by Loren Means

Steve Aubrey is a San Jose, CA, computer artist who creates unique abstract images in stereoscopic 3D. His art works are laminated with a lens which allows the viewer to see swirling and changing 3D effects without glasses or viewers. This technique is called Lenticular. "There are other people working creatively with stereoscopic images," says Aubrey, "but they are working in representational approaches, and they are mostly creative amateurs."

Aubrey is a professional 3D image maker. He is currently featured in ten juried group shows, including an eye-opening presentation at MooBoo gallery in Oakland, CA, called "Altered Realities", featuring experiments in the photographic medium by 28 artists, curated by the film painter Salongo Lee. Aubrey had a one-man show at Art-Tech, in San Jose, and early next year will have another one-man show at the Pacific Grove Art Center in Pacific Grove, CA.

Before turning to the computer, Aubrey had won virtually every award available for juried stereo photography. Aubrey also makes his living making commercial lenticular 3D for such corporate clients as Burger King. When you walk by a picture of french fries and they metamorphose into onion rings, that’s the magic of Aubrey Imaging.

Possibly the most unique aspect of Aubrey’s fine art works are the experience they provide for the viewer. When you walk up to an Aubrey work, the image you see is determined by the angle at which you are viewing the picture. When you walk back and forth in front of the picture, the image changes, not only in terms of the shapes you see but even in terms of the color the shapes possess. This is a result of the lenticular process, a mass of tiny lenses that change perspective depending on the viewer’s position. The perceptual experience is enhanced by the picture’s topological qualities, which are created in the computer. The effect is of an environment in which the viewer’s perceptual consciousness seems to enter the picture and move within it, behind the shapes that appear to be in front, exploring the shapes that appear to be in the back. This is illusory, but it is a very powerful illusion.

An essential component of the experience of viewing Aubrey’s work is the element of motion. The experience is incomplete with the kinetic element of motion, but the work itself does not move, it is the viewer who moves. Consequently the viewer controls the experience, and can vary that experience at will, which differentiates the Aubrey experience from that of film, kinetic sculpture, or still photography. It is this quality of changing shape and color through motion with Aubrey intends to expand upon in his upcoming work.

I asked Aubrey how his images differ from holograms. "The lenticular medium predates holography and is usually easier to view. Holography depends on an interference pattern on a high-resolution medium, which is illuminated by laser or specular light. Lenticular 3D images can be viewed in any light, and I have the creative flexibility of printing my work on archival photographic paper. Like holograms, though, I can have color shifts in my pieces. They can be iridescent." After his images are printed on Ilfochrome photographic paper, Aubrey laminates them in his studio, covering them with a lenticular screen and registering the printed information lines with the rows of tiny lenses. The results are astonishing.

Although Aubrey’s images are realized in the medium of photographic paper, he majored in painting and design at Kent State University and counts as his major influences three painters, all of whom produced "biomorphic" works: the Chilean Matta, the Frenchman Yves Tanguy, and the Armenian-American Arshile Gorky. "They were all trying to achieve a non-objective, allegorical, subconscious reaction. Or, vice-versa, that’s where they got it from," Aubrey speculated.

"I wish Gorky had lived another ten years," Aubrey told me. "I would have liked to see what he would have done in the Fifties, when Abstract-Expressionism really started to gather up some power. After the death of Gorky and the general exhaustion of Surrealism, the Abstract Expressionists charged in and made the creative gesture itself the star attraction." Aubrey is referring to the rise of what Harold Rosenberg called "Action Painting." In Rosenberg’s view, the finished painting was to be looked at as something of a record of the dance that the artist performed in creating it, rather than as an esthetic object in itself.

Steve Aubrey does not dance when he creates his pieces. He sits at a MacIntosh computer with two monitors, and creates images using PhotoShop 4. Aubrey does not "program" the computer in the sense of writing code; rather he draws and shapes the imagery using the mouse and the control buttons provided with the software. He saves these rather rudimentary designs, which he calls "candidates", and displays them on the screen aligned with each other in reduced form.

"In the creation of the 2-D master, I select a number of possible candidates and then let them interact with each other. The interactions are impossible to predict. When you put two images together into layers in PhotoShop, there are several different ways the layers can interact: by difference, by sum, by lighter, by darker. You get a lot of permutations, and each is unique. At the beginning, I am an open-minded observer. I’m thrown into a whole universe of possibilities. I don’t exercise too much control at that point, because every time I exercise a lot of control, I’m throwing away possibilities. It’s as though my brain goes into a passive alpha state," he says.

When he finds a shape configuration that excites him, Aubrey begins to manipulate the colors, sailing through the myriad shades and gradations available in the contemporary digital environment. When he has settled on a color scheme for the work, Aubrey looks at the piece from a topographical standpoint. He brings the image into one of several 3D programs. There he maps the image in terms of contour, surface texture, and lighting. The resultant image is output on a high-resolution inkjet printer, and the most satisfying images are sent to the photo lab for professional printing.

Aubrey calls the approach that he uses "controlled chance". The emphasis here is on "controlled’. While Aubrey could never conceive of the final imagery in his works before he produces them, he knows exactly what kind of images he is looking for. He has developed a highly-defined personal style which is instantly recognizable, which he calls "Biomorphic 3D." The computer is a partner in creation, but it is a junior partner. Aubrey uses chance operations to achieve goals that he has set, and he achieves them with richness and complexity because of the computer’s power. "The power of the computer allows great spontaneity," Aubrey says. "The process is like a pyramid, with Zen acceptance at the wide base of possibilities, narrowing to a pinnacle of highly focused control."

Aubrey speculates that he is drawn to biomorphic imagery because he originally intended to be a medical illustrator, and worked for a while photographing human anatomy in 3D at Stanford University. As Aubrey puts it, "We Abstractionists may flee all manner of direct representation, but still cling to the biomorphic shape, no matter how schematic. The Life Form always resonates for both artist and viewer. Life calls to life."