Digital Paintings

July 8 - August 30, 2010

Leonard Kahan

Artist Website

About the Exhibit

Creative works stem from all sources, many unexpected and unpredictable. Some are chanced upon; some are the product of pushing into uncharted territories.

My most current phase of art production came about in the transition of my “retirement” years. Ironically, I was interested in acquiring a computer only to help me with manuscripts in music writing while I was still painting. With a “trigger” finger I found writing music painful and slow. Why not the professional music writing program on the computer? Therefore I set up a computer system, got the program, set about learning the operation of the computer, and then it happened – the stuff art is made of. My son installed a graphic painting program and my mind was blown once again. I would now paint in an antiseptic studio.

My energies began flowing with a surge comparable to the computer’s. Pixel dots or not, I was resolved to use the computer painting program in a “painterly” way. I could not compromise the style. I couldn’t make a concession to the style I loved by acquiescing to the computer’s tendency toward hard edge, collage, abstraction, surrealism and such – but would fight it. I was resolved to win the battle with the machine, and in the process give it a heart. So, in the late 90's with Y2K looming before us, I too was determined to iron out the wrinkles on my computer and make it something for which it was never quite intended.

In working with computer art, I have developed an arsenal of techniques on the “photoshop” program to destroy the image and all aspects of color and light and dark. It is in the reconstruction process that I am able to manipulate line, form and color to get deeper into the subject, putting together what I lost, but with a new structure that is more personal and digested; a vision that is hopefully more penetrating and memorable.

That process, over a series of quick flicks of the mouse, can bring one to an artistic breakdown. One is faced with hundreds (if not thousands) of choices in a matter of seconds and minutes. We are not faced with these numbers of choices when we pursue the conventional process of squeezing colors onto the palette, mixing the colors and applying them to paper or canvas. By the very physical process of painting, we have already eliminated many choices and have reduced our decision making to a series of physical conventions, motions, color schemes and techniques we have repeated a thousand times. Now, with the computer, all the choices are thrown in front of us and we have no physical process to filter them out. They sit in front of us and challenge our senses. It is like a person, through an eye operation, given the phenomenon of sight for the first time. It is overwhelming. How to interpret light and shade? What is form? How do we resolve all this light, shade and color into symbols ? – the same symbols the blind can often negotiate comfortably in pure darkness.

Consequently, the computer is creating too many events in front of our eyes. So much is happening, too fast, giving us unlimited choices. Anything can happen in a matter of seconds. Images can be reversed and multiplied. Parts can be moved around; colors can be inverted. Surfaces can be changed instantly. Hues, values and other color qualities can be transformed by a click. Images can be swirled, squeezed and pulled around like putty in the hands of a sculptor. Too much can happen too fast and too easily! Too much can come about without first filtering through the artist’s “handwriting;” years of acceptance and rejection of artistic modes, techniques and ways of seeing.

Like all decision making in life, I finally came down to the series of conventions that worked best for me, all the other choices put aside for another “life.” The very process of moving the mouse and clicking the spot on the screen actually became tactile to me. It slowly began to feel, once again, like a pen in my fingers, a brush in my hand, the bounce of a canvas, and dragging a tool across a textured surface. My eye substituted for my hand. The visual became the tactile. The machine became an extension of my tactile and responsive self. I could feel the bristle brush bouncing on the canvas or I could smell the turpentine. It’s comparable to misspelling a word in touch typing. You can actually feel the wrong letter pulsing through your fingers. The visual has become tactile.

That distasteful fight during the year, though, kept challenging me with the not yet outmoded battle of “man over machine.” I was determined not to be bent by the limitations of machine; to give it a heart. I refused to paint with hard edge, pastiche, collage, flashy or multiple images and circus like techniques. The machine was going to be a brush for me and I was going to continue building my images as I had previously built them with acrylics or oils on paper and canvas.

With that solved, my next problem was to accept what I had done with the computer. Were the textures and surface variations and subtleties what they seemed or were they just a computer trick: an illusion? Thick paint is thick paint and a glaze is truly transparent paint allowing an undercoat to shine through.. None of that is really happening on a computer painting. Is it enough to say that it “looks like the real thing?” Am I only imitating or approximating painting or am I creating works idiomatic only to computer art: that is, the real thing? A disturbing question, to be sure, but also a conflict that I can’t live without in order to create. No answer, but it pushes me along.

The unsettling feeling pushed me into printing paper research. I found paper that had a smooth texture but also absorbed the ink so that the pixels/dots spread or sank in imperceptibly, eliminating the computer “look.” Now I had a “painting” and not miniature dots on paper much like a repro in an art book. Now I had an original “half tone,” one to be contended with like a “painting.”

On the thick, dull, lovely surfaced paper the colors flow, and one speculates if he were looking at a watercolor, acrylic painting or even a silk screen print. Yet the surface qualities and textures have hopefully taken on a life of their own – and are truly the real and indigenous product of a computer. That is the enigma a computer artist must live through. The public asks, “is this a “painting or a “print?” It is both. The pixels are creatively controlled as though they were paint, yet they are “prints” in the technical sense of the word. These pixel paintings are both a painting and a print – at least in the way I have treated the medium. They are works either scanned into the computer as a photograph or drawing and then “ painted,” or they are originally worked directly onto the computer as painting or drawing. Such flexibility; never known before! Textures and surfaces have different qualities, virtually unobtainable in other media. They are intrinsically computer generated. What more justification does one need to call this digital medium fully justified as an art form? Are we afraid to call it “computer art” because it sounds so heartless – or has the illusion of being so easy to render?

Does it seem so easy to “paint” pictures, at least for the unprofessional, that one is naturally suspicious of the computer as a valid art medium? I think that this was society’s attitude to various early print media: the camera, the cinema and other media advanced by the latest technology of the period. Yet each justified their existence and proved that they could stand up with earlier popular techniques and emerge with their own unique qualities and be pronounced a valid “art form.”

My creative output on the computer has carried me through series ranging from such themes as rocks, trains, roadlines and portraits to paintings of Italy, Portugal, India, the Southwest, Florida, Thailand and Laos. . The future promises more series – and a host of technical and conceptual frustrations. All the better, because without strife and discord an artist cannot survive or grow. Beauty is an end result, but only when it is the resolution of conflict – and at that, never quite resolved.