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Image Consciousness



Published February 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Fooling the eye is a time-honored tradition in art, but the digital age has taken visual trickery to a new, and sometimes suspect, level. You willingly pretend to believe, say, a trompe l'oeil scene; you accept that "op-art" makes you see things that aren't really there. Computer-generated images, however, boggle the mind with their chilling accuracy -- or trippy distortion. And only the geek behind the Photoshop knows what's "real."

Burlington artist Will Mentor turns this technique on its ear, using the computer to transform one painting into, well, another painting -- a "mutation," as he calls it. To him a digital manipulation is just another tool. But he's not one to let the computer do all the work. By returning to physical canvas and brush, he keeps his hand in the art.

This interaction of man and machine is analogous to Mentor's interest in "the intersection of biology and technology." In fact, it could be said that all his work is about analogy and intersections.

St. Michael's College brought Mentor, 47, on last fall as a painting instructor, filling a tenure-track position vacated by the retiring Lance Richbourg. The hiring committee was no doubt impressed by Mentor's past: a successful solo career with dozens of exhibits in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and six years of teaching experience at Washington University and the University of Iowa. But just as important, perhaps, is the future Mentor can help shape in the St. Mike's art department.

"A lot of artists are using the computer in one way or another now, and it seems to hold a lot of promise when it's used the way Will uses it," says SMC art prof Gregg Blasdel. "It sounds exciting to me. The Xerox is about the extent of my own technological manipulation of images, but I'm interested in seeing where this will go."

Blasdel, a tenured professor, began at St. Mike's part-time in 1982, and since then has taught nearly every art course in the curriculum. His current personal work is focused on printmaking. But he's pleased about more than just Mentor's advanced computer skills: "Will is incredibly energetic and is interested in painting playing a larger role in the department," Blasdel says. "Now it's possible for a student to take three painting courses; that's a pretty substantial load. And I think the students really like his style."

It's easy to see why. Mentor is gregarious, friendly and utterly without pretension. And he welcomes "natural" conversations about art. "In my classes I completely invite normal speech," he says. "If it looks like Fred Flintstone's car, say it looks like Fred Flintstone's car."

During an interview at his spacious Sloane Hall studio in Fort Ethan Allen, several students stop by, one of them desperate to get into an already-full painting class. Mentor seems genuinely sorry about having to turn her down. "Try it next semester," he encourages.

Born near Springfield, Massachu-setts, Mentor found his way to art while still in high school. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, but while still in school he paid his initial visit to Iowa -- for a meditation course at Maharishi International University. He would later make the state his home for 14 years.

But first, Mentor entered the New York art scene with a bang, with works that combined figurative and geometric elements along with surrealist references. Of his generation of post-abstract-expressionist painters, Mentor suggests, "Instead of thinking about our work as wild grass or a well-kept lawn, I think we thought of our work as Astro-Turf."

The critics were generally more effusive. In 1985 one reviewer wrote: "Clearly, Mentor is gaining the sort of instant success that rockets a few artists each season out of the realm of their contemporaries and into the apersonal category of 'phenomenon.'"

Mentor maintained an apartment in the taller pasture of New York City, and a prominent position in its art scene, for about a dozen years after he moved to the Midwest. But the "spectacle of order" he found in Iowa influenced him even more than the city's grid. "I realized that I was in a landscape that was a meeting place between technology and biology," he says. The too-neat rows of corn were "so ordered that nature started to disappear."

That visual phenomenon inspired "Model Farm," executed in 2004. The large-scale geometric work derives its name from a Thoreau quote and its inspiration from the orderly rows of crops -- and his own sizable garden -- that Mentor saw from the windows of his Iowa studio. But you won't find hidden soybeans in this colorful grid; the work is entirely referential to agribusiness and the bar codes on its products. Even urbanites might recognize, for instance, the John Deere green and yellow.

His latest series of paintings is evolving from "Model Farm." There's not much to see at his studio right now -- the newest works are in an exhibit at the Mario Diacono Gallery in Boston. But of course all the images are catalogued on Mentor's computer, and one canvas-in-progress leaning against a studio wall helps him explain his process.

Mentor manipulates the image of his painting digitally on his Macintosh laptop, turning the straight lines into curvy swoops. He calls these distortions "depicted gestures," and sees the mutations as analogous to genetics. When he's satisfied with the new image, he digitally projects it onto a canvas and then begins the process of penciling in outlines, taping and, finally, applying layer after layer of paint. Even with the help of an assistant, the work is nearly as laborious and time-consuming as art was in Michaelangelo's day.

Stepping back and forth within his own creations is consistent with his art-history lineage, according to Mentor. "I was partly interested in the fact that abstraction was about 80 years old or so and, rather than the Frank Stella notion of abstraction of 'what you see is what you get,' I wanted to insert content into the abstraction. Art could be looked at as a visual analogy."

Mentor warms up the cool academic art-speak with obvious affection for his former Midwestern locale and equal enthusiasm for his new one in Vermont. And then there's his eco-politics. If that subtext of his paintings is not immediately apparent to a casual viewer, it is no less vehement.

"Pollock talked about 'new paintings for new times,'" Mentor says. "I would amend that to say 'new consciousness for new times.'" He's referring to the "huge shift" that computers have brought to the art world, but the remark fits his concern about what technology -- genetic engineering and rampant chemical treatment -- has done to agriculture.

Mentor's ardent belief in organic farming is one of several interests that help him "fit" in Vermont. Another is the surprising revelation that he's a caller for contra dances; he's already discovered that community here. The opportunity to come back East was welcome for personal reasons, too: Mentor's partner teaches at MIT, and the couple's toddler daughter lives with her in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Iowa is nice, but Burlington's an easier commute.

As for his burgeoning animation work with a broadcast designer in Los Angeles, well, that can be done anywhere -- it exists in cyberspace. But it's got Mentor thinking about a new convolution of paintings, inspired by his 3D geometric animations, which themselves grew out of a painting... "We are so far from the virgin prairie and into the heart of Archer Daniels Midland," he muses. "What is the nature of a contemporary image? It's a dubious affair."