Sunday, September 12, 2010

Software Euphoria by the Numbers

Software Euphoria by the Numbers

By Tom Wachunas

Sometimes I wonder if there were any class-action suits brought against the Palmer Paint Company for false advertising in 1951. That’s the year when the company unleashed on the world its Craft Master paint-by-number kits, their box tops emblazoned with “Every man a Rembrandt!” I can just about imagine some infuriated wannabes wondering why their promised ‘masterpieces’ looked so much like, well,…paint-by-number.

Over the past several years I’ve noticed increasing numbers of art students cranking out the modern equivalent of paint-by-number compositions – pictures obviously generated through various photoshop and digital effects programs. My concern is that maybe too many studio painting curricula are abandoning the disciplines of careful, real-time observation of physical reality and developing muscle-memory for the hands, in favor of the wow factor delivered by quick-fix software. Still, and more important, the issue brings up deeper considerations about the very nature of the creative act, and the efficacy of artists’ decision-making processes as related to the tools at their disposal.

So it’s fascinating to weigh these considerations in light of the eight large portraits by Mark Chepp, currently on view at the Canton Museum of Art, in his exhibit called “Post Digital Figuration.” Yes, the wow factor is most definitely in the room. And yes, Chepp’s no Rembrandt. But who says he has to be? Even though his employment of computer software is intrinsic to the look of his canvases, there is abundant evidence here of intelligent and imaginative choices, a discerning eye, and highly skilled brush work on Chepp’s part.

In his posted artist’s statement, he tells us that his paintings grow out of “a high-to-low-tech trajectory.” Photo images are digitally broken down, progressively transformed into numbered fragments that are assigned colors by the software program, traced by the artist on to the painting surface (with an added rectilinear grid), which he then paints in. What he describes is a formula, to be sure, and he is very clear that his aesthetic is driven by process.

Such audacious interfacing with technology (Chepp calls the computer his “collaborator”) might stir the ire of traditionalists who question the creative integrity of the process, perhaps viewing it as ‘cheating’ of a kind. But the products of Chepp’s employment of technology are, in the end, arresting, indeed euphoric visual experiences. Both the end and the means are conjoined into a symbiotic entity. His electrifying pictures are grounded in relationships between regular geometric structures and wonderfully eccentric patterns, and the sumptuous physicality of the paint he so meticulously applies.

There is in most of the paintings an intriguing tension between industrial slickness of surface and visceral texture. “Emanate” is a wild celebration of controlled impasto abandon – a tactile oil paint tapestry - and “Emerge” is a tour-de-force of shiny technicolor chaos morphing into more defined organic shapes. While there’s no really emotional resonance to these faces in mid-melt, a human hand is nonetheless very much at work.

Ultimately these pieces bring to mind the overarching question of who or what is the actual art-making agent. Is artistic creativity to be evaluated solely on the basis of ‘classical’ working procedures and methods? The history of painting is rich with practices driven by all kinds of formulas, procedures, devices, and ‘tricks’ – all derived from the constant evolution of human ingenuity. Lest we forget, digital technology is a human invention intended to serve and enhance the experience of being human.

And so it is that in viewing Chepp’s creative decision to embrace the marvels of software, we are in effect invited to witness an eminently solid friendship.

Photo: “Dissolve,” (courtesy Canton Museum of Art) acrylic on canvas, by Mark Chepp, on view in his exhibit, “Post Digital Figuration,” through October 31 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton, Ohio. For Museum hours and other info, call (330) 453 – 7666 or visit

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