Computer artist catches an electronic wave


By Kevin Dayton, News Editor

Hawaii Kai/East Oahu Sun Press

August 1988


I'm more into the thinking part than the making part. - Rodney Chang


The question is intriguing for an artist or a craftsman who believes in inspiration:

What if you could visualize an image, and then cut through all of the brush strokes and pigment mixing, the carving, the sculpting, the sanding and polishing - simply bypass most of the process of making the image into a reality?

If you could somehow skip all of that - or delegate it - would you be giving up something precious, or simply be making yourself into a more "efficient" creator?

And what if you could delegate those chores to a machine?

Computers, according to Hawaii Kai resident and computer artist Rodney Chang, will someday be just another layer of mixed media in the fine arts, with at least the stature and acceptance that cameras have today.

But in the meantime, "it's a little more threatening because it's a machine replacing the artist, or taking a big role of the artist's," he said.

For Chang, who has embraced high tech creativity, "it's like being a disciple, a revolutionary. It excites me to try and push a media that has no respect."

Chang will show 101 of his computer creations for eight days on the main floor of the Shanghai State Art Museum in China next month, and already has spent three years working in a fresh field that has sparked both couriosity and controversy.

Some of Chang's problems as an artist have a familiar ring, and he seems to grapple with electronics much as other artists sometimes struggle with their own media.

He says he works with "intelligent paint brushes," which are sometimes not quite intelligent enough. When he discusses the "canned" software that he works on, Chang grumbles that it won't do all that he wants it to, which is forcing him to begin writing his own programs to expand the creative possibilities.

And there is always the problem of resolution of the image, or how clearly it appears on the computer screen and in the final computer-generated work. The pictures that can be produced are far from perfect, despite improvements in the latest generation of personal computers.

But osme of his other difficulties sound peculiar and new. For example, until Chang changed programs recently, he found it frustrating to watch the computer rapidly, automatically substituting colors in one of his works on the screen, only to see the perfect color combination flash by too quickly to catch and save it. But the new program allows him to trap the image he wants in the memory.

Chang argues that there are basically two approaches to computer art. In the first, the artist executes a concept using the computer, which simply acts as a new tool.

"You try to make the computer do what you already do, basically, but then you have more power" through the additional choices of color, or through other options, such as making the computer produce a three-dimensional image that can be "turned" on the screen so that all sides can be seen. The artist is still firmly in control.

Chang has another approach, which he describes as interacting with another artist - the computer.

"It's like catching a wave," he said, adding that he prefers not to sit down at the screen with a specific design in mind. Instead, he lets the designs evolve under his guidance, and the abstract products are given titles such as "Nuclear Stroll," "Spatial Warp," and "Space Web." (This is 1988, before the internet "Web" existed!

Chang supports himeself through his dental practice, and said his fascination with computer art was born out of the odd working environment he created for himself. To offset some of the dread that trips to the dentist instill in the public, Chang set up a discotheque in his waiting room at the height of the disco craze in 1979. He became accustomed to working under colored lights and strobes.

Chang, 42, said he hit upon computers years ago after years of more conventional fine arts studies at three art schools.

"I didn't want to get caught up in painting squares or sanding wood or polishing metal, which is all part of that work ethic, the blue collar part of being a craftsman, and then your idea is supposed to transform it into fine art," he said. That, Chang said, is "a kind of outdated concept."

"I wanted to be more creative, I wanted to flow with the ideas," he said.

In computer design, each program has special features for applications such as sculpture or painting. An electrical pen or a mouse can be used to draw lines, and the images that are produced can be split, multiplied or saved to be called up later as part of another different image or background.

The image is saved on a disk, and can be reproduced onto color slides, a photograph or in color separations. Chang has painted some of his creations in oils, or had other artists paint them for him.

The computer can call up any old image for reworking and revision, and a completed work may evolve into something that has little resemblence to the original design chang first created on the screen.

If the computers did force him to surrender something valuable by eliminating part of the creative process, Chang said that he spent so much time with other media that "I don't miss it.

"I'm a conceptualist, basically, so I'm more into the thinking part than the making part, the doing with your hands part."

Although his gallery in a Kalihi warehouse was a disappointment, Chang said he will try again with a Rodney Chang Gallery at another location, and will show only computer art.

In the meantime, there is the Shanghai exhibit, which also will be shown at Honolulu Hale's (city hall) exhibition space in Feburary of next year, along with the work of three other computer artists.