The impetus for Rosamond Casey’s latest exhibition, “Tablet and Cloud: Pilgrims in Cyberspace,” was a sight that has become so familiar to us that we often overlook it: the tangle of wires beneath our desks. “The way I usually start is I get fixated on a thing, a material or a form so pervasive in our culture it needs to be unpacked,” says Casey, a local artist who has lived in Charlottesville for more than 30 years.
She began her first painting of the underbelly of workspaces two years ago. As society becomes more and more wireless, she recognized the presence of wires as a moment likely nearing its end and wanted to capture it. For her, the tangle of wires represents “a realm of our imagination, a corner of the mind we don’t want to look at.”
“I painted it with a reverence for what it was and what it might symbolize,” she says. She also thinks of it as analogous to social media. “There’s no map, no system, no sense of a neighborhood,” Casey says. “Just a tangle of chaos.”
From this initial idea she constructed a visual narrative that explores our relationship with technology and its impact on human interaction, conveyed through the expressive hands of her painted figures. In “Madonna and Child,” an infant subtly points one finger toward her mother who is preoccupied with her cell phone while a bear hovers over the child.
In “Tabula Sacra,” one hand threads a wire up through a hole in a table while another hand reaches down to receive it, the table bisecting the potential contact. Casey presents the idea of connection via the wires, while the hands that are close but never touching emphasize the withdrawal of human connection as we become more engaged with our devices. “I drew them with sadness,” Casey says. “There’s an aborted sense of touch.”
The title of the exhibition comes from this idea that we’re moving away from personal computers to a “tablet and cloud” culture as we rely more on virtual storage. The juxtaposition of the two terms intrigues Casey, who says, “‘Tablet’ casts back to something ancient while ‘cloud’ suggests a mysterious future.” Incidentally, the term “the cloud” originated because of graphic representations of it by computer scientists and engineers as they attempted to diagram it for patenting purposes. And while there are physical locations for cloud servers, we tend to think of the cloud as the nebulous thing its name suggests.
“We’re taking a pilgrimage through unseen territory, heretofore unknown,” Casey says. The style of her figures is inspired by art from the Middle Ages, in addition to futuristic influences, as she plays with a distortion of time. “These people are of the past or the future because we’re moving through the present so rapidly there is a less fixed idea of what ‘now’ is.”
The very mutability of this present moment spurred Casey to grapple with the visual changes technology has created in our society and to convey a sense of awe for them. “Phones, computers and our faces in the light of our own devices,” she says.
“It makes me think about something my father said: ‘We’re all chewing through this planet like an apple.’ I have this conviction that in spite of investing everything in this future, it will fail us in a dramatic way. It feels fragile to me,” she says. “The Butterfly Effect” is an example of this fragility as one person jumps from a boat, causing it to rock the three remaining individuals, one of whom drops a cell phone into the water.
The human figures are so haunting and compelling, it is a surprise to learn that in her 40 years as an artist she has never painted figurative work before, only abstract. In fact, she says, her current work is so different from anything she’s done that it will not be recognizable to those familiar with her previous work. “It surprised me just as much, how fascinated I was by faces, illuminated, attentive and yet vacant,” she says. The series not only represents a shift in genre for Casey, but medium as well. “This is the first time I’ve done oil painting in my life,” she says.
Even more surprising are her artistic origins. “What has been the ballast of my art life is calligraphy,” she says. “Every art project has some reference to the alphabet.” In “Tablet and Cloud,” the calligraphic mark can be seen in some of the lines and curves delineated by the seemingly random arrangements of wires. “All these years I’ve been breathing life into that line and seeing where it would take me.”