Digital Watch

Weston exhibit erases doubts over digital art

Jul 10, 2012 at 12:46 am
click to enlarge Kimberly Burleigh's "Double Surface #1"
Kimberly Burleigh's "Double Surface #1"


bit of dialogue from James Duesing’s animated short End of Code struck me after viewing the rest of the Built in the Digital World exhibit at the Weston Art Gallery.

“The world is a bea-u-ti-ful place,” cyborg rabbit Mr. Aerien tells shape-shifter Mr. Ham, a fellow computer hacker.

“How would you know? You sit in front of a monitor all day!” Ham retorts.

“And everything I see is beautiful,” Aerien responds dreamily.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially when beholding something on a screen. There’s a tendency to automatically worship, or at least like, anything on Facebook, YouTube or Instagram.

Digital World presents Duesing and three other artists whose work originates on a monitor via 3-D imaging and other programs. Should this art be viewed as something less because of its origins? I say no. This exhibit shows that in skilled hands guided by an imaginative mind, a computer isn’t a tool for “cheating,” but another means for creating. I’d like to believe that if the always-curious Leonardo da Vinci were alive today, he’d make his masterpieces with the help of a Mac.

That’s the approach taken by Kimberly Burleigh, who makes models of ripples and waves on her computer, then paints each image from scratch. None of her displayed works is a print. 

“I’m interested in how art and technology interface with each other, but I’m always about art, art history and painting,” the University of Cincinnati DAAP professor told a Gallery Talk audience.

Like Leonardo and Monet, she is fascinated with water and how it refracts light. In particular, she’s interested in what lies beneath the surface, such as the patterns dancing on the bottom of a swimming pool. Using a 3-D modeling program, Burleigh creates a fluid surface, casts light on it, and then suspends the laws of physics to explore what happens when invisible objects repeatedly strike the liquid.  

Burleigh’s intent is to convey beautiful patterns with “an undertow of the sinister,” such as the toxicity of a pool or paint itself. Waves resemble skeletons, insects and spider webs against “poisonous color choices” of brown, deep blue, gray and black. Some oil paintings carry imposing titles that refer to paint pigments, such as “Well (Titanium Dioxide).”

Burleigh’s watercolors are reminiscent of the Impressionists, and she sees herself as a link between art’s past and future. For those unsure about art built in the digital world, Burleigh’s work is a welcome bridge.

DAAP professor McCrystle Wood also pays homage to art history, and she contrasts the beautiful with the toxic. But all her garden-based art comes from the computer.

In a helpful printout from the May 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, Wood explains how, via 3-D modeling, she turns ordinary shapes into flowers that spring female and male body parts and morph into mythological figures.

Her themes include growth, decay, death, rebirth and women’s wiles. “Our planet is a garden, and we are the gardeners,” Wood says. “A lot of my work has trash in it. The Earth is in a little bit of chaos right now.”

In Wood’s latest series, Taquinerie (Teasing), pretty but imperfect petals of orange and white, inspired by centuries-old botanical paintings, bloom against the modern software program’s grids and dots.

“Why can’t we show the guts of it?” Wood says about the frayed flower. But she could just as well be referring to the art’s digital origins. (Wood’s early work was about geometry, symmetry and structure.) The series is a study of old vs. new and what we choose to reveal.

Wood’s big, archival digital prints are captivating. But, unlike the case with most other art, a closer look could disappoint. Stand a few inches away, and surfaces appear a little too smooth. Colors suddenly feel unnatural and harsh, as if they popped out of an Excel chart. Teasing is a perfect title for the collection.

The cold, flat line between what’s virtual and real is more apparent in Derrick Woodham’s DAAP in ActiveWorlds installation. Woodham, retired from UC, introduced the interactive sculpture park at the school in 1996. While it’s a fine online tool for students and artists worldwide to test and share models, it feels like a Sims game and not a substitute for, say, Pyramid Hill. I prefer Woodham’s realized works in the Weston’s upper gallery.

“Fields,” a foot-high, 36-by-21-foot sculpture of blue, magenta, green, orange and yellow aluminum tubing, resembles a pile of pick-up sticks, except for the clean, precise pattern of parallelograms. This installment is the work’s fourth different arrangement, and, thanks to computer software, “it can evolve further,” Woodham points out.

The 9-foot-wide wall sculptures “Moiré Fan” and “Moiré Pentagon” are each made of six layers of painted pine slats rotated a set number of degrees. The fan was first installed in the digital DAAP park. With their clean lines and shadows, the white sculptures look like something from Ikea, except you’d never be able to assemble them so precisely yourself.

Of course art came first for Woodham, and the computer second. But now, he says, he’s achieved “the ideal — using a computer to create sculpture.” Even better, he half-jokes, real sculpture deteriorates, but in the digital world, screen resolutions keep improving.

Duesing, an Emmy-winner who taught at UC and now is at Carnegie Mellon, also has been able to refine his art with technology. Examples of his earlier, hand-drawn animation are on display in addition to End of Code, which uses motion capture.

While I loved the seamless flow of scenery and characters, I was more drawn to End of Code’s story about competing camps trying to control traffic lights and instead creating chaos.

“The mundane is the most important part of the code, and you left it out,” Mr. Petunia tells Aerien and Ham.

As successful as Duesing has been thanks to computer software, I think he’s trying to remind us that there’s another world beyond the monitor. It’s good to see that these four artists received the message.

BUILT IN THE DIGITAL WORLD is on view through Aug. 31 at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery at the Aronoff Center.