Like many of us, contemporary sculptor Shawn Smith spends a lot of time surfing the web. Unlike the rest of us, however, he transforms what he seeks—specifically, low-res images of insects, animals, and natural phenomena—into three-dimensional, handmade forms that mimic the look of their digital counterparts. Situating his work in what he calls “the slippery intersection between the digital world and reality,” he explains that he is “interested in how we experience nature through technology. When we see images of nature on TV or on a computer screen, we feel that we are seeing nature, but we are really only seeing patterns of pixelated light.” In turn, when confronted with one of his visually and conceptually confounding sculptures, we may think we are seeing a pixelated digital image, when, in fact, we are seeing a painstakingly crafted object.
Take European Goldfinch (2014), for example, a sculpture of the black, white, and red head of this particular bird species. Made of hundreds of thinly cut and hand-painted strips of balsa and basswood, this disembodied bird head appears to be pixelated. Smith achieves this effect by cleverly staggering the pieces of wood, as if they were voxels—the individual building blocks through which digital images are composed. This tension between his sculptures’ numerous, small parts and the wholeness of their forms is also evident in Primary (2012), in which he crafts a buck’s head out of wooden rods painted in the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. In works like Glitched (2013), he models an image gone awry. As if interrupted in the midst of downloading, this sculpture of a four-legged animal appears morphed and dissipated into a thousand little parts. Through it, Smith pulls back the curtain, reminding us that no matter how convincing, virtual reality is only an illusion.