Computer Art Image of the Month - April 2011

April 2011

Stepping Stones from Glen Memories

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Image credit: Stepping Stones from Glen Memories by Cynthia Beth Rubin, 2010

30x45 inches, copyright the artist, reproduced with permission

A collaboration with my younger self

Digital imaging

In Cynthia Beth Rubin’s hands the medium of technology becomes a means to explore concepts of memory. Our image for April comes from a series of digital paintings entitled Glen Memories which span some 40 years of Cynthia’s career - leading to her work being described as ‘a conversation between the artist’s younger and current selves’ by Amy Rahn, Seven Days newspaper, 2010.

In 1968 whilst an undergraduate at Antioch College, Cynthia filled notebooks with pen and ink drawings based on the Glen - the nature preserve adjacent to the rural campus in southern Ohio. At the time she wasn’t entirely happy with the drawings and put them away. 

Serendipitously these notebooks were re-discovered by her four years ago, and inspired by the thought of ‘a collaboration with my younger self’, she returned to the site 40 years later to take photographs of the same landscapes. The Glen series is the result of this process - old drawings paired with contemporary photographs and painting to create an overlap of time which mingles layers of different media.

Cynthia’s unique technique draws on unusual source material and combines layered imagery created through the use of the computer to produce work with a strong narrative that explores aspects of personal memory. The result is a digitally-produced work with a textural, painterly hand, infused with memories of the moment of being there, in the solitude of nature, 40 years ago.

Cynthia explains further, ‘These images are about the remembered past, my own youthful thoughts, in the place that I went to as I was coming to terms with the complexities of life as a young adult in a time of turmoil.

The Vietnam war was going on, we were still high on the success of the civil rights movement and in the setting of nature I felt the timelessness of the world - or at least of the time of humanity in the world. What is special about this particular site is that one can actually see the cut rocks that show the upheavals of the earth in a long ago age.’

Originally trained as a painter, Cynthia now works in many aspects of digital imaging ranging from web-based works, to still images, to video and installation work. Much of her work deals with cultural memories - the grasping of signs that allow us to put ourselves into an imagined past of others. Her works are descriptive of place and of the specific locations that touch us in some way.

This is notably apparent in her work with The Orchard Street Shul community art project, which involves artists, historians and computer scientists engaging with a historic synagogue in Connecticut that is largely untouched since opening in 1926.  Like the Glen series this interactive installation draws on a combination of drawing and photography, as well as historic reference.

Glen Memories has been exhibited most recently at the Photostop Gallery in Vermont (2010). Having always considered that the stills from Glen would be shown with something moving, Cynthia is currently adding animations and thinking about presenting them as a potential collaboration with a composer to be shown during linear performances.

Cynthia’s own history with computing began in 1984 when she started using the early Artronic paint-box system. She taught herself, she says, ‘without manuals, and with no idea of where it would lead.

My own fascination with repetition, ambiguous space, and unusual colour led me quickly to becoming one of the artists who spent hours in front of the computer late at night, in the days before home systems, driving home at 2:00 am.  Computers disrupted our lives and rerouted our careers, and we loved it!’ 

The digital medium immediately presented her with the opportunity to further explore compositional challenges that she had been focusing on in paint: use of borders, repetition and self-reference. She found leaving the object of the painted canvas behind for the screen to be a liberating experience, making for her a more natural means of investigating related ideas. With the computer the user is freed from a specific linear process of working, giving artists the possibility to fully explore an evolving image.

Cynthia recalls those heady days in the 1980s, ‘the thrill of the new that pulled artists to the computer. The excitement of discovery, of harnessing a wild beast that pushed back with unexpected but delightful results proved to be irresistible.’ Under the influence of the American Abstract Expressionist Painters of the 1950s, by the early 1980s many painters were trained to work without sketches and a preconceived plan, teasing their images out of the process of interacting with their own evolving canvases.

This approach proved ideal when such painters approached the computer. However, unlike the early algorithmic / programming artists, those who came from painting and printmaking backgrounds like Cynthia to use dedicated paint-box types systems generally were not drawn by the machine itself. ‘The challenge,’ explains Cynthia, ‘lay elsewhere, in the aesthetic possibilities of digital imaging - the allure of surprising new colour combinations, playful juxtapositions, and shifts in scale and pattern.’

Such artists were able to invent a personal visual vocabulary of their own, one that included fluidity of compositional expression, innovations in representational imagery and the ability to explore juxtaposition that was not simply collaged layering but true re-contextualisation. It is arguable that such a visual vocabulary could not have emerged purely in paint.

Digital imaging works like Cynthia’s are evidence of a breaking down of what were once strict subdivisions in the visual arts: painting, printmaking, photography and graphic design have melded and now embrace video and other time-based presentations. Now even the boundaries between 2D and 3D are blurring. This allows for imagery to reference more than one way of thinking, more than one tradition within art, simultaneously.

This leads to unexpected juxtapositions, new ways of considering narrative and new conceptual processes as well, of course, as new imagery. Artists have been doing this for years, but the hybridisation of media within the computer stimulated new ways of thinking that would not have easily emerged in traditional media. As Cynthia remarks, ‘The real revolution of the digital age is not that it has brought a new medium to the art world, but that it has freed the image from the medium.’

Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008. For more information on the computer arts including our events programme please see the Specialist Group website: http://www.computer-arts-society.org/.

More about this month’s artist

Comments (2)

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  • 1
    Jeanne Criscola wrote on 3rd Apr 2011

    Wonderful Article

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  • 2
    Huw Jones wrote on 14th Apr 2011

    The distinction between 'algorithmic / programming artists' and ' those who came from painting and printmaking ... to use dedicated paint-box types [sic] systems' is made in Catherine Mason's article. I was involved in courses at Middlesex University from the late 1980s in which artists and designers were trained to express themselves through programming, showing that they could produce genuinely original pieces bu algorithmic means. Others used computers as a new medium for gestural image generation akin to oils or watercolour. This raises the question: is 'Computer Art' too broad a definition? Should we distinguish between art that builds on traditional methods and is computer mediated, like the fine layered/collaged images displayed by Cynthia Beth Rubin, and that which is computer generated?

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