From Paint to Pixels
(Pc Answers 1996)
Mark Millmore R.E. examines the impact of computers on fine artists
A year or so ago I was invited to an exhibition of computer art and went along expecting to see something new and interesting. Unfortunately it consisted of numerous fractul generated patterns which, from an artist’s point of view, can only be described as fruit and veg without the meat. I inadvertently upset a few people by describing the show as gorgeous wrapping paper framed and presented with clinical precision.
The problem with a lot of computer art is that it has yet to transcend it’s adolescent astonishment with it’s own very impressive technology. Until it does it will continue to refer only to itself – a parochial oddity of interest only to computer enthusiasts. Not enough fine artists have yet seriously explored the medium. It has an engine under the bonnet, petrol in the tank lots of knobs and switches but only a few drivers with vision.
The fine artist learns the rules and then bends them sometimes breaking all the laws and re-inventing them. The process involves years of experimentation searching for the unexpected – the Eldorado of a new idea. Paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt or any accomplished artist reveal forms in relation to character. They inspire, in the viewer, an emotional as well as an intellectual response. In reality they are a combination of canvas, pigment and various oils, nothing more. However, as we all know a work of art is more than the sum of it’s total parts. A Picasso painting also contains the spirit of the man himself and is not merely a collection of clever special effects. The great artists show us new ways of seeing and then these insights are incorporated into our culture. Nearly all commercial graphic art owes a debt to the fine artist. Commercial artists are always constrained by dead lines and do not have time to experiment, so they are obliged to use the inventions of the fine artist.
Oil paint and water colour have their own unique qualities which facilitate an idea. This is also true of the computer and the fact that it is largely unexplored territory should make it a stimulating challenge for any fine artist who can over come the first technical hurdles. But in my research I have found a resistance to new technology by the fine art establishment and many fine artists seem to have an unreasonable fear of science in general. Which is a pity because nowadays the hardware and software has become very powerful and affordable. It is cheaper for an artist to set him/her self up with a Pentium multimedia system, a flatbed scanner, printer and a mass of software than to purchase the equipment needed to make etchings.
Despite the opposition to the future there are a few fine artists taking an interest in the potential of computers. Richard Hamalton uses his Quantel Paint Box and Macintosh to make huge compositions. He was the creator of ‘Just What is it Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ which is considered to be the first true work of Pop art (you youngsters who can’t remember the 1960’s may recall the BBC QED program which celebrated his work a few years ago) Hamalton is probably the most interesting and enthusiastic fine artist working in the medium. He makes two meter ‘life size’ cibachrome prints of his computer generated images, some of which are transferred onto canvas. He then combines these compositions with the rich qualities of oil paint. He has been at the cutting edge of new technology all his working life. I recently asked him if he had experienced any resistance from the fine art establishment and he said “It took many years for the screen prints of artists like myself and David Hockny to be accepted as bona fide works of art.” Today his work is held in many major public collections around the world. His latest works have been on show in an exhibition entitled ‘Seven Rooms’ in the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art.
As the older generation of artists move on to that great studio in the sky attitudes to new technology will change. Recently the BSI (British Standard Institute), in collaboration with groups such as the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers have, after many years of argument, included in its categories of prints “A.8. New Technology Processes – . these involve the use of computers, computer screens, computer printers, laser printers, fax machines and the like, in the creation of the matrix or the edition”
It was also encouraging to see the 21st International Biennial, at Ljubljana in Slovenia include some computer prints in the exhibition which were given equal status with etchings, lithographs and other original prints. ArCade, the UK’s first open international exhibition of Electronic Art included original, limited-edition, prints, which have involved the use of computers to generate and manipulate the imagery.
Artist William Latham is making tentative steps in using the intrinsic qualities of the computer itself . His MUTATOR programme was developed with mathematician Stephen Todd and uses genetic data to create 3D animated forms which change and evolve.
There has also been a proliferation of art sites on the Internet, mostly showing reproductions of paintings, and sculptures. True to form the fine art establishment have managed to misconstrue this medium also. In a recent interview on the Big Byte (Radio 5 Live) art critic, Brian Sewell said “What you are doing when you give access to a misleading image is cheating the wider public, you are deceiving them, you are giving an impression of something that is grossly inaccurate. This is a lie. If you want to lie then do disseminate your Rembrandt on the Internet. If you want to tell the truth, then get them to go and look at the picture.” But it seems to me that Mr Sewell has completely missed the point. Is a reproduction of a painting less valid because it’s viewed on the net than when reproduced in a book? The Internet, like books, is primarily a literary medium and not yet powerful enough to act as an effective canvas for visual creation. Nevertheless, It is an excellent means for artists to transmit information about their works. It is also possible to cut out exorbitant gallery commissions by selling the originals direct to the public. Maybe this is what really worries the ‘Art Mafia’.
At the moment the computer is mostly used as a substitute painting device but as the technology evolves and becomes more powerful new possibilities will become apparent. Computer images are created with light and have the intense colours of stained glass. Of course this luminescent quality is lost when printed on paper. One approach could be to use lots of very large monitors. In this way it would be possible to create a moving interactive cathedral of light. Images that are not constrained by the traditional confines of the picture plane, which change with the seasons and the viewer walks into. When flat screen technology has been fully developed it may be possible to have art on your walls which you dial up to suit your mood. Artists of the future could be creating whole environments which you buy on a CD in much the same way you buy music. You could actually experience the beautiful emptiness of the desert, the savage jungle or the eye of a hurricane all within your living room. How about inviting your friends around to your inner city flat for a dinner party but the view out of the window is some landscape from the mind of Damon Hurst.
There are times in history when a new technology galvanises artists into activity – classical Greek sculptors discovering form in stone, the invention of the mathematics of perspective in Renaissance Italy, the movies around the turn of the century, television after the war and now computers in the 1990’s.