Introduction to Rodney Chang, Computer Artist


Introduction for the catalog for a solo exhibition
at the Shanghai Art Museum, P.R.China

By Larry Lovett, MA.Ed


Computer generated images first came to my attention in the 70's. Science fiction films such as Star Trek had special effects done through computer graphics. These films and others like them generated an overwhelming curiosity in me which led to an investigation behind the scenes in Hollywood. I discovered that in the early 80's David Coleman was working as a computer artist at Robert Abel and Associates and through a mutual friend a guided tour by Coleman and Vice-President Bill Kovacs was arranged. They enthusiastically showed me equipment and images that were totally amazing. I saw pictures by highly talented artists done on multi-million dollar equipment that went beyond anything I had ever seen in the visual arts arena.

Although advances in technology have brought the price down, a capable system still costs more than a new car. Nonetheless, in 1984 I took the plunge and bought a Time Arts/Lumena workstation. It has become my consant companion and most versatile tool. With it I divide my time between my own professional work and teaching its operation to others. Two years ago Rodney Chang and I assembled the first computer art group show in Hawaii. We mounted our work at the Royal Culture Arts Gallery in Waikiki along with local artist Neal Izumi and James Dowlen, a renown California computer artist.

Rodney Chang has established himself as the Picasso of computer art in Hawaii. Nationally and internationally he is among a select group of pioneers in art. The range and complexity of his imagery reminds me of the work of space comptuer artist David Em. Chang's versatility is matched only by the sheer volume of his work. He has been honored with articles about his work, and accepted into museum exhibitions both locally and abroad. He has published psychological art research, owns and directs a gallery, collects other artists' work and founded the Hawaii Computer Art Society. Chang in 1987 had a solo exhibition of "computer oil paintings' at the Nishi Noho Gallery in New York City, with an opening reception highlighted by discussion on computer art and pottery between the artist and actress Brooke Shields. The "Noho Series' consists of 6'x4' oil on canvases painted by hand but first designed on the computer. These works reverse the process by making the traditional art medium of oil paints simulate the look of his original computer images. As the hidden potentials of this new artistic medium become visible through the work of artists like Rodney Chang, we realize that computer art is destined to be a major art form.

Art history reveals that new styles of art evolve along with new technologies. Oil painting was a new technique less than 500 years ago. And according to Dorothy Atkins, Ph.D., "Throughout much of the history of art, art and technology have been kindred souls. There was Leonardo, the Futurists and more recently the computer artists".

"During the last 10 years there has been an upsurge in the blending of art and technology; computer generated and assisted art is on the cutting edge of innovation in the arts of the 80's. The look of art had already been affected because of our television viewing, but with the onset of home computers the effect has increased. New art media are always suspect and one hears the same statements that were voiced when other new media were introduced, 'art will be destroyed' and in the case of computers, 'we will all become robots'. All these statements forget that to create art one needs the eye of an artist and that th many years of more traditional art training that the artist brings to this new medium maintains the connection between the past and the present in art.

"It is true that the artist has to learn to use a new medium and yes, all media can dictate what an art looks like and what the medium can be used for, but all this is mediated as the artist gains control of the medium. Increased awareness of the computer's potential as an art medium has spawned an enormous diversity of artistic expression using computer graphics systems. This exhibition explores some of this diversity and surveys the best work being done currently." (Dorothy Atkins, Ph.D., Art from the Computer national juried exhibition, California, 1988, of which Chang was a participant)

The modern digital computer is less than 50 years old, and computer art is directly dependent on the development of digital tools and technology. In 1946 the introduction of the ENIAC computer ushered in the era of large-scale electron vacuum tube computers. Gordon Teal perfected a junction transistor made of silicon in 1954, and in 1959 Texas Instruments marketed the first integrated circuit or "chip". In 1962 the same corporation began to mass produce chips. The speed of these new chips is essentail to the development of smaller, faster and cheaper computers which later entered the market. In 1971 Intel introduced the 4004, the first microprocessor and in 1974 the Intel 8080, which offered still greater speed. In 1975 MOD Technology rolled out the 6502 with its even faster 8-bit chip. With these landmark chips the personal computer became a reality. In 1981 Hewlett-Packard could offer the advanced 32-bit superchip microprocessor, more powerful than the central processing units of earlier mainframe computers. These discoveries and inventions along with federally sponsored research developed the hardware and software needed for real time animation for use in military flight simulation. Wtih these improvement in imaging technology , free-hand art drawn with an electronic pen on a digitizing tablet became available. In 1985 Commodore introduced the Amiga 1000 personal computer with Electronic Arts Deluxe Paint software, finally offering professional quality graphic power at a price affordable to free-lance artists.

The short history of this emerging field of automated graphics is best summarized with a list of its applications: Flight simulation, special effects photography for Hollywood movies and 3-D logos for television, imaging of satellite and space probe data and other fields of scientific research, automobile industry product design, architectural and engineering drafting, pre-press image processing, medical and dental imaging, cartography, desk top publishing, computer animation and games and now computer art.

Low cost PC/AT class computers with off-the-shelf add-ons offer the resolution and color capability of high priced commercial workstations. Innovators like programmer John Dunn have pioneered powerful and sophisticated graphic software which far surpass the ordinary paintbox programs of computers geared for business applications, such as the IBM PC. Many art schools now teach computer graphics, some like Calfornia Institute of Arts have a Masters of Fine Arts degree program in computer graphics. The age of computer art is upon us.

The fine art establishment is aware of this new medium. The traditionalists are acting unimpressed and even somewhat defensive. Art administrators are avoiding the subject. Commercial artists view it as a financial blessing. The art dealers are wondering how to sell it. The experimental and contemporary artists are becoming inquisitive. But the most adventurous ones are presently at work in this medium and are featured in a rapidly expanding list of articles and books intended for the mass market. Let me remind all concerned that artists who are willing to work with the inherent risks are making the most important statements in this new medium and tehreby expanding the parameters of artistic expression.

Dr. Rodney Chang is one such artist. He has several advanced degrees in art, has previously published a book on art and has curated many local group exhibitions. In 1987 Ramsay Galleries of Honolulu installed a twenty year retrospective of his paintings, sculpture and computer art. He is, in short, a serious and seasoned artist, well grounded in both theory and practice.

Chang created his first computer picture in 1985 on my Time Arts/Lumena workstation at Digital Art Associates, a commercial graphics company. He now owns several computer graphics systems including the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and IBM PS/2 on which he runs a variety of graphics and paint packages.

Chang's next exhibition will take place in the city of Shanghai, where the curator of the Shanghai State Art Museum, Professor Fang Zen Xian, has invited him to mount a major solo exhibition of computer art. Professor Fang has commented that Chang will be the first artist to exhibit comptuer art in the People's Republic of China. He mentions that "Dr. Chang is a leader in the movement to popularize a method of creating original paintings that simulate machine-generated images... The artist is known internationally as the Disco Doc for the discotheque-'art environment' in his dental office. Such versatility is also evidenced by his ten college degrees, including the Masters of Arts in painting and psychology, a Doctor of Dental Surgery and a Doctor of Philosophy in art psychology. These educational achievements and aesthetic experimentations have provided Dr. Chang with a solid foundation for his never ceasing research into the creation of new forms of art."

This American artist's China exhibition includes visual simulations of other art media such as oils, printmaking, charcoals, pastels, watercolor and sculpture, all created on computers. The amazing variety of wrok represented took less than three years to complete. In traditional media this would represent the output of a lifetime. In these painterly images he explores the dynamics and range of uncharted waters. Sailing out far from the safe and familiar Chang discovers distant continents of artistic imagination rendered with the blazing electronic prism of the computer. The almost infinite range of colors is inspired by the bright Hawaiian hues indigenous to his cultural and natural environment. Recently represented in a national exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (New York), his computer work was described in the New York Times as " colored all-over abstractions, a Cibachrome that looks like petit point embroidery."

In his own words, Dr. Chang describes the creative process on digital equipment. "Like a dedicated researcher, I seek out all the hidden possibilities inherent in this new and promising medium. My approach is experimental and process oriented in order to sustain an ever expanding visual vocabulary of computer grahics effects. Broadness of results thereby becomes the signifier of my personal 'style'. The goal is to develop an expression of the self using intelligent electronic light. I consider it a gift of God to be born at the right time and place as an artist and thereby be given the opportunity to develop in this high tech art form."

It is exciting to be an artist strapped to a machine. One has to continue to remain abreast with the rapid evolution and development of the latest state-of-the-art offerings. The artist must invent ways to interpret and integrate new graphic technology into his seasoned works. With the eye of experience the accomplished computer artist blends new technology with attained standards to elevate his personal artistic expression. The long term computer artist chronicles the history of computer graphics technology through change in his work.

Imagine what the initial public reaction must have been when this collection of works was first displayed in China! Only after this major exhibition and Chang's computer graphics workshops with the Chinese Artists Association and the University of Shanghai art college did that nation's artists become exposed to the present art revolution as a cultural manifestation of high technology. Continuation as a disciple of the new art includes plans to exhibits his works in Seoul, Paris and Moscow by the completion of the 80's.

One can only guess what Chang will be up to next in the interface between the fine arts and the computer. But already, taken together, this body of works for the China museum represents one artist's striking success in taking present day computer graphics to new heights by adapting it to his life's work of creating innovative fine art.



Larry Lovett

April 1988

Honolulu, Hawaii



Larry Lovett, MA.Ed., Columbia University, New York, New York, is a lecturer at Honolulu Community College where he teaches computer art and graphics. He is also artist-in-residence at the Experimental Graphics Lab at the University of Hawaii-Manoa where he works with K.W. Bridges, Ph.D.