WHAT I'VE BEEN UP TO
In the nine months since my last Newsletter, I've switched my gallery representation from Gallery House in Palo Alto to Artisans Gallery, 78 E. Blithedale, Mill Valley, CA. I also participated in a show called Texture of the Gesture, two evenings of hand-processed films in Oakland and San Francisco April 23 and 24. This show was curated by Ken Paul Rosenthal, and since I didn't want my films to be projected, Ken used my hand-painted slides to introduce the programs. At some point I may try to do something about treating my painted films as films (say copying them to video), but lately my head is elselwhere.
The most significant event this year in my creative life is the emergence of my son, Daniel Shulman-Means, as a digital artist and as my teacher and mentor in the digital realm. I'm not sure the phrase "the child is father to the man" was meant to be interpreted in quite this way, but my interactions with my son, who just turned 17, have certainly had a major impact on my recent artistic production. How this originally came about is described in my previous Newsletter, which is on my web page, www.slip.net/~means
To pick up the story from that point, Daniel and I showed together in Artisans' "Digital Art 99" show in March. Another participant in that show, Melanie Hofmann, e-mailed Daniel and invited him to participate in a digital show she was putting together for the Alta Bates Medical Center Art Gallery in December. I e-mailed Melanie back to say that Daniel was interested, and could I come too? Melanie replied that she wasn't aware that I was a digital artist. I replied that I wanted to be, so she accepted me on contingency. I spent the whole summer sitting in Daniel's room with our computers hooked together, me interrupting his web work to pester him for instruction and pointers on Photoshop 5, the program we were both using to created our digital works. In some cases I would import images from my painted films into Photoshop and transform them. In other cases I would work directly in Photoshop, using random number generated filters. At one point I fell in love with the Mosaic filter and created several pieces using it. Then at a particularly frustrating juncture, Daniel said "You ought to use levels, Dad," and clicked in a few places. I was able to complete my piece Dark Eyes right then, (see cover), but the following weekend Daniel went on a trip, and I bought two manuals trying to figure out how to replicate what he had shown me. When Daniel returned he said, "I figured that was too complicated for you, Dad."
I was eventually able to come up with enough pieces to qualify for the Alta Bates show, "Hand and Voice", which runs at 2450 Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, CA through January 8. At that point we'll take the pieces to Pacific Grove Art Center, 568 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove, CA for our two-man show titled "Exploring Virtual Worlds." The reception for this show is January 14, and the show runs through February 11.
Earlier in the year, in August, Daniel and I showed together at Period Gallery in Omaha, NE. I had showed there last year, and received Director's Recognition for my painted film piece "Lament". This year juror Larry Bradshaw, Professor of Art at the University of Nebraska, gave Daniel's piece Special Recognition. As Larry put it, "Watched by Daniel Shulman-Means displays a digital work with a field of eyes which is quite awesome."
Sonya Rapoport, a prominent Berkeley conceptual and web artist, send me a very thoughtful e-mail after the opening of the Alta Bates show. "I tried to figure out why I felt your work compelling," she said. "I came to this conclusion: that its first layer is right out in your face...strong colors and all." On reflection, I came to feel that there were three different stylistic approaches represented by the six artists in the show. Philip Martin Chavez wants to be a painter, but he is prevented from this by his physical disability, which makes it literally impossible for him to paint without the use of a computer. So he uses a very unsophisticated computer program called MicroSoft Paint to create his works, which are very intricate but maintain the Greenbergian stricture of flatness. The other participants in the show, Daniel, Melanie, Kit Monroe Pravda and Frances Dose, are all very sophisticated and able Photoshop users who utilize the program to express their visions in the digital medium. Since they are using layers which really exist in the sense that one image is really either on top or under another one, they abandon the problem of illusionary space to work with a kind of literal virtual space which pulls the viewer in like a swamp. (In fact, one of Daniel's pieces is entitled Color Swamp.) I, on the other hand, am a very unsophisticated Photoshop user and I have no vision to pursue other than to get Photoshop to do as much of the creative work as possible, so in the process of exploring Photoshop I tend to lard bright colors and elemental shapes into the top layer, where they almost literally come out at the viewer. What it comes out to is that digital artists are exploring concepts of space for which art criticism has not yet manufactured a vocabulary.
I also guest edited the Ylem Newsletter again this year. This time the topic was Chance Operations in the Visual Arts, but I received so many and such diverse submissions that I will be doing at least three issues over the next year. The first of these issues is available now, so if you'd like a copy, contact me and I'll point you in the right direction. I found in the process of writing the editorial for this issue that my attitude toward art and its place in the universe had changed radically in the past year, and that rather than focusing cynically on the past, I was now looking forward to the future. I no longer feel like a curmudgeon, and I hardly recognize myself. I probably owe this to my experiences with Daniel and Ylem rather than to my experiences in the art world. I'm finding that science-based artists are creating and/or discovering work that is too dazzlingly beautiful for the art world to deal with. I hope to curate a show at Artisans in 2001 to show off some of this new work, as well as demonstrating it in ongoing issues of the Ylem Newsletter. So the future looks bright.
HAND AND VOICE, A DIGITAL ART EXHIBIT AT THE MILLENNIUM
Traditionally, art has expressed the relationship between the artist and the objective world. This relationship might consist of concentration on accuracy of depiction or celebration of the surface qualities of the world on one hand, or the illustration or evocation of ideas about the world on the other hand. This concentration on relating in some way to the outside world is still prominent in art, from the conventional painters who depict bucolic scenes or portraits to the conceptual artists who use the platforms of art to critique society or art itself. Photography has continued the tradition of depicting the objective world, and is also used as a medium for critiquing society.
Another trend emerged in the Twentieth Century which was oriented toward creating works of art which did not depict the objective world. This art is usually referred to as abstract. Most of the early abstract artists were concerned with hard-edged, geometrical forms. Artists like Malevich and Mondrian used right angles and primary colors to achieve an austere expression far simpler than the complexity found in the objective world.
However, after World War II a new form of abstraction emerged which was often soft-edged, and which explored a more intricate color palette. This movement was usually called Abstract Expressionism, and the emphasis in this work was the expression of the artist's self through the use of paint. The paintings were seen as records of the painter's struggle to wrest some statement about the artist from the interaction with the paint materials.
Because paint is a technologically unsophisticated form of expressive tool, the mastery of painting technique can be taught in art schools in a relatively short time. Once the techniques are mastered, artists can confidently practice their approaches to either the depiction or critiquing of the outer world or the expression of the artist's inner world. Similarly, photographic technique can be taught and mastered in a relatively short time.
The emergence of the computer as an artistic tool has opened up new possibilities for artists, and created new problems at the same time. Paint and photography are relatively friendly, in that it is relatively easy to draw a line with paint or take a picture with a camera. The computer is intrinsically unfriendly, in that it must be programmed by someone very knowledgeable in order to perform the simplest task. Artists who wished to use the computer were forced to either learn to be programmers or wait for programmers to create friendly tools for artists. It was the availability of software, rather than hardware, which has led to the development of the computer as a tool for artists.
The software tool preferred by many artists is called Photoshop. This program was originally developed by Adobe Software as a tool for manipulating photographs on a MacIntosh computer, but it has since been ported to the Windows world and grown in features until it can be used as a creative tool without the use of photos. The latest version of Photoshop for Windows is 5.5, but many artists are happy to continue using earlier versions.
The computer can be used to depict the outside world, but only if some interface can be provided between the computer and the world. Anything objective that will be introduced to the computer must be converted into the language the computer can understand, which is the language of mathematics. Drawings can be "scanned" and converted to numbers, or drawn into the computer directly using hardware and software developed for this purpose. Photographs can be scanned, or created directly for the computer with the new digital cameras. This is probably no more artificial than the depicting of the world with paint or the chemicals of the photographic process.
The fact that the computer is essentially numeric in its processing would suggest, however, that it is more intrinsically oriented toward geometric abstraction than towards other types of art. This is turning out to be the case when scientists attempt to solve problems of analyzing chaotic systems using the kind of complex mathematical iterations that only computers can perform. The mathematical calculations are found to entail a visual component which manifests itself as extremely intricate geometrical forms. These visual realizations of complex mathematical formulas are usually called Fractals.
Abstract Expressionism using a computer is more problematical, however. The computer and its programs provide such sophisticated tools that it takes a great deal of time and effort to master them, which tends to retard the wild abandon that the expressionist prefers. But more significant, the computer, through its sophistication, brings in elements which are not available in paint or photography. The computer contains a "random number generator" which can be called upon to simulate creativity on the part of the machine.
The combination of the multiplicity of possibilities offered by the computer's programs and the randomness the computer can bring to bear can make the computer more than a tool, more like a collaborator. The artist has the choice of utilizing, ignoring, or attempting to subjugate this collaborative aspect of the computer. It is possible to look at the collaboration between the artist and the computer as an almost mystical quest into the discovery of alternative universes. It is not mandatory to do this, however.
The six artists represented in this show come from widely diverse backgrounds, and approach digital art in widely diverse ways. They are united in the fact that they all choose to create abstract art using the computer. Some of them use photographs as starting points in their creation, some are interested in the random qualities of the computer, and one is very much oriented toward hard edged geometry as one form of expression. None of them are showing Fractals, at least not at this point.
Melanie Hofmann is the organizer and curator of Hand and Voice. She has a fine arts degree in textiles from California College of Arts and Crafts. She is an accomplished textile artist, creating narratives depicting scenes from her life as well as abstract statements in her large fabric pieces. She started out using digital technology to do the design process for her printed textiles. She uses the scanner extensively in her digital work, scanning in such things as leaves, flowers, crystals, and photographs which are then transformed in Photoshop. Her studio located in Kensington, CA, was named Moonfire by her eight-year-old daughter Emily, who is her joy and inspiration. She has exhibited her work at Artisans Gallery in Mill Valley, CA, Oliver Art Center in Oakland, CA, and has recently won an award of excellence for her digital art from Manhattan Arts International Magazine. Find her on the web at http://www.moonfiredigitalart.com
Kit Monroe Pravda is a pioneer of digital imagery. Her digital images have been featured in SigGraph computer art shows since 1989. Her work was featured in the Digital Masters Art Show included with the disk on Photoshop since 1993. She tends to use scanned photographs in her work, often keeping recognizable images from the objective world in interaction with the abstract elements generated in Photoshop. She got her BA in art from Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and has taught Electronic Art in the Computer Arts Department of San Jose State University. She studied photography with Ernst Haas and Elliott Porter in 1981. Her web page can be accessed at http://www.ylem.org
Frances Dose has a fine arts degree in painting and drawing, but she makes her living in the computer world, doing graphics programming in Silicon Valley. She has studied computer animation and computer programming at the graduate level. She often filters her digital imagery with effects which she programs. Her art has an organic quality, a feeling of the creation of, or discovery of, a new world of plant life. She also works with computer animation and 3-d. As she puts it, "I am attempting to catch a glimpse into the region beyond every day life...by manipulating, distorting and transforming the world I perceive, I strive to portray the tension between interior and exterior worlds."
Philip Martin Chavez calls himself an "Electronic Voice Painter" as opposed to a digital artist. He is disabled as a result of a diving accident at the age of 16, and for many years was unable to create art at all. The computer is literally essential to his ability to create. Philip uses a voice-activated program to create his work, as well as manipulating a track ball on the computer. He creates using a program which is less sophisticated in its capabilities than Photoshop, but which is well suited to his vision, an expression of his Native American and Mexican roots. He is extremely prolific in a variety of styles, all of which reveal his hard-won control over his medium.
Daniel Shulman-Means is a high school student who has been using computers since he was old enough to sit in front of one. His principle activities on the computer have been game playing in teams on the Internet and the creation and maintenance of web sites. He has avoided studying art formally or visiting art galleries. He creates art to populate his art web page, as a part of the overall range of computer activities which are his principle enthusiasm. He tends to start his digital compositions with an image generated by Photoshop, such as the Clouds filter, and work from there, transforming and adding new layers to arrive at a clear, yet haunting, expression of his vision. His web address is http://ozonedesign.com/sin
Loren Means got a composite BA in Cinema and Information Science. He began painting on 8mm film in the Sixties in an attempt to explore film as a fine art, and organized an avant-garde film society called F8 Filmmakers Co-Operative. He spent ten years as a jazz critic and editor of the avant-garde music magazine Ear. He became interested in digital art under the influence of his son Daniel. His first digital works were collaborations with Daniel, and he considers Daniel to be his digital guru and mentor. He is much more interested in chance operations than the other artists in the group, and is looking for a program which will allow him to generate his work with the least amount of his own intervention possible, to explore the worlds of the computer itself. He was profiled in a recent issue of studioNotes Magazine, and is guest editing the Ylem Newsletter. His web page is http://www.slip.net/~means
I first became aware of the work of Adam Fuss in the summer of 1989 at closing time at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. On the stairway with a group of photographs was something so astounding I had to stop, riveted. A large piece of photographic paper had recorded the impressions of two dead rabbits whose entrails had been pulled from them and twined about each other. This was the manifest content of the picture, but what struck me was the incredible colors produced by the interaction of the chemicals in the entrails with the chemicals in the photographic paper. I had never seen anything like the discovery that Adam had made. The picture, which was called Love (1992), haunted me, and I was gratified to discover another version of it at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. It turns out that Fraenkel is one of Adam's major dealers, and I was able to purchase a book that Fraenkel had published in 1996 called Under the Sun which included pictures by Adam, Christopher Bucklow, Susan Derges, and Garry Fabian Miller, all Brits who experiment with photographic processes. Fraenkel also steered me toward the definitive monograph on Adam, published by Arena in Santa Fe in 1997. I found that in addition to producing photograms using such chemical-producing agents as rabbits and liver, Adam also created photograms using the chance-based actions of snakes in water, powder, and plants.
Earlier this year I met Adam at the Fraenkel, and asked him about the technique used to produce some images that were not in either of the books. Adam ratified my supposition that the images were created by the motion and trailings of snails on photographic paper. I told Adam that he was an inspiration to those of us who worked with chance in photo-based media, and he gave me a pat of encouragement.
Last month I noticed that a European Gallery called Xavier Hufkens was showing Adam's work, and I e-mailed them and asked if they had published a monograph I could buy. They responded by e-mailing me eight images from Adam's Details of Love series from 1992. As Eugenia Parry puts it in the Arena monograph: "The artist discovered that this digested food in the intestines taken from the dead rabbits had a shimmering beauty. He grabbed innards like handfuls of carnival beads and laid them on the paper. Each animal's chemistry produced wildly differing colors."
The feeling of anticipation I have for Adam's shows is like in the Sixties when I eagerly awaited the new films by Bergman and Antonioni, and the new records by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Heady stuff.