Frank Lepkowski Solo Exhibition “Afterimage” Opens on May 7th at The Riverside

Frank Lepkowski Solo Exhibition “Afterimage” Opens on May 7th at The Riverside

Afterimage is Frank Lepkowski’s debut solo exhibition, opening to the public on May 7th at 8711 Grand River. An “afterimage” is the phenomena of seeing a ghost image after being exposed to bright or bold stimuli. In this series of work, Lepkowski explores the concept of an afterimage while thinking about our relationship with online media as well as emulating the phenomena of unfinished thoughts and half-memories colliding together in the mind.

When our minds are at rest after everything we’ve seen, read or heard in a day, what is left over?

His digital paintings and large-scale interactive work pull from an archive of screenshots from social media, along with photos captured on his phone. In response, he has created a series of “afterimages” to represent each month of the last year. This show will be made up of a collection of physical works and large-scale interactive projections. 

The exhibition will be on view by appointment with limited viewing hours at 8711 Grand River through the end of May 2021.

Frank Lepkowski is a digital artist that explores the role of modern technology in society, both in his subject matter and his artistic process. Intertwining digital media tools and analog techniques, he creates maximalist, multi-layered compositions that include embroidery in his paintings and installations that reflect the noise and stimuli of the digital age. He creates interactive digital work, custom software and digital paintings, all of which incorporate human touch that is transmitted through digital devices to navigate the tension between the natural world and technology.

Lepkowski has a BA from Oakland University, and has been in exhibitions in Detroit, MI and Columbus, OH as well as in international group shows. His work has been featured in Complex Media, LVL3 Gallery, Acclaim and Oyster Magazine. He is currently a lecturer in Oakland University’s department of Art and Art History. He is a recipient of the PLAYGROUND DETROIT 20/20 Emerging Artists Fellowship 2020.

When did you know you were an artist?

Art has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was little I would always multitask when watching movies or TV. I would create staple-bound comics using printer paper that would often emulate what I was seeing on the screen.   

My Dad nurtured a lot of my creativity at a young age. He got me a pirated copy of the Adobe Suite in the early 2000s, and I began experimenting with Photoshop and Flash. This was the “Flash cartoon” era of the web where sites like Newgrounds were popular, along with custom website builders like Geocities and Angelfire. I was influenced by a lot of the creative communities of the early web. The internet was so different back then, so customizable. I remember adding custom themes to MySpace, downloading different WinAmp skins, and being really inspired by all of this stuff at a young age.

If my Dad shaped my creativity, then my Mom shaped my worldview. She moved here from Nicaragua in the 80s, and lived through the 1972 earthquake and social revolution there. I was raised speaking Spanish and English at home. That idea of speaking two languages translated really easily to coding, especially scripting languages like HTML/CSS. I feel like there’s something congruent there that made it easier for me to latch on to coding languages when I was younger. 

I look at what I do now as very similar to what I did as a 12-year-old making weird Flash animations and Forum banners. I create work that reacts to the media I consume every day. I’m interested in re-drawing the experiences that I catalogue digitally; whether it’s a landscape I captured a year ago or a batch of screenshots collected from the same browsing session online.

What concept or theme and medium are you most interested in currently?

The main concept behind my upcoming exhibition, Afterimage is the primary focus of my on-going body of work. The idea comes from the kind of visual phenomena that happens after looking at particularly bright or bold stimuli. A common example is an inverted, hyper-saturated American flag image you stare at, then you see the “actual” American flag as a ghost image after you look away.

I’m interested in the idea of a mental afterimage that comes from the massive amount of information we consume on a daily basis via the internet.

Aesthetically, I’m seeking to emulate the sensation of the mind being overloaded with information. I’m combining a lot of disparate images sourced from social media to simulate a sort of mental afterimage that results from scrolling through a social media feed. I’m trying to visualize the jumbled mess of half-finished thoughts that linger throughout the day.

The internet is ever-changing and ever-moving. It’s like a river in that it’s in a state of constant flow and will never repeat itself. That massive amount of information being communicated is inconceivable to us as humans, so this motion, this noise, is really what I’m trying to reflect in my work. 

What is it about working digitally that is of most interest to you?

For me, working digitally is all about the speed of iteration. It’s so easy to copy/paste, A/B test, undo/redo. I feel like I can achieve a flow state with the computer that I’d never be able to achieve IRL, so that speed and ease of use is what’s vital to my digital painting process.

One thing that doesn’t attract me to the digital space is polish or perfection. I’m more interested in mistakes or imperfection, rudimentary stuff over hi-fi aesthetics. I want to show “the hand in the machine” in my work and preserve human gesture at every step.

How does the process begin, and how long do your large canvases or digital paintings (on average) take to create from concept to execution? 

Most of my Afterimage works start as a lo-fi collage made up from different images captured on my phone. With landscapes, sometimes I’ll use many frames of a video as the basis for one painting. Other times, I’ll combine a bunch of disparate images collected from the same day online. A lot of times, these images come from my feed and are algorithmically sorted “for me.” So I tend to look at the body of work as a running self-portrait.

After I create a collage, I’ll start drawing over the image in Illustrator using simple round brush strokes. I use a refined color palette based on the original 256 “web-safe” colors and make every stroke a gradient between two colors. This is what creates that “multi-layered” effect because the gradient allows you to see the overlapping of each stroke.

After I’m done with a digital painting, I’ll print on 8.5 x 11” paper and try living with it on my wall until I can determine if it’s worth making or not. Not every digital painting becomes a physical work. At times it can take months before I can “figure out” creating something IRL. A lot of it comes down to figuring out the “right” scale and presence the physical object should have. 

What’s the main differences between your 2D/3D work to you?

I think there’s merit to both mediums. Screen-based work has an inherent vibrancy because it’s produced by light. There’s something you cannot replicate in the physical world in screen-based works and vice versa. 

Some of my digital paintings stay digital, some become physical objects. I think each medium has works that were “meant” for it.

The digital realm allows me to create works that are somewhere between an animation and an interactive object. I’ve been creating web-based works that allow viewers to change the composition by touching and dragging the work on their phone or computer.

This work was the predecessor to the sensor-based works I’m showing in Afterimage.

What inspires you?

The speed at which our lives are changing due to technology is something that both inspires me and makes me anxious. I look at my work as trying to slow down, catalogue and reflect these changes that are happening every day. I go through periods of trying to immerse myself in online media to better understand it alternated with periods where I abstain from it entirely.

Has the concept(s) or theme that your work revolves around evolved over time?

Though my work happens in the digital space, I get a lot of inspiration from the natural world. I’ve realized that landscape has been a throughline in my work since I started this digital painting format in 2017, and even before that when I was more focused on physical painting.

Screen Window #2 and Screen Window #1, from Risk Culture, Ponyride, 2017

For a while, I was focused on virality and trying to understand what makes a viral image or video. This led me to collect a lot of images of natural disasters that spread online from 2016-2018. Focusing on virality made me realize how cyclical online media can be and how short it makes our collective memory. I wanted to freeze these works in time by making them into physical works that wouldn’t dissolve into the digital ether. 

Bystander, Iron-on transfer on canvas, 45 x 66 inches, 2019

The other constant in my work is the archive. All of my reference imagery is made up of cell phone photos I’ve taken or things I’ve screenshot online. This stuff all gets catalogued in Dropbox and sometimes sits there for years before I find it again and use it to create a work. The passage of time is a necessary step in the process.

Do you have a favorite technique?  

I’ve started looking at canvas more like a textile than a surface for paint. It has its history in painting, but as I’m making these works I’ve started to relate to them much more like clothing, upholstery, and furniture. The textiles that you live with every day. I began using embroidery because my iron-on pieces started to feel very flat. I wanted a way to add texture and relief to the work without adding paint. I pull details out of the work that feel important or feel like they need to be in the foreground. 

I have a Brother SE625 computerized embroidery machine with a 4 x 4 inch stitch area. So I tile the embroidered areas if the desired image is bigger than that. The embroidery takes a long time, sometimes 45 minutes per thread color, which I have to swap out manually. So a 4 x 4 inch square could end up taking 4 hours if its densely stitched or has a lot of different colors.

My favorite part about embroidery is its vibrancy. Thread reflects light much more dynamically than a printed surface. The finished embroidery shines differently depending on which angle you’re viewing it at.

What about your creative process have you found to be the most successful for you?

I started making paintings where I would mock up a lot of stuff on the computer and then cut stencils out of mylar and airbrush them onto canvas. But after a while, painting felt less like a creative act and more like a fabrication method, because it was all planned out beforehand.

I realized the idea of “hand” was very important to me, but that it didn’t matter whether the human gesture was being captured on the computer or IRL in a brushstroke. So now, I predominantly work on the computer with a Wacom tablet to draw, but I make machines fabricate the work for me. It’s also important that I run the machines myself (like my printer, my embroidery machine) and don’t outsource it. I feel like this preserves my relationship with the work. 

There’s a constant bouncing back and forth in my process. Often the source imagery will originate online, but I’ll redraw the image by hand. Then, I’ll print the image on canvas, but I’ll have to sew or iron things on by hand or maybe add a layer of paint on top. It’s important to me to work in a digital-analog loop, and that human touch is brought in at every step.

What inspired the concept behind the show you are installing?  

I’ve been working with this concept of an Afterimage for a while, but what cemented the show was a set of rules that I’ve made for myself. I created a body of work for the show around the concept of creating an Afterimage for each month from the past year. I looked through my archive of photos and screenshots and selected the ones that I felt best told the story of each month. The last year has taken a toll on a lot of us, but I feel like this process helped me make peace with it. 

What else are you working on or looking forward to in the near future?

I’ve been building a painting app that allows me to take my digital painting process to my phone. I’m excited to continue building that and adding custom functionality that accelerates certain aspects of my process. One component of the app currently is a baked-in “randomness” that applies to the color of each stroke. 

Building software is an enjoyable deviation from image-making at times. The concrete nature of “does it work or not” makes progress much more obvious and satisfying. I’m looking forward to going deep on this project and continuing to build out functionality.

Does the city have any influence on your work or subject matter/style/approach? If so, please explain. 

Every artist that I’ve met in Detroit has had an impact on my work in some way. Every studio visit produces insights and shapes the direction of my work. 

Aesthetically, the landscape of Detroit is something I’ll reference in my work. I use a lot of cell phone photos taken through car windows as reference images. Most recently, I used this kind of image to produce an interactive work meant to convey the feeling of driving at dusk and seeing the sky change from sunset to darkness.

jul 2020 (sunrise / sunset), Custom interactive software, Xbox Kinect, Projection, 2021

Watch our interview and studio visit with Frank Lepkowski.



Friday, May 7th, 7-10PM

PUBLIC VIEWING HOURS (By Appointment) through May 22nd


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