Saturday, November 18, 2006

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Visionary

About a year ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia.

O. Winston Link (his parents thought it cute to give him the initials “OWL”) was a trained engineer who went into the public relations business during the 1930s. A self-taught photographer, he experimented with light and shadow for his own amusement and also took photos for his PR projects and advertising campaigns.

In the mid-1950s, Link decided to photograph the dying years of the Norfolk and Western Railway in Virginia. At his own expense, and with no intention of exhibiting or selling his work, he devoted almost two full years of his life to setting up elaborate photographs of coal-fired train engines, watering stops, train depots, railway trestles, and other sites along the tracks of the Norfolk and Western. Oddly enough, this photographer supported his hobby by recording the sounds of the railroad and selling the records to train buffs around the country.

Link used his engineer’s training to create what is no less than sculpture of light and dark, of shadow and smoke. He created many of his photographs simply because he saw a challenge in getting them done. For him, photography was as much an intellectual as an aesthetic experience. He sought self-satisfaction and perfection in his work.

It was not until years after he completed his project that his photographs landed in a public exhibition. When a New York gallery put them on display, they elicited sensational reviews. People simply had not seen the kind of photographs that O. Winston Link created – largely because he found unique settings and went to great lengths to get the light and movement exactly right.

In the process of enjoying himself, Link created a new vision for photography, one that has echoes in contemporary works, such as the black-and-white cinematography in George Clooney’s 2005 film, Good Night, and Good Luck.

I was reminded of my trip to the O. Winston Link Museum (which is housed in an old railroad terminal in downtown Roanoke) when I came across a young artist in New York City who is also working in a new medium and expressing himself in pioneering experimentation.

Calling himself Skydin, he just turned 18 years old but already has a bachelor of fine arts degree from New Jersey City University. He has exhibited his work at the Jadite Gallery in New York City and at the VAB Gallery and Courtney Gallery in Jersey City, the Puffin Foundation in Teaneck, and the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey.

Skydin’s medium is computer generated imagery (CGI) – something most of us are familiar with in animated movies like Toy Story and Antz, as well as the epic battle sequences in the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies. A lot of CGI in daily life can be mundane and banal – it is simply the background that shows up on web sites and TV commercials, sort of a visual white noise in too many cases.

Skydin’s ambition is to make CGI into something greater: “I want to change how digital art is viewed,” he says. To him, “it is the new ‘painting.’”

“People have a misconception of CGI or digital art,” Skydin explains, because “they believe it’s inherently commercial. It isn’t, it’s a tool like any other, [but] it’s a non-physical tool.” Continuing to make his point, Skydin argues that “it’s the motive that defines what’s commercial. When I create digitally I’m doing it to sell a concept or image, not a product. A painting can be used to sell Coke,” he says, or it can be appreciated simply for what it is.

Noting that many consumers of art – which includes all of us, whether we realize it or not – have trouble accepting CGI as highbrow as well as middlebrow culture, Skydin offers that “the reason it’s misunderstood is the same reason photography was misunderstood: it’s a new medium, one step less physical than the previous, one step more technological. However, the artist is still the controller.”

Skydin aims to open the eyes of the 21st-century arts audience. “One problem with the viewing of art,” he explains, “is that many tend to equate quality with physical difficulty or physical labor. Even with digital art there is high degree of technical understanding and work that has to be undertaken. But even so, that’s not the sole identifier of strong work; concept and composition are very important and are actually inherently more focused elements in this quasi-physical medium, digital art.”

Something of a prodigy, Skydin got his start early in life. “When I was around 6,” he told me, “I was drawing more than other kids. It was a pretty big part of what I did during the day. But [as far as] realizing I had talent, that came later, when I was 11 or so. My parents were supportive, especially my Dad who taught me my first color rendering techniques with colored pencils.”

He experienced different environments growing up. “I grew up in many, many neighborhoods, [with] no stable memory of home,” he says, which may have influenced the slightly disoriented feel for some of his landscape and architectural renderings. Even his portraits – many of them self-portraits – have a certain dream-like quality, suggesting both alienation and eroticism.

These aspects of Skydin’s work, however, make them fascinating to observe. They are neither static nor mundane. They insist that the viewer think about them. When I first came across Skydin’s work on the Internet, I associated it in my mind with the challenging, photographic self-portraiture of Anthony Goicolea, who populates his group scenes with images of himself. Both Goicolea and Skydin possess ethereal, androgynous personae that leap from the screen (or wall) and become integrated with the immediate environment. Their faces haunt you from the moment you first see them.

Skydin is an exceptionally gifted and ambitious artist. He jokes that, through his art, “I’m going to make everyone think I’m an angel and when I have power I’m going to create an army of giant robot toys and take over the world.” That impishness permeates the gallery of works available for viewing on his web site. Some of the self-portraits, especially, leave you wondering whether this artist is a devil in angel’s garb, or an angel disguised as a devil.

That’s up to you to decide.

The O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia, is open 10 am to 5 pm , Monday through Saturday, 12 pm to 5 pm, Sunday. Entrance fee is $5 for Adults, $4 for Seniors, $3 for Children. Call the Museum at (540) 982-LINK for information or visit the web site at

Skydin’s digital imagery can be seen at Some of Skydin’s works are available for purchase through the Yessy Art Gallery and at

No comments: