165 Frank Lepkowski

Born Pontiac, MI, 1992 / BA, Oakland University / Lives in Oak Park, MI

We are a collection of all our experiences,” says digital artist Frank Lepkowski. “Online, an algorithm determines what you’re shown, which influences your worldview and the choices you make. It’s a cycle.” Lepkowski’s artistic practice bridges our web-based and IRL experiences as he crafts physical artifacts through machine-mediated processes.

Lepkowski creates some work that remains device-based or on the web. This seems logical considering his college studies in Internet-based new media, a career in graphic design, and his return to Oakland University as an instructor specializing in user experience (UX), teaching courses in web design and motion graphics.

When he first attempted to bring the visual language of his digital designs out of the machine—in pieces such as The Mountains Don’t Care or Abstraction #26 (Digital Landscape), both from 2016—he airbrushed them onto canvas through Mylar stencils. While this achieved his goal of showing his work unmoored from a device, this 1:1 analog of the monitor display felt too simplistic, like filling out a coloring book. Lepkowski began looking into other means of fabricating his digital visions.

At first, he outsourced his work to a commercial printer, as for Screen Window #1 (2017), in which synthetic suede gives a diffuse feeling to the crisp digital drawing of a cityscape beyond the meshwork. Preferring more control and embracing the philosophy and aesthetic of DIY, he began to use his own machine, printing onto iron-on transfer paper to ferry his images from computer file to canvas. One example is World on Fire (2018), part of a body of work that investigates the virality of online images, particularly natural disasters. 

These methods still lacked the experiential layering Lepkowski generated as he worked his images in the digital space. A visitor can get a visceral feel of these glowing layers and even influence their arrangement in the immersive, interactive work jul 2020 (sunrise / sunset) from 2021. The drive to bring this dimensionality to his tangible paintings led to the acquisition of the Brother SE625, a sewing machine that creates embroidery from computerized designs. 

Now when his artwork emerges into the physical world, the pieces you can see and touch are richly material. The canvas, burlap and stitching that dances over the surface of these textured, textile-informed pieces seem a world away from the slick pixels of commercial design. 

Lepkowski’s 2019 piece Mission Statement is an example of the intensive process he developed. This dense work began with a day of browsing the web and social media condensed into a digital collage — compulsive screenshotting of memes, tarot cards, Instagram and anything that piqued interest later edited down and organized around a central theme. 

From there, using a self-coded digital painting process, Lepkowski drew over the collage, highlighting some elements, obliterating others, and crafting areas of photorealist detail among zones that retained the pixelated degradation inherent in digital media. An embroidered quote from the artist Puppies Puppies spells out what Lepkowski attempts to express in the series of digital collage paintings he calls “afterimages”: that we are “collections of everything that has ever happened to us… and everything that we’ve seen in image or video or even caught a mini-glimpse of.”

Once Lepkowski had a sewing machine, he could create bigger paintings by tiling compositions across multiple canvas panels. This larger surface area allows for deeper engagement with the lines of an abstract work like Untitled (Paint.js #11) from 2020. The expressive marks and color in this piece result from a “conversation” facilitated by the painting app he designed. Lepkowski chooses a color and draws a line. The program then chooses a random color at the line’s end to form a gradient. Lepkowski starts the stroke, and the computer finishes it, influencing what color the artist chooses next. This collaboration is a micro example of the way our choices in the digital realm feed the algorithm to deliver something unanticipated by the user, which in turn leads to choices that go beyond one’s original intent.

Sometimes the ruleset driving an artwork’s creation comes from the materials rather than the machine. Heaven to Earth (2022) is a glowing landscape printed onto burlap. Lepkowski favors this rough-woven cloth because of the tapestry-like, “faux jacquard” results. Using burlap requires measuring the density of the weave, then creating the digital painting pixel-by-pixel so the ink soaks onto threads rather than the gaps between. The handcrafted feel of the burlap “pixel paintings” exemplifies Lepkowski’s project of blending digital tools with analog techniques to create artworks that explore the blurred line between physical life and technology.

Mariwyn Curtin, March 2023

Copyright Essay’d