Pixel Perfect

There’s something magical about seeing a photograph, getting up close to it and discovering that it’s composed of tiny individual photos that reveal themselves as a secret hidden within an innocent artwork. The art of mosaic imagery goes back centuries when the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians used small pieces of tessera-shaped materials including stone, glass, pottery to create a grid of cubes that would eventually lead to a single cohesive image. Having evolved from pebble floor coverings and church interiors, the mosaic has found its finest poetic symbolism in contemporary visual arts in the concept of the pixel—the fundamental building block of a digital photo. After all, every digital photograph when zoomed in to its smallest individual pixels is nothing but a mosaic-like variation of brightness and color values assigned to single pixels.

In one of the earliest known experiments on photo-mosaics, Leon Harmon of Bell Labs created “The Recognition of Faces,” an image of Abraham Lincoln created digitally from a collection of solid gray mosaics to show that the human eye only needs a small amount of detail to recognize a face. That simple insight acquired less than 30 years ago altered the landscape of visual communication and enabled a way of interacting tangibly with digitally printed photography through the concept of continuous-tone printing. Large photographs printed as giant outdoor graphics like billboards essentially created an impression of a photo to trick the human eye into perceiving it as a continuous-tone print instead of the actual dots of pixels per inch manner of which they’re composed.

Alex Guofeng Cao, an exceptional photo-mosaic artist based in New York, worked with Duggal recently to showcase his new mosaic series at Art Basel Miami. On display were his photo-mosaics, referred to as “photo-pop,” which when viewed from afar look like iconic black-and-white photographic portraits of famous figures, but up close reveal an astounding composition of hundreds of thousands of images. Moving to the U.S. from China as a teenager, Cao turned early toward photography and found inspiration in the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, Edward Weston and Chuck Close. He began to challenge the idea of a portrait by composing photos with fragments of different images with their roots in history, antiquity, culture, religion and politics.

Just as an algorithm assigns values to every pixel within a photo image, Cao breaks down every portrait he works on into thousands of pixel forms, eventually replacing them with individual photos. Cao’s approach to creating his mosaics is imbued with deep symbolism. He carefully juxtaposes his famous subjects with an equally popular figure to expose a symbolic relationship between the two. Cao’s portrait of Barack Obama, for instance, is composed entirely of tiny photos of Abraham Lincoln. Some of his other pieces include two portraits of Marilyn Monroe, one composed of photos of John F. Kennedy and the other of the Mona Lisa, a portrait of James Dean built with photos of Elvis Presley and a portrait of a starving child in Sudan created from the smiling photo of Jimmy Carter.

Such juxtapositions shift our focus from the photograph of a single person to the ideologies, stories and inspirations that lie behind the individual’s identity. In Cao’s work, popular figures aren’t merely individuals—their presence is tied deliberately to the stories and inspirations that surround their personal mythologies. When viewing Cao’s works, we bring our own interpretations of the “pixel-sized” figures and project them onto the portrait that confronts us and we refamiliarize ourselves with the individual.

Cao builds fine art from popular photos that have become part of our collective cultural memory. He dives into the photo bank of that public memory to remind us of the influence those images have had on our society. Cao’s black-and-white fine-art pieces have grabbed headlines at Art Basel Miami for several years now. He has gained commercial success and has been called the “must-see” artist of Art Basel.

Cao reveals, “I’m fascinated by icons and celebrity. I have worked with many, from Lindsay Lohan to Tommy Lee Jones; they shared a common musicality that translates internationally.”

Although the idea of photo-mosaic isn’t new, the surprise in Cao’s work is in the discovery of smaller images as one gets closer to the portraits. In most of his installations, there are hanging magnifying glasses to allow the viewer to get truly intimate with his compositions.

On his choice to work specifically in black-and-white, Cao states, “The subtle gradations of tone between deep black and stark white are the generators for all the colors I need to create my world. Everybody sees something different in these images.”

According to one reviewer of Cao’s work, “The artist renders what Barthes formulated as the photograph’s intransigent presence as what-has-been porous to the narratives of history and the process of representation itself. The process of decomposing the original image allows it to re-emerge with a new lease on life; to be resurrected, as it were.”

Creating photo-mosaics from hundreds of thousands of photographs is no easy task. It demands rigorous attention to technical detail—to match the color and tone in a single “photo-pixel” to the corresponding area in the final image. It also requires intricate computation. The art lies in conceptualizing the image and in piecing it all together. At Duggal Visual Solutions, we printed Cao’s large digital compositions on canvas and stretched them onto wood frames, making the image feel more like a painting. Some of his other works were enlarged to sizes as big as nine feet by six feet and mounted to archival Plexiglas. Cao’s sold-out portfolio of photo-mosaic works includes Brad Pitt made up of Angelina Jolie, Princess Diana built of Grace Kelly and Carla Bruni created from images of the former French President, among several others.

Mosaic is a term derived from the Latin Mosaicum, which means “belonging to the muses” or evoking inspiration. To have found inspiration in the unlikely portraits of our popular culture and to stitch them all together into a single image is certainly an inspiring thought for our image-rich cyber-world. It opens up the digital world to a whole new set of exciting possibilities and sets the tone for reinterpreting our entire photo bank.

Adds Cao, “As an artist, I am fortunate to have Hope from Duggal, who worked professionally and tirelessly with me; this seamless collaboration allowed me to create my best art works ever! It has been a pleasure to work with the best in the trade for the past 20 years with Duggal!”

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