Show Celebrates ‘Renaissance’ of Computer Art


Both jubilation and disdain greeted the arrival of photography 150 years ago--jubilation at the new medium’s astonishing technical abilities and disdain that the products of a machine could merit status as works of art.

That same, simultaneous chorus of cheers and hisses now accompanies the computer’s entrance into art’s hallowed terrain. Since the mid-1980s, when personal computers opened up a playground of visual opportunities to the non-professional user, computer art has emerged as a promising, albeit beleaguered field.

Few galleries feature computer art alongside work in more traditional media, though nationally-known artists such as Nancy Burson and Esther Parada have enhanced the credibility of the medium through many museum and gallery shows.


Starting tonight with the opening of the city’s first gallery devoted exclusively to computer art, the medium will have a more prominent place in the local landscape. The Verbum Gallery of Digital Art, upstairs at 670 7th Ave., opens with a public reception from 6 to 10 p.m.

In announcing the gallery’s first season, its promoters extend their welcome to “the new renaissance in fine art” brought about by the computer. The pretension of the claim may be merely an example of promotional rhetoric, but it’s bound to trigger the defenses of those who resist the computer’s spreading tentacles of influence.

Michael Gosney, director of the gallery and founder in 1986 of Verbum magazine, a journal of personal computer aesthetics, attributes such hostility to “computer-phobia, the overall resentment people have against the onslaught of computers in every realm of life. Art has always been a sacred area, and, for some people, it’s the last straw for computers to get into art.”

Orange County artist Michael Johnson, whose work is featured in the gallery’s first show, sees the problem in terms of the bottom line.

“Galleries are in business to sell art, and if they have a product that sells, they don’t want to think about changing it,” by introducing something as controversial as computer art.

Also, Johnson conceded, computer art “has a stigma.” Its first products, dating as far back as the 1950s, were technically dazzling geometric designs. Relatively few people are aware of how the medium has evolved.

Gosney’s efforts in the field have intended to help clarify this growth, to mark the distinction between an earlier era of computer graphics and newer computer art.

In 1988, he organized “Imagine,” a traveling exhibition of computer art that was seen locally last year at United States International University. The show revealed a wide range of techniques and concerns among artists using computers, from the obsessively technical to the painterly and poetic.

Gosney’s choice of artworks for the gallery’s inaugural season reflects a similar breadth. Some exploit the digital look, he said, and some don’t.

Johnson’s small, dye transfer prints only discreetly reveal their computer-aided technique. For each image in his series on the myth of Leda and the swan, Johnson combines, via computer, several staged photographs. Overlapping transparent images, water reflections and other features lending to the dreamlike quality of the images are also manipulated with the help of the computer. The finished prints, however, appear to combine photography and painting, and have little resemblance to the digital imagery of the computer screen.

By contrast, Johnson’s large ink-jet prints, approximately 23 inches by 29 inches, make no secret of their electronic heritage. The prints, also from the Leda and the swan series, have a grainy--or in computer language “pixellated”--surface that could only be the product of a machine.

Despite this fact, Johnson calls his works paintings.

“People might complain that there’s no brushwork or surface that shows the artist’s hand, but after there’s enough computer art out there, they’ll get used to looking at it.”

“I’ve just found a tool with which I can express myself with a little more ease than traditional painting materials. I’m making the exact same decisions about line and composition and color. The only thing different is the stroke.”

Gosney, whose own artistic experiments with the computer prompted his immersion in the field, affirms Johnson’s sentiments in his own “first principle of computer art: The computer does not make the art, the artist makes it. The computer is a tool.”

Programs do exist that generate designs, colors and compositions, but Gosney dismisses these as novelties. What interests him is what he calls the “Macintosh aesthetic,” the notion that “the computer should serve you, it should think like you.” The Verbum Gallery, like its sister magazine, whose offices it wraps around, aims to showcase “pioneering applications” of computer art, but Gosney promises not to become blinded by impressive technique.

“We don’t want to just show off the tools, but to show off the content and creativity achieved with these tools. Computers are part of our lifestyle, like it or not. They’re everywhere. What we’re doing is celebrating the creative side of the medium. We’re carrying the flame for a really human touch to all of this.”

CALL FOR PROPOSALS: Sushi’s new visual arts coordinator has issued a call for proposals to San Diego-area artists. Jason Tannen, who was active in artists’ organizations in Cincinnati before coming to San Diego last month, aims to bring to the downtown performance and visual art gallery’s exhibition program “a solid mix of local, regional and national artists and artists’ projects.”

He invites proposals in the visual, media and installation arts, with no restrictions on content or form. Exhibiting artists will receive hon o ra ri ums . San Diego-area artists are encouraged to arrange for a studio visit or appointment. The deadline is November 16.

Call Sushi at 235-8466 for more information or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to SUSHI Visual Arts Program, 852 8th Ave., San Diego, CA 92101 for guidelines and proposal form.

ART DEMONSTRATION: Japanese artist Kazuaki Tanahashi will demonstrate one-stroke calligraphy using a huge handmade brush on Friday, Sept. 21, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the David Zapf Gallery, 2400 Kettner Blvd. A suggested donation of $5 will benefit the California School of Japanese Arts, where the artist teaches.

“When a line is alive,” Tanahashi has written, “you always feel the breaths of the artist as well as the breaths of the brush. . . . Every brush stroke must be decisive, with no going back. It’s just like the things we do in life.” The artist’s demonstration will be preceded by a slide lecture and signing of his latest book, “Brush Mind.”