by Manu SharmaMay 18, 2021
Steven Baltay is a 3D artist with a particularly fascinating practice. His work nimbly tows the line between the beautiful and grotesque, between the familiar and surreal, and between the logical and absurd; at once echoing styles that many who were a party to the early days of YouTube and other relevant platforms may be familiar with, yet bringing something wholly his own to the mix. Refusing to place his work within any singular, narrow classification, the artist mentions that his work clubs together various artistic genres, and these include VFX artistry, not unlike the work of major production houses, ASMR or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which denotes a style of audio-visual experience that is considered highly pleasurable, and even contemporary art with all its dynamism and possibility.
Born in Palo Alto, the artist is a 27-year-old who grew up in California and has attended animation school. However, his creative journey began long before he went to college, with Baltay holding a fascination for Claymation ever since he was a child. “I actually started with clay animation when I was in the third grade. I was obsessed with this show called Knox's Korner, and wanted to make my own animations like that,” Baltay informs STIR. Claymation, as an artistic genre, is well known for its sense of surrealism, and it is easy to imagine the influence it held on a young Baltay. Along with his childhood interest, he was also inspired by the early days of web animation, with platforms such as YouTube offering up visions of strange and surreal worlds created by independent creatives, channelled straight into the receptive minds of budding artists. However, many of these early works were understandably amateurish, and serve as no indication of the level finesse practitioners such as Baltay are able to manifest within their craft these days. This is due in large part to the various sophisticated software that are currently available, with the artist in question shifting routinely between SideFx Houdini, the Octane Render Engine and Adobe After Effects within his workflow. Baltay embraces the challenge as he says, “I try to work as much as I can during the day and then render at night. If I time it right, I can wake up to a brand-new render in the morning, and it's one of the greatest feelings”. Discussing his motivations, the artist once again expresses a measure of reverence for his practice, saying, “It's a privilege that I get to wake up every day and animate; I think that's a big part of what keeps me going”. He continues to inform that he “also has this overwhelming desire to experiment with new ideas. For themes I like to bounce between different ideas, but lately I have been focusing on consumerism and capitalism. I try not to look at it in a critical way, but rather, portray its absurdity. I also love to make things that are extremely satisfying or even gross sometimes. I look at it like the stronger the feeling it creates the stronger the piece of art”.
As an appropriate expression of Baltay’s critique of consumer-driven capitalist excess, much of the artist’s work is texturally rich, to the point that it becomes somewhat visually overwhelming to look at. And yet, there is a certain magnificence to the way all of his elements come together, perhaps itself a product most chiefly of its visual richness. To compound this further, events that take place within his renderings range from the meditative to the grotesque, each one creating a visual spectacle that brims with a hypnotic strangeness, utterly alienating the viewer, and yet, impossible to look away from. The artist is well aware of the effect his work has on its audience, and tells STIR, “I'll work on an animation for weeks and then all of a sudden I'll look at it and realise I can stop staring, and that's when I know it's ready”. To encounter many of Baltay’s pieces together is to enter a world that exists purely to consume itself, usually defying any logical explanations for its surreal processes, and a viewer may realise that they have watched the same clip multiple times, enraptured by its alien appeal, before the trance breaks and they look away.
Uninterested in conventional exhibition avenues, Baltay says, “In school I would take a projector to my group gallery shows and project the animations onto the walls. But after school I stopped pursuing the gallery environment for animation”. Throughout his career as an artist, he has preferred cyberspace as a mode for interfacing with his audience, and in this regard, he has little ill to say about how the coronavirus pandemic has interacted with him on a personal level. He explains, “If I can look at it from a very narrow point of view, quarantine has created some positive changes for me. The demand for digital work has gone up, but more importantly it created space for the digital art collecting market to take hold”. He is of the opinion that a certain paradigm shift is taking place within art markets all over the world, which now see digital artists, who would traditionally have laboured away at their stations, creating work for free in the hopes of finding clients through their private practice, instead directly selling their works to collectors who are willing to pay increasingly large sums of money. The artist is excited by these developments, and eagerly awaits further growth within the art world.
Baltay’s plans for the near and foreseeable future are in line with his sense of optimism as he states to STIR, “I want to spend the next year focusing entirely on my own work. I want to keep evolving my own style and language and see if I can discover some new directions that no one has ever seen before. Hopefully digital art collectors will continue to support digital artists, and enable them to pursue their own visions”. It remains to be seen whether Baltay’s desire for a more equitable art market will be fulfilled in the long run, yet one may hope that it does, as this will allow for fascinatingly unique vision’s such as his to rise to the front.