Jennifer Steinkamp’s beautiful tree moves as though blowing in the wind and transforms over time as the seasons change from spring in full, green leaf through autumn as the leaves fall, to winter with bare branches.
Judy Crook 1Click the image to enlarge

This Los Angeles-based artist explores ideas about architectural space, motion and perception using computer animation to engage viewers through use of transient elements in the natural world. Her work has been called ‘a darker view of nature thoroughly manipulated by man’. (Xandra Eden, University of North Carolina)

Our image this month is a still from a video, exhibited earlier this year at Greengrassi gallery London, which continues Jennifer’s interest in digitally-rendered animations of natural forms including flowers, vines, butterflies, swirling leaves and swaying tree branches; what the artist herself calls ‘fake nature’.

'Judy Crook' is part of an ongoing series of works in which teachers are honoured with tree dedications. The first of the series (2005) was in honour of Miss Znerold, the artist’s first grade teacher who singled her out as making the best sponge trees in the class.

The Judy Crook of this piece taught colour theory at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California which Jennifer attended in the 1990s gaining a Master of Fine Arts. Jennifer writes that Judy Crook was an amazing colour theorist and inspirational teacher. Jennifer herself went on to teach design and media arts there before moving to the University of California Los Angeles, where she is now a professor teaching courses such as ‘Time and Motion in Virtual Space’.

The trees were originally inspired by Medusa, the guardian and protectress of Greek mythology and perhaps there is something of medusa’s writhing snakes often depicted on her head that can be seen in the swirling branches of these trees.

The use of Medusa as a metaphor for female power and sensuality recalls Jennifer’s early, abstract work that was informed by Feminism (for example 'Gender Specific', 1989). The animated tree is on a continuous loop, so that we experience a whole year in a few minutes. Says the artist, ‘it’s about a continuous cycling’. There is no beginning or ending, no story or narrative and no overt moral tale is told.

The work is projected on a large scale to create a room-size environment which allows the viewer to immerse oneself in the experience of nature mediated through the human hand. It is a mesmerising scene that references the sublime power of nature in the face of humankind.

New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, senior curator Dan Cameron says of her work, ‘Few artists have taken nature and technology and created a feeling of the uncanny the way she has. We don’t [tend to] see trees as objects that have their very own autonomy and objectives. Jennifer’s trees seem a little scary.’

The leaves, bark and other details are digitally painted by the artist before inserting into Maya 3D animation and modelling software. The artist explains the appeal of this technique, ‘It’s all code to create images.

I like that world, non-reality putting itself into reality and transforming reality. If the power goes out, it doesn’t exist anymore.’ She renders all her work in double high definition resolution to ease reformatting in the future when the technology updates. An archival system allows the animation to be re-configured if required.

Since her student days Jennifer has been experimenting with projecting film onto architecture. Explains the artist, ‘If you project another world on a wall, the wall becomes another place.’ By making the existing architecture part of the viewer’s experience of the work she addresses one of the curatorial challenges of exhibiting this type of art within a museum context.

This media artist’s positioning in California seems no accident. JoAnne Northrup (author of the highly recommended book 'Jennifer Steinkamp', Prestel 2006) writes, ‘Artists, drawn to [California’s] indifference to tradition, prize the freedom to separate from the past and invent new forms of expression.’ California has an illustrious place in the development of computer art.

It was whilst a student of motion-graphics in the 1980s that Jennifer first saw the work of Californian-resident pioneers Oskar Fischinger (whose analogue films of the 1930s to 50s presaged computer graphics), John Whitney Sr. (often called the father of computer animation) and Ed Emschwiller, whose famous film Sunstone, 1979 is generally regarded as a pivotal moment in the articulation of three-dimensional space in digital animation. Jennifer studied with Gene Youngblood, author of the seminal book 'Expanded Cinema', at CalArts in Pasadena.

Youngblood believed film could function as a manifestation of human consciousness outside of the mind and in front of the eyes. Jennifer went on to hone her code-writing skills at various commercial animation and special effects companies. She also taught with graphics expert Jim Blinn (of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab) at the Art Center.

Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why today digital arts in the United States enjoys a higher profile than in the UK. The Architectural Digest proclaims, ‘Digital art has come to the cultural foreground.’ And the LA Times has hailed Jennifer as the successor to those greats of art history Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol.

Digital and media art has been displayed and collected by museums there since at least the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, despite a rich history, digital arts in the UK is rarely considered in such glowing terms, all too often held back by unimaginative curators and an uninterested press whose obsession with a small cadre of famous names does everyone a disservice.

Of course there are challenges concerning the display, interpretation, collection and sales of this type of art; but surely it’s worth confronting these when the rewards can be so great? The recent Contemporary Art Society charity auction in London of Jennifer’s work 'Ronnie Reagan 3', which reached the highest bid of the event (exceeding its pre-sale estimate), shows that there is a demand from collectors for digital work in the UK.

Jennifer Steinkamp’s work will be exhibited at 0 to 60: The Experience of Time through Contemporary Art, at the North Carolina Museum of Art (24 March - 11 August 2013). This show explores how time is used as form, content, and material in art and how art is used to represent, evoke, manipulate, or transform time, featuring artists who ignore the traditional boundaries of art, craft and design.

Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008.

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Credit: Jennifer Steinkamp, Judy Crook 1, 2012, video installation, 13 x 10 feet (installed Greengrassi Gallery 2013).

Photo by Marcus Leith, copyright the artist, reproduced with permission.