Frank Lepkowski grapples with the effects of living in a digital world
By Patrick Dunn
Photography by Darrel Ellis
Scrolling through the endless entertainment of the internet can feel like a pleasantly passive pastime, but Frank Lepkowski wants people to remember that it takes a certain mental toll.“When you consume a lot of that stuff, it can be upsetting or enraging or funny,” says the Oak Park-based artist, 29, whose online content intake ranges from memes to world news. “It’s such a strange mix of emotions where you’re always coming back to the social network because your brain wants new stimuli, but it can be taxing.”
Most of Lepkowski’s artistic output has been devoted to exploring that dilemma: He uses digital media to explore the virtual world and how it affects us. In “Afterimage,” his solo exhibition that recently closed at Playground Detroit, a gallery near Eastern Market, he explored the concept of the images left behind in our brains at the end of a day. (In a Pew Research Center survey from earlier this year, 31% of U.S. adults reported going online “almost constantly,” up from 21% in 2015.) His brightly colored, often highly abstracted work takes the form of digital paintings, projected animations that shift and change in response to viewers’ movements, and even some embroidered textiles (also designed on a computer, he notes.)
“Afterimage” came about after Playground Detroit selected Lepkowski for its inaugural 20/20 Emerging Artists Fellowship program, which offered $2,000 and an exhibition to 10 up-and-coming artists who, according to the gallery, “demonstrate artistic potential through creative risk-taking.” Playground Detroit co-founder Paulina Petkoski says “Afterimage” attendees responded to the show — Lepkowski’s biggest yet — with a “sense of wonder,” adding that his approach is a welcome change of pace. “The integration of digital artwork and work that you can experience in person is something that we haven’t been able to dive into a lot as a gallery so far,” she says. “Artists working in a digital or a new-media way is something we want to support.”
Lepkowski says the concept for “Afterimage” coalesced when he created his 2018 piece “Sleep,” a collage-like work representing the images he’d seen online in a single day. Viewers may pick out two buildings, a human face, an Instagram user’s profile picture, and other visual elements in the piece — as well as the words I just want to forget about my problems and sleep. “It’s all about spending a really long time with something that would normally only take up your attention for a second or two,” Lepkowski says. “I’m just trying to slow things down and freeze something in time by drawing it. And once it’s there, then it’s something that I feel like I can come back to later in time. It’s something that gets cemented in my mind in some way.”
Lepkowski’s fascination with technology started early. He grew up in Royal Oak and began drawing comic-book and book covers around age 4. But as he discovered early games and animations on the internet, he quickly left physical media behind for digital illustration. He started with the rudimentary drawing program Kid Pix and graduated to Adobe Illustrator when his dad got him a pirated copy of the software. “When you have a digital program that you can make images with, you just get so much faster at it than pen and paper,” he says.
He went on to major in graphic design at Oakland University, and began pursuing art professionally after he got his first job post-graduation. “Working a day job made me realize that I’d never be fully satisfied by a professional design role, that I’d always need something else didn’t operate in the realm of practicality or utility,” he says.
Lepkowksi has no interest in using a computer to replicate the brushstrokes of a traditional painting, or to achieve the illusion of photorealism. His style has a roughness to it; you can see each individual line he created on his digital canvas. He says that’s important to him because he likes art that acts as a “time capsule” of the artist. “You look at a Jackson Pollock painting and you can picture the myth of this guy standing over it and dripping paint on the canvas,” he says. “That does something for you. You capture the essence of that person.”
Lepkowski also keeps extremely busy outside of his prolific artistic output. He works a day job as a user experience designer for video game menus (which he says makes him “think about how people use technology, just in a different way”). He’s also been designing his own drawing app, Paint.js, which he’s used to create many pieces (although most he’s shown publicly have been created in Adobe Illustrator) and may eventually release commercially. Most importantly, though, he began teaching web design at his alma mater, Oakland University, in 2019. “Teaching is the most rewarding professional thing I have ever done,” he says. “I would love to just have teaching be my full-time thing. I feel like it’s a two-way street of inspiration.”
Although Lepkowski’s art has so often grappled with the weight of the information he absorbs online, the next stage of his work may have a very different focus: logging off. He says he’s been increasingly drawn to painting landscapes he’s photographed while driving around Michigan with his girlfriend and friends during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I’m actively trying to seek out things that … are kind of an escape,” he says. “I’m trying to leave all the negative stuff behind, or at least I don’t feel like I want to make work about it right now. I’m seeking out less of the edgy or upsetting things.