French philosopher André Malraux saw the wide availability of art through reproductions, etc., as an important cultural development – what he called the "museum without walls." Works of art could be experienced by almost anyone, almost anywhere, whether they had access to museums or not.
Digital art may have turned another corner in the "museum without walls." Looking at some of the wondrous images included in "Digital Art: 2006," at the Farrell Fischoff Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M. (through June 19), on a computer feels like a revelation.
Take "At the Station," by Arlene Becker. It appears to be a photo of train cars centered on a large black background, reminding one simultaneously of hard-edge painting in strips of increasing and decreasing light and varied degrees of gray with cubes of color strung across the central strip.
But a deeper look reveals that the image captures only a portion of a single car mirrored in such a way as to seem as though it were a string of cars. The color has been manipulated to create tension between outside and inside the "cars" – and the shadowy figures within.
"Everything I do is based on the human being within his environment," says Ms. Becker. The train is the Paris Métro, which she scanned into the computer, creating darkness on either side of the light – producing the image she wants us to see, the story she wants to tell us, in which ambiguity is a key element. She speaks of Charles Baudelaire's "vastness of reverie" as the elemental idea in her work.
Because the image was made in the computer, she thinks that seeing it on a computer is more immediate than seeing works of art that are merely reproduced by the computer.
"All art is a metaphor for what is going on behind the scenes of consensual reality," says painter Paul Shapiro. The table, we all agree, is solid. But physics shows us that it really is not. Realism is an illusion. So he paints abstract forms, metaphors for the order and complexity of the universe.
Mr. Shapiro's digital piece, "ZPF-4," is lyrical and powerful. Black and white swirl within each other, white dots sprinkled like so many tiny lights across gray shading, and red egglike forms stain the rhythmic dance of black and white. But the swirling forms change as a viewer zooms into the image and feels the meaning of his art/science metaphor. There is more here than meets the eye.
Nick Deamer is a young artist whose preoccupation with science also guides his work. His film, "Variations for Hermann Grid Illusion," takes its inspiration from an optical illusion and then artfully plays with moving dots on the lines of a grid, flashing color behind the grid and color-saturated imagery too dense to read, but evoking human forms and faces. The eye moves from foreground to background faster and faster, suddenly melding the two, only to divorce them again. "Optical illusions don't really exist," he says, "You can trick yourself into seeing any number of things."
My digital investigations revealed things I never got from an illustrated art book. The light from the computer screen illuminates the digital image as it was created, letting the color – and the whites, especially – glow.
The PC also offers a powerful intimacy between the viewer's eye and the image. It's possible to move closer and closer to tiny pixels multiplied by 2,000. You can't get that cozy with a work of art in a gallery.
• See the works mentioned and others in 'Digital Art: 2006' at www.farrellfischoff.com.