BEYOND COMPUTER ART

 

Pygoya (Rodney Chang)

November 18, 1999

 

My concerns about the nature of art is the primary antecedent to my use of computers to produce fine arts imagery. For over thirty years (1970-2000) what I made paralleled my theoretical concerns about art. Such concerns are rooted in my time and culture as a working artist. But besides the absorption and reflecting back of popular Western culture and its aesthetic expressions, was a burning desire to make art that was meaningful to myself. I needed a deep conviction to stay involved in art for life, not superficially produce pleasant things to pass the time away. It needed to be cerebral.

In art school I accepted the notion that the work of art is an object in itself, not some illusory visual trick to serve as a window of escape from one's confining physical reality. The painting was an animate thing that existed in its own right. The back, the sides wrapping around the supporting stretchers were as real an entity as the painted surface. I adopted the ideas of Ad Reinhardt,  Donald Judd and the Minimalists. For such a restricted approach to art, formalistic visual attributes and control provide the embodiment of the idealized object. Only attention to meticulous detail could eventually lead to the perfect brushstroke, the intricately balanced, complex, abstract composition. I needed to develop a "sensitivity" to my art materials, feel the  plastic quality of paint, viscerally appreciate a freely applied,  developed control through practice, graphite mark on fibrous paper. Art school taught me the sensuality of aesthetic surfaces and forms.

After a decade of this attention to detail, craft took a back seat to my burning desire to gain a more profound insight into the nature of the aesthetic. I wanted to go beyond my contemporaries' preoccupation with the art making issues of the day. I searched beyond the confines of art history.  The answers for me came from the discipline of psychology which in turn led to  adoption of an alternative reason for being an artist. Through the study of the human psyche art became more than just an isolated object existing within its own contrived reality. I became aware of the art object as a strong stimulus that generated an aesthetic response.  I had made a 180 degree shift from bringing objects into existence to constructing environments endowed with aesthetic stimuli to produce shared multimedia experience. For example, I became my own imaginary model for future figure sculpture as I discoed on the dance floor in my dental clinic reception area.

From here it was easy to encompass any physical material to create art as an enriched part of life. Materiality was just one element in creating the stimulus for predictable aesthetic response from a targeted audience. Such was my frame of mind when I stumbled fortuitously on the personal computer. I recognized from the start that within this black box resided the opportunity to create new visions merely because the working modalities of the tool were totally different from any other previous or existing art medium. To attempt to make "art" required the artist to invent a totally different approach.

The startup digital years were dedicated to simulating other media appearances (such as paint, charcoal, pastels, watercolor and graphite). The challenge back then was to push the limited graphic capabilities of first generation PCs to demonstrate art intent by displaying user sensitivity to other media - electronically. The work was successful if, to the eye, the pixels clusters convincingly appeared to bleed like paint.  Fail to do this left the imagery with a tell-tale, stereotypical, computer graphics   appearance.  Glitz that sparkled somewhat like Opt Art but sterile due to the absence of warmth from a sense of the human touch.  Thus my earlier involvement as painter and sculptor directed my approach on the computer. I "pushed and pulled" pixels  to create visual sensations of traditional art media, thereby seeking validation of such digital imagery as fine art.

Such a digital goal is once removed from creating directly on canvas or in stone. A masterful manipulation of physical material creates successful stand alone objects of art. But now, using similar sensitivity to mimic the traditional media on the computer results in creating instead an illusion of the abstract object. It's not really paint or stone. Imagery is not built to maintain the intrinsic visual quality of the medium,  here the photonic dots. Instead the pixels are manipulated to become referent to some other physical matter.  Art's presence is sensed by pixels becoming a representation of something else other than its physical electronic self.

Luckily today composing pixels to look like real art materials is now only a secondary concern for me. Today's hardware and software make this challenge of yesterday almost effortless. Years ago I had to struggle to make electronic pictures appear as art, to feel like art. Today sophisticated software, like Fractal Painter, ooze the look of paint straight out of the box. No personal software adjustments is necessary to get the medium crossover right.  Mimicry is guaranteed by the default values set by the programmer. Suddenly everybody's works looks more convincingly artistic, but at the expense of a convergence of everybody's work towards a common fine arts solution.  The most overheard question among digital artists at show openings is "What program did you use?" 

Liberated from the chore to work at making convincing aesthetic marks, I can now focus more effort on inventing new visionary worlds. The computer is a powerful tool which can lead me to discover unique imagery impossible with other art media. With my since adopted psychology and philosophy for making art, my intent is to produce new sensations that trigger new experience, even awareness of the self, for the spectator. With the focus of kindling aesthetic experience rather than object making and with intended display in online virtual space (and the image stays at home on the monitor) instead of on real gallery walls, the computer has evolved for me the artist into merely a tool among other media choices, enabling me to visualize for others whatever I can successfully imagine.