Tom Moody is best known today as commentator on the net art scene and a member of the animated GIF and meme sharing community on dump.fm. However, he is also an accomplished painter and a pioneer in employing consumer-quality paint software applications in a fine art context. Throughout his career, his works have provided mesmerizing DIY optical effects balanced with thoughtful considerations of the impact of technology on image production, particularly in regard to the tradition of painting. This text is an overview of some of his work.
Tom Moody was born in Texas and attended high school in Northern Virginia. He received a BA in English Literature and Studio Art in 1977 from the University of Virginia, did a year in the BFA program at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC from 1977 to 1978, and, following his year at the Corcoran, a summer semester at the School of the Visual Arts in New York City. Following his education, Moody returned to Dallas, Texas as a painter.
A successful early body of work from 1979-1980 is a series of black and white photorealistic portraits of his male high school friends. Photorealism was an established movement by the time Moody made these paintings, but his facility with the technique (they could be installed comfortably with Chuck Close’s Phil from 1977) and his embrace of the banal photographic portrait as his subject matter point to his interest in the movement’s conceptual underpinnings. By laboring to create hyperrealistic photographic effects and employing banal subject matter, the work opens the door to a deeper subject—photography itself; or the use of paint to demonstrate for the viewer what photography, divorced from the photographic print, looks like. This interest in exploring the formal aesthetic of an imaging technology is a strategy that Moody continues in his embrace of the lo-fi digital affects embedded in the Microsoft Paintbrush, Microsoft Paint, and Adobe Photoshop tools.
Another key work from this period is Wired Self Portrait (1978), a black and white photorealistic self-portrait depicting the artist wearing bug-eyed novelty sunglasses and standing in front of a bank of electrical meters. The painting is connected to a piece of “hardware” (a white machine about the size of a home printer or fax machine with rows of black knobs whose function is unclear) via two telephone cords inserted into Moody’s neck. This imagery recalls Frankenstein and A Clockwork Orange and anticipates the cyberpunk movement in literature. Additionally, the depiction of the painter as a cyborg can be thought of as a harbinger of sorts for the direction Moody’s involvement with painting will take.
By the early 1990s, Moody had developed a brand of optically-charged abstract painting, developing his own style and visual vocabulary. Many of the motifs present in his computer-based painting such as concentric circles, serialized rows and columns of illusionistically-rendered spheres he calls “atoms,” and graphic depictions of molecules as networks of nodes and edges are present in his painting from this period.
As Moody developed this brand of abstract painting, he began meeting other painters from Dallas and Houston who were also exploring abstract effects. These painters, including David Szafranski and Jeff Elrod, became grouped into a movement that Art in America covered in a 1995 article by the art historian Frances Colpitt.
What set Moody’s work apart from the other painters in this scene, though, was his approach to the ground of the paintings. Instead of painting on canvas, Moody painted directly on, on the one hand, the packaging of consumer goods such as cereal boxes and promotional-size Advil boxes, and, on the other hand, computer print-outs of his own art criticism, re-arranged to disrupt the narrative or argument of each piece, that he would then tape together into grids. These gestures add an explicit layer of conceptual meaning to Moody’s work. In regard to the works painted onto his own art criticism, the abstract imagery does work on a purely formal level, but this formal level is complicated by the layer of jumbled art criticism upon which it rests. The paintings are, in part, about the making of abstract paintings, including the complicated legacy of Modern art discourse.
It should also be noted that the application of paint in these works is often crude, the method of taping-together the computer print-outs of the writing lacks polish, and the consumer-quality of the paper itself is not sensuous in the way that canvas is, giving the paintings an over-all lo-fi, rough-around-the-edges quality. However, at the same time, the paintings’ embrace of this rawness is both intentional and self-aware. Part of the aesthetic becomes about a sort of garage rock DIY-ness.
Just as the Art in America article was released and the painting scene Moody was involved in began to receive national attention, though, many of its members, including Moody himself, had left or moved elsewhere. In Moody’s case, he moved to New York City, taking a clerical temp job with plenty of downtime.
With all of the downtime he had at this job and his interest in situating himself somewhere in the New York art world, Moody began to think of this office as an art studio. The computer consoles at the office employed out-of-date versions of Microsoft Windows and the paint software application, Microsoft Paintbrush, which, even by the late 1990s, was itself out-of-date. Moody embraced the banality and technological obsolescence that these tools offered, creating pixelated iconography that he would then print-out onto shades of yellow, pink, blue, and white copy paper. He would also, in some pieces, create signal distortions from his console to the office printer, resulting in jagged, pixelated lines along the paper that add a further level of formal pattern. Moody then cut these print-outs up into asymmetrical shapes and re-combined them into a painting using linen tape on the back surface of the paper.
When displayed at a large-scale (as they were in Moody’s solo show at the Derek Eller Gallery in 1998 and the “Post-Hypnotic” exhibition that traveled from the University Galleries at Illinois State University to multiple venues between 1999 and 2001) the patterns of the cut-up paper, punctuated by the simple black icons printed on their surface, resist the humbleness of their materials and give off a mesmerizing optical pop.
Additionally, the slight crinkle of the manipulated copy paper and the patchwork re-assembly of the cut-up pieces create a “quilted” effect on the surface. The reference to a quilt has a particular resonance for Moody. As a metaphor for the way the Internet works, the quilt takes on a different set of characteristics than would the “web,” “network,” “cloud,” or “information superhighway.” For example, the quilt is highly tactile and often associated with femininity. In a 2005 interview with the artist Cory Arcangel on Rhizome, he comments on this, stating:
In the late ’90s I was impressed by the writing of cyberfeminist Sadie Plant, who opened up for me a whole organic, non-analytical way of looking at computation. She traces digital equipment back to one of its earliest uses, as punchcards for looms, and talks of the internet as a distributed collaborative artwork akin to traditionally feminine craft projects. At the time I was drawing and printing hundreds of spheres at work and bringing them home, cutting polygons around them, and then taping the polygons back together in enormous paper quilts.
There is also an embrace of lo-fi digital imaging in these works in which the rasterized pixel is not cleaned-up as one would find in contemporary imaging software, but rather visible as an indexical account of digital processes. The sight of these digital traces in the imagery demands the viewer to consider the fact of the computer in the process of image-creation. What appeals to Moody about this is an embedded acknowledgment that new media technologies are limited; always already on their way out the door. This doesn’t make them useless as a tool for art creation, though. On the contrary, the aesthetic or medium of an obsolete technology can be beautiful precisely because it understands its own inevitable obsolescence. As he writes in his artist statement, technology is “a tool, not magic, and possesses its own tragicomic limitations as well as offering new means of expression and communication.”
What is also interesting to consider about the way Moody made these works is his clandestine re-purposing of the technologies around him at his bland office job. He was making objects, yes, but also re-thinking the place of the traditional painting studio and perhaps even creating a portrait of the Gen X-era, mind-numbing corporate milieu in which he was situated. The curator Richard Klein picked up on these aspects of the work, curating him into the “Ink Jet” exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 2000. As did the painter Michelle Grabner, who showed this work in the “Picturing the Studio” exhibition she co-curated with Annika Marie at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010.
During this period of Moody’s career, he also created a controversial series of portraits on the Microsoft Paintbrush application depicting physically attractive women whose images he found in print magazines. In each of these images, Moody would “perfect” the features of the already idealized women using the digital tools at his disposal, bringing the eyes closer together or further apart, making the nose smaller or bigger, etc. There is something uncomfortable about these images as they were carefully studied, drawn in a piece of software, and digitally “perfected” by a male artist without the female model’s knowledge. One is provided a sort of unfiltered access to the male gaze. Furthermore, the black and white, pixelated images provide an un-realistic, clearly computer-created look to each of the subjects, which makes them not erotic, but unsettling. The women’s bodies are even further abstracted, even more on view as commodity objects than they are in the print magazine. Like the artist Richard Prince before him, though, Moody walks a fine line in these works between purely fetishizing a woman’s body and providing a self-critical portrait of this very act. Perhaps their success as artworks is the inability of the viewer to reach a synthesis or conclusion in regard to which side of that line they exist on.
Through the early 2000s, Moody would continue to work in many different veins, both on and off the computer, in most cases combining processes occurring in both locations. One of his most familiar icons, the molecular model, is an apt metaphor for this approach to artistic process between virtual and physical space. The molecular model is a unified structure composed of at least two discrete parts that is itself part of a larger structure. One work, style, or location of work can be thought of as one node or one atom in a larger network or molecular structure. Taking a cue from the artist Gerhard Richter, the heterogeneity of this larger network is, in part, where the art in Moody’s project occurs. His serial patterns of spheres or atoms, in which the focus is on a multiplicity of atoms in a larger pattern as opposed to a single atom, can be thought of in a similar way.
Within this rhizomatic structure, though, one of the modes of production Moody returned to quite often is the one he developed in his temp office job—creating imagery in a piece of software, printing (and often re-printing…and further re-printing) the image out onto relatively inexpensive consumer-quality printer paper, cutting it up into asymmetrical shapes, and finally re-combining these shapes using linen tape on the back surface into large, optically-charged rectangular paintings.
As this body of work developed, the patterns became more varied and visually maximized, developing into intense compositions with echoes of Russian Constructivism and late Kandinsky. Additionally, the paper he worked with became increasingly white in color—a reference to his own vocational shift from the corporate office to the home office.
At around the time that these works achieved a level of self-consciousness within Moody’s project, though, he began to focus elsewhere, exploring the animated GIF file as a robust Internet-native art media. Moody had long posted digital drawings and paintings onto his blog, but with the GIF he found a more immediately powerful tool to make paintings expressly for the screen.
GIFs are short, looping animations, composed of a relatively small amount of frames and file size. They have been a part of the vernacular visual lexicon of the Internet since the earliest days of the World Wide Web and have recently seen a surge of interest amongst digital natives on platforms like Tumblr and the website dump.fm. Part of the appeal (or, for some, lack thereof) of GIFs is the sense that they are aggressively, endlessly instantaneous and, hence, work well for communicating lowest common denominator images and ideas. However, this very crudeness also makes them particularly robust files to distribute socially, giving them a potential political efficacy that resonates with Walter Benjamin’s understanding of photography and cinema in the early 20th century.
Moody’s embrace of the GIF came through the use of his pioneering art blog (that itself was the subject of a 2007 exhibition, “Blog,” at artMovingProjects in Brooklyn). He found that, as an Internet native media, GIFs, in a way, effectively cut out the middle man to showing paintings online. A photograph of a painting is often a poor substitute for the phenomenological impact of a “real” painting. If one’s painting is going to be viewed far more often in the context of a website or blog (as Moody’s work was) than why not make digital paintings? Furthermore, why not make those digital paintings move, catching the hyper-wandering Internet surfer’s eye? And, finally, why not use a file type associated with viral Internet meme culture, providing the paintings with a dynamic life outside of the artist’s website? With these points in mind, Moody began to experiment with GIFs.
Like his ink jet painting works, the GIFs embrace visual immediacy, pixelation hearkening to a form of technological obsolescence, and a rigorous economy of materials that result in a certain roughness in appearance. One of his most widely-viewed GIFs (and, if not the first, among the first GIFs to be purchased explicitly as a work of art), is OptiDisc (2007). This is an eighteen-frame animation depicting concentric circles that alternate at uneven intervals in color from black to red to blue to white, creating a crude, but hypnotic effect. The work resembles a target, a Modern art favorite famously used by Jasper Johns and Kenneth Noland. However, while Moody’s target possesses the same sort of visual punch that these others painters generated, there is also an embedded commentary about progress, be it technological or artistic, occurring here. Through the use of pixelated imagery, a pointedly small file size, and the uneven temporal intervals of the circles’ alterations in color, OptiDisc is at once both dynamic and pathetic, visceral and antiquated. This tension is what makes it interesting to think of as a work of contemporary art. The critic/curator Paddy Johnson, in her commentary on the work in the “Graphic Interchange File” exhibition text, writes that the GIF’s “emotive qualities last only as long as Moody allows a reverence for technology – in Moody’s world modernism is only an afterimage, its spirit eventually replaced by mechanical functionality.”
Recently, Moody has continued to work with GIFs and also created a series of large glossy prints made with Paintbrush, Paint, and Photoshop. These prints feature complex layers of abstract iconography, much of which is created with a “spray paint” tool, as well as the representation of a crudely-drawn brick wall that functions as both a reference to the Modernist grid and to a wall tagged with graffiti.
This blurring of the polish of Modern art and the rough, democratic aesthetic of street art is a fitting description of Moody’s artistic project in general. One of the acknowledged inspirations for his painting process comes from cyberpunk literature. As Moody describes it, cyberpunk inherited the British New Wave’s dystopian, yet hauntingly beautiful, near-future science-fiction vision, mixed it with a dose of cutting-edge computer science, and threw in the science-fiction novelist Samuel R. Delaney’s “street kid” protagonist, resulting in a scrappy form of visionary pop. One can see Moody, then, as a breed of cyberpunk artist–critically exploring the new, avoiding pretension, and approaching authenticity.