Computer Art Goes From Mechanics to Aesthetics

As a tool for creativity and imagination, the computer's usefulness to artists is growing

WHEN Barbara Nessim, a professional artist in New York City, began working with computers 10 years ago, some of her colleagues called her a ``traitor to art'' and said she was ``too good for gimmicks.'' But after 10 years, many of them have made an about-face: Those who said they'd never touch a computer, Ms. Nessim says, are now saying ``they absolutely can't live without it!''

Nessim's experience is a sign of the computer's growing usefulness to artists as a tool for creativity and imagination. Artists, picking up where the computer graphics engineers leave off, are helping to raise artistic standards and ``legitimize'' the medium in the formal art world.

Nessim is one of 500 artists from 20 countries who submitted their work to this year's SIGGRAPH Art Show, held during the August conference of AMC-SIGGRAPH, one of the world's leading associations of computer graphics researchers. The show reflects an unprecedented level of artistic maturity among the entrants, say show jurors.

``People have gone past tinkering with technology and are using it as a form of expression,'' says show juror Michael Ester, director of the Art History Information Program of the J. Paul Getty Trust. ``People are really exploring very personal themes, cultural issues, even a few political statements.''

A scaled-down, traveling version of the art show is on view at the Computer Museum here through January 1991.

According to Patric Prince, chairwoman of the traveling art show and juror, ``the works submitted were far more inventive in terms of art content. This reflects the number of artists using the technology.'' More artists with personal computers are using the growing number of ``off-the-shelf'' programs or other systems that do not require programming skills, she says.

``There are many more players. You don't have to have a fellowship at Bell Labs to be a computer artist,'' says Oliver Strimpel, executive director of the Computer Museum.

Here at the museum, some computer artists have used three-dimensional modeling programs to create realistic lighting or atmospheric effects, such as Kenneth Snelson's futuristic ``Forest Devils' Moon Night.'' Others have scanned photographs into a computer and then manipulated them or combined them with contrasting images. In ``Ornament Over the Promenade,'' Isaac Victor Kerlow created an abstract landscape scene on a computer, made a slide of it, and projected it onto a large linen surface. He then traced it and used the marks as the basis for a painting.

``I see serious artists using the computer unself-consciously,'' says Thomas Linehan, chairman of the SIGGRAPH '90 Art Show, and art education professor at Texax A&M University. ``The exciting thing is when the technology doesn't get in the way, but extends the meaning of the artist's statement.''

Mr. Linehan is starting to see ``sincere and open requests'' by art museums and galleries to host portions of the SIGGRAPH shows, he says. Interest in computer art is growing among ``the formal art world in Europe, the US, and Japan.''

Barbara Nessim's piece ``Under Wraps'' suggests that ``people like to wrap themselves up in things that are meaningless,'' like designer clothes, she says. ``This is about cutting away those layers.'' A hand-held viewer turns the image into ``stereo art,'' making the scissors and wrapping leap out from the background.

Nessim begins her creations in sketchbooks and then draws them with a mouse on her Macintosh computer, equipped with drawing and paint programs. She then makes hard copies of the pictures with a laser printer and photocopies them onto archival paper, to be hand-colored in with pastels or watercolors.

David Breen of Troy, N.Y., delved into computer art about five years ago. He had no formal art training but was well-schooled in computer graphics from his job as a research engineer at the Design Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

``I've always been a big fan of Van Gogh,'' says Mr. Breen, whose photographic print ``Second Night'' is based on the master's ``Starry Night.'' His piece, he says, ``has the basic shapes and structures of `Starry Night,' but the tools I have are 3-D tools.'' Using a computer graphics work station, he mathematically created 3-D objects and defined their surfaces as shiny or flat. The software then transferred it into an 2-D image.

``I see these incredible tools,'' says Breen, ``powerful computers, powerful software, and I feel like I've only touched the tip of the iceberg.''

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