the oldest, followed by the 31-year-old Huckenpahler and Gubbiotti, who is 24. All three are graduates of the Corcoran Gallery School of Art. More important, they are children of the telecommunications revolution and their art reflects that heritage.
Huckenpahler makes the most overt use of modern technology in his strange, affecting images based on tailors' patterns. He creates his works by computer and transfers them to paper using an Iris printer. His prints, all in shades of pink against an off-white background, resemble garments or swatches of cloth but also living human skin. They are densely textured, full of whorls and ridges and valleys, like a magnified image of a fingerprint, a microchip or a topographic map of Mars.
The computer-generated images were inspired by templates Huckenpahler found in trade magazines that belonged to his great-great-grandfather, who was a Washington tailor. But the skinlike texture and the way he positions the images on the paper give them a sculptural monumentality that belies their modest size. The patterns are expansive, filling the space by implying the figure or some other representational shape.
In Caldwell's newest work, he uses digital technology to stretch photography's boundaries. "Coming straight at, coming straight towards, 1961/1999," for instance, was originally a Super 8 film taken by his grandfather while on a hunting trip in Montana. Caldwell transferred the film to videocassette, then photographed the television screen while the hunt was on. Then he scanned that image into a computer and manipulated it.
These fourth-generation images of the hunt bear little direct resemblance to the scenes captured by the movie camera. They are reductions, as if the sporting life had been boiled down inside the television set until all that was left were these grainy pixels that still manage to convey the essence of the color, the motion, the ritual and the dangers of hunting. Or each viewer can reconstitute them according to what images the patterns and colors evoke for himself.
Of the three artists, Gubbiotti, who paints in oils, would seem least beholden to technology. And his works, such as "Bad Calculus," which is painted on wood panel, look, feel and smell more organic than the others. But the groove is very much the same. Gubbiotti builds up surfaces and then tears them down or erodes them, revealing glimpses of the underlying layers of paint.
The results far surpass his previous efforts, which were heavily influenced by his time as studio assistant to Robin Rose, the Washington-based wizard of abstract painting in encaustic. Gubbiotti's recent paintings are only vaguely reminiscent of Rose's now; their surfaces and imagery have evolved into something unique and potent.
Gubbiotti's works also appear to be built on pixels. Within the layers of oil paint is often a hand-painted grid, that formalist precursor of the digital age, its mesh as fine as a window screen. His images, by turns eroded and distantly representative or repetitive and reverberating like the images on some dusty old oscilloscope that can simultaneously monitor a person's miles per hour and vital signs, seem to constantly shift. It's as if pixels are capable of only fleeting alliances.
That sense of media in motion is strongest in Gubbiotti and Caldwell's works, but is also a central component in Huckenpahler's prints. It comes straight from the electronic world: television, VCRs, CD players, computers, video games. Images, sounds and information are constantly being broken down into digitized bits and bytes, then electronically transmitted and reconstituted in a amazingly close approximation of their original form, but often for different purposes.
These three artists take that process and reverse it, turning the mass phenomenon back into a singular event that transcends time and place. If one of Huckenpahler's images had been found in King Tut's tomb, for example, it would have looked right at home.
Their works share other things. Almost all the pieces in the show are highly textured. But the textures are internal, rather than on the surface. The surfaces are relatively smooth and semi-reflective. The obvious analogy is to television or computer screens.
But the pieces aren't particularly tactile. The images pull you in, but your hand isn't drawn to them. That, too, may be TV-generation conditioning. Don't touch the screen. Don't sit too close or you'll go blind.
The light in Gubbiotti's paintings, Caldwell's photos and Huckenpahler's prints isn't blinding, but it is quite similar. It seems to be emanating from the image, projecting into the room. Turn off the lights in the gallery and the images probably glow. That's a long way from depicting the fall of light in a given space, as the Old Masters did.
And that's what makes this show so exciting. These are new tools, born of our times, being employed by young, gifted, insightful artists to probe the past, the present and the future of art in meaningful ways. That's an extraordinary development and well worth watching.
Colby Caldwell, Jason Gubbiotti, James Huckenpahler, at Troyer Gallery, 1710 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-328-7189, through Feb. 26.
CAPTION: Three works at the Troyer Gallery: From left, "Observation Machine 1999" by Jason Gubbiotti, "EK's Cape 1999" by James Huckenpahler and "Untitled No. 51 1998" by Colby Caldwell.