Sculpture by Mike Whiting

“It’s rare that a single exhibit can remind you of childhood hours spent playing video games in arcades as well as call to mind works by modern artists in great museums. Pixelated: Sculpture by Mike Whiting does just that. Drawing on the blocky 8-bit aesthetic of vintage video games like “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders,” Whiting’s sculptures evoke a sense of nostalgia for the games of the classic arcade era. At the same time, the clean lines and intentionally limited detail recall iconic minimalist artists like Donald Judd and earlier De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian. Although minimalism and video games may seem like strange bedfellows, Mike Whiting is the rare artist who is able to successfully blend two seemingly unrelated aesthetic ideas in a way that offers new insight into both.

Minimalism and 8-bit graphics are in fact artistic approaches born out of two opposing ideas. Graphics in early video games were intended to express as much detail as possible, but were reduced to simplified forms by technological limitations. Conversely, the minimalist art movement created artworks that had detail purposely removed, simplifying shapes to their essential forms. Although one approach seeks to add detail while the other works to remove it, both ultimately result in strikingly angular, simplified forms, an intersection that Whiting draws upon to create works that are at once familiar and completely surprising.

Set within the lush natural spaces of the Gardens, the bold colors and geometric forms of Whiting’s sculptures are also a witty complement to garden landscapes that are simultaneously natural and artificial. Depicting natural subjects like plants and animals in a style that references the world of technology and artifice, Whiting’s works explore the space between what is natural and what is constructed. His sculptures are appealing whether you feel more at home in a gallery, a garden or an arcade. Pixelated is an exhibition not to be missed.”

By Jen Tobias
Associate Director of Exhibitions, Art & Interpretation; Associate Curator of Art Denver Botanic Gardens
Published for Inside the Gardens Quarterly Members Magazine SPRING 2018


Q & A with Mike Whiting
Sculpture by Mike Whiting

Associate Director of Exhibitions & Art Collections; Associate Curator of Art Jen Tobias sat down with artist Mike Whiting to talk about the inspiration and work behind Pixelated: Sculpture by Mike Whiting. Published for Inside the Gardens Quarterly Members Magazine SPRING 2018

JEN: Tell us a little bit about your creative process, from design to fabrication and everything in between.

MIKE: I mostly start with drawing. I do still draw with pencil and paper once in a while. But the main way I draw now is on the computer using an old program called Microsoft Paint. I’ll blow it up to 300 pixels and I draw the shapes out so I can really see each pixel. Then I do pages and pages of little sketches, depending on what it is. After that, I’ve got to figure out the scale and then I put it into a 3D modeling program called Rhinoceros 3D. I figure out how big the piece is, alter the size, and lay it out and figure out how it goes together. Then I cut it either on a plasma table or a laser table. Every side is like a different part. It’s a bit of a puzzle, you’ve got to figure out how to get it all back together.

There’s a lot of unbending and straightening things to make them want to stay flat. When it’s made, steel is rolled up. It’s curved, so you have to figure out how to work with that. Once I get the piece all tacked together, it’s just a matter of welding outside, grinding it flush again, and then prepping it and painting it.

I use automotive paint. Once it’s dry I go back into it and beat it up a little bit using different things. If I use a lot of different elements, it gives it a more realistic feeling, so I use cinder blocks and sandpaper and rocks and bricks and whatever I can find. I just keep going over the surface until they’re somewhat beat up.

JEN: Who are some artists that have inspired you?

MIKE: Some of the artists that were working with pixels, like the guy that did “Pac-Man” – Toru Iwatani. His drawings are amazing. Susan Kare – she was one of the first artists doing little icons for Mac computers. She did the Happy Mac. There are a lot of people that were doing those kind of things, and that’s where a lot of my ideas came from, these early images, Atari and whatnot.

JEN: How did you become interested in the intersection between modernism and pixel art?

MIKE: I had a weird experience in graduate school while they were in the middle of redoing the MoMA in New York. It was in a temporary space, and when you walked in the first thing there was this painting. It looked like “Pac-Man” – it was this grid with all these little squares. I thought that’s what it was about and I imagined it was painted in the 1980s, but it was Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie [1942-43]. I thought, “This is crazy!” – he was doing this thing that looked like something that came later. Mondrian wasn’t trying to do what video games were doing. Video games were trying to give the most visual information they could but they were very limited. Mondrian was trying to limit himself and it came to the same place. I thought that was interesting. At the time, I was doing these big square canvases made of metal and they weren’t painted at all. I started shaping them and painting them. They weren’t pixels at first, but they started with the square.

JEN: What is your favorite video game and why?

MIKE: I’d have to say it’s still “Pac-Man.” I think I had “Pac-Man” socks and “Pac-Man” t-shirts. As a kid we didn’t have a home video game system, we’d go to the arcade. I remember that you’d have to wait in the line to play. I remember playing with ids looking over your shoulder, seeing how you’re doing . It’s fun. Even to this day, it’s still fun. It has a lot of replay value, it’s a pretty funny game – there’s something about that. Games these days, I don’t quite get into. They involve a lot more time. “Pac-Man,” you’ve got your high score, you’re done. Three lives, that’s it.

JEN: Is nostalgia a factor in the theme of your work?

MIKE: Oh yeah, definitely. These two ideas of ‘60s minimalism and then ’80s video games is definitely looking back at different movements. That’s why I distress the paint too, to give that idea of something that’s been around for a while, to give a hint that these things aren’t necessarily about something new and current. I’m talking about older things.

JEN: What do you want viewers to experience from your sculptures?

MIKE: I hope not sadness. The sculptures are a lot of work – it’s not that I’m not serious; they’re meant to be playful and colorful. That sense of play, I want viewers to experience that.

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