Mel Strawn: Making Shapes PDF Print E-mail
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Borrowing notions of chance, randomness and acceptance of “what happens” from John Cage, using “random” numbers and variables (just about the most powerful creative procedure the computer has to offer) I could set in motion, like a Sorcerer’s Apprentice, kinetic displays that were entertaining, sometimes beautiful, always surprising...

... This resulted in a giddy sense of discovery and power. A C-64, then an Amiga with, eventually, full 24 bit color paint programs followed in due course, enhancing, then radically changing the creative process.

Part of the ‘4 shape painting’ period actually presaged some of the things that followed with computers. One pair, called Negentropy, was composed using chance procedures: for each position on the “bitmap” of the canvas, shape, color and shape-unit orientations were determined by picking numbers out of a hat or tossing coins. The first painting programmed, in part, by computer was Geo. The four shapes were designed on 8 by 8 computer character grids, then assigned a shape code number; this info was written into a BASIC program that also determined grey colors for each block of four sequential shapes. The run was limited to the number of iterations that would give the required data for each of the positions on the canvas. The program run resulted in a line printout, a paint by numbers script I followed, painting in oil, by hand, to see what the numbers looked like.

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That 8x8 character grid, which supports the on/off patterns we know as the alpha-numeric character sets on our keyboards, makes possible 2 to the 64th power different configurations. That is a 20 digit number – in the googles, way beyond trillions. All in that little 8x8 rectangle. This, perhaps, suggests why I was interested in using the computer as a way of exploring the possibilities of very limited components (4 shapes) in composing works.

The next stage involved working with on-screen Amiga paint programs, printing out the files that resulted as static pictures on a little Zerox 2020 inkjet printer. These were low res (screen resolution), essentially abstract compositions characterized by the obvious pixel structure that, to me and some few others looked interestingly rather like tapestry – but far from the photo-realistic resolution to which the media was quickly moving. The Screenrite image shown here is typical of that period’s work.

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The image is a foto of a 34 by 47” print made from a 600 x 480 pixel image – which would be about 2x 1.5” (!) at 300ppi. These small images were often used as “sketches” for paintings. Only a few of these were really successful. The intricacy and precision of the computer image is difficult – and seems pointless – to match in oil paint. On the other hand, the fast, efficient, on screen painting loosened up my approach to the canvas with brush in hand; however, I’ve never taken to programs like Painter and the attempt to more or less emulate digitally what I do in analog media. (And I own several versions of Painter)..

The Amiga’s then advanced potential was destroyed by bad company management, the 2020 died and, fish or cut bait, I, not satisfied that I really understood the potential of the computer as a creative art-making medium, plunged for a MAC and Encad Pro36 wide format printer, a scanner and eventually digital camera(s). Bonny Lhotka motivated and advised me on the technology at this stage.

That was nine years ago. And for that nine years I hardly actually painted at all.

The major effort since 1996 instead has been in digital imaging and printing. Abstract pattern and permutation images have yielded to mixed imagery and media. A typical approach may now entail incorporating a drawing or painting – or fragments of them - into a work that may also include photographed or scanned objects or other elements.

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Cliffrite, shown here, is an oil painting. Cliffriter is a recent digital print based on a digital photograph of that painting, and, one hopes, becomes something else at a different scale and color range. Icehouse Stele and Masquerade are in a long series of works using crushed bottle caps as key “icons.”

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I call them “Coins of the Realm.”

An ongoing series of medals (I get to award them to whom or whatever I choose) combines digital parts with painting and the inclusion of actual objects. See Toriko, which uses a tiny sketchbook drawing I made in 1952 in Korea, a scaled up photo of a crushed bottle cap, oil, acrylic and encaustic on canvas and barbed wire. It is just shy of 8 feet high. Toriko is the Chinese/Japanese kanji character that means ‘prisoner of war’. This series of Medals has returned me to painting – and to continuing the digital explorations, perhaps in conjunction with more mixed media efforts as well as pure digital works. Increasingly, I am interested in repurposing works done in other media, especially drawings, in digital space and with digital components. Again the Cliffrite works and Orvieto Devil are examples.

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Orvieto Devil

The Orvieto print is from a sketchbook drawing of the amazing sculptures on the lower front of Orvieto’s Cathedral. I don’t know what to call these things, but digital collage is probably the best simple tag for them. Midnight Run is one of many recent “all photo-based” images.

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 Midnight Run

In general, my attitude is far from a purest one; ‘anything in and let’s see what can be done’ is the provocative invitation extended by digital media.

Great fun, but I had nearly as much fun with my tiny 8 bit computer and writing programs as I’ve had more recently with the exotic tools we now enjoy.

My current tool box includes a set of 3 MACs, an EPSON 9000 printer, EPSON scanner (my UMAX quit), an Oly 3030 camera and, for best and critical work, a Sigma SD9 SLR. Color management and print quality control remain my biggest “challenge.” Much of this has to do with media and equipment problems and limitations, environmental hazards like aridity, clogs, electrical surges – the whole 9 yards. And there is the perpetual challenge of actually doing a work worthy of the effort and investment.

My work can be seen on line at 911 Gallery

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Icehouse Stele

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