Melvin Strawn

'Water Stones' by Michael Robinson


For 21 years I have explored the possibilities of digital media. The sometimes stated, often unstated, question I encounter was and is whether or not art can be accomplished using the computer. By now I argue this only under duress; the priority is simply to explore and let the results speak for themselves. My own early work included algorithmic ideas developed in BASIC. Assigning variables to simple point, line and plane elements, spatial locations and color parameters resulted in endlessly diverse visual displays on the monitor. This approach to making something visual was quite foreign to me. It seemed exotic and required letting go of preconceived imaging in favor of developing a program, a launch pad for a visual event, allowing one to become a spectator of one's own notions. A 14-year exploration in painting of shape and pattern permutations, often involving random or chance procedures, immediately preceded use of the computer. Decisions then were either intuitively made, or governed by primitive "computed" chance operations ~ not unlike the I Ching throwing of yarrow stalks or coins. The image resulted from the operations; traditionally, operations serve and render, an intended image - the opposite approach. The computer makes possible complex variations in reasonably short periods of time. As always, the artist in writing or using such programs is responsible for the controlling concepts and for selectivity and development, perhaps in any media, of the visual results of such programs into as final work, or works, since many variations are readily developed.

With the emergence of affordable paint and image processing, programs such as Adobe's Photoshop, and color printers, scanners and cameras the computer enables virtually unlimited approaches to image making. Almost regrettably, for me, it has lead away from algorithmic and open ended, kinetic work toward a hybrid or mixed media way of imaging and composing. (Regrettable because it was so much fun thinking in a new way, writing programs, seeing code realized as visual display, as event...) The challenge now is to use digital tools to make art. To simply emulate the looks of other art media seems a bit pointless.
So-called "Natural Media" programs exist to do this - but the digital works created with these programs have a distinct visual quality; recalling the look of traditional work is, in skilled hands, part of their illusory charm.

If digital/electronic tools constitute a distinct media, the challenge is to see if an experience different from what is realized in traditional media can be created with these tools. It is clear to me that, at least in the creative process of selecting, composing and modifying/qualifying the stuff of visual art a number of new things are possible. Nicholas Negroponte pointed out, in Being Digital, that atoms (physical paint and canvas...) constitute where we were and bits (of information defining color, space and other art qualities) is where we are going. Chief among the powerful and often unique properties of the bit world are precision, scaleability and permeability or the property of seamless integration and modification of visual elements. For instance and simply put, a drawing made in conventional media like pencil and paper can be digitized, and transformed into something that looks and feels and expresses quite differently. I have "repurposed a number of my own works - drawings, paintings and photographs - in this way. Transparency, another way to think of permeability, while certainly known in previous art, is now a major and complexly varied strategy to express time and space, thing and event relationships. I think electronic-digital technology constitutes a medium, a way to make art with unique characteristics difficult or impossible to create in pre-digital media. Processing image materials leads to previously unimagined qualities and forms; it is this factor that extends (as all media does according to Marshall McLuhan) our native or natural senses and often confounds our preconceptions, our stereotypes and "creative habits. Digital media is efficient in its sponsorship of creative play. It is also seductive; neat looking, but superficial stuff seems to come automatically no matter what is done or by whom. To get beyond the easy, automatic effects is the challenge - and perhaps art happens then. Perhaps it happens, no matter what media is employed, when one gets beyond the obvious, beyond the level of "effect". It is common place that digital technology is used in music, animation and film, but how it is developing in still art - painting, etc., is emerging more slowly and to a different critical tempo. This is O.K.; it requires all involved to reflect on their intentions, acts and assumptions.

Life is short. I am grateful and excited in my own late years to be in on this digital game. For the rest, - enjoy the work. A last word on my recent digital prints/paintings: Like a number of others, I have gained new access to existing images and qualities as components in what amounts to a mixed media process. Objects, for instance, can be photographed, scanned or drawn ­ on screen or in traditional materials. They can then be composed, transformed, combined with a fluidity and spontaneity that covers a lot of ground and yields often suprising and exciting effects and final works. I call this "form search" and work my way through the process toward resolution, discovery and meaning, even if the meaning is simply the experience of perceiving what happens. For me, the computer, digital media, constitute a means to explore and to interact with the world. It is magic carpet and pandora's box.

One last thought: I am interested in the possibility of CD or DVD publishing of visual works of art - much like music is made available for individual enjoyment. With TVs or new flat screens serving as "picture frames" on our walls, whole collections could be "played". Think Art CDs. It is a marketing and social use concept that needs to be developed. The technology is available. Consider that the native display of digital art is electronic - the light and color of the monitor...

Mel Strawn, 2002


Ohio Farm House. The digital image on the left incorporates the drawing on the right, from an old sketchbook circa 1968 when I lived in Ohio. It is one of the Coins of the Realm series. (For which see the on disk file).

Archival Notes. A composite of a cracked sidewalk - which takes on the configuration of a crucifix; two name and date carvings from old aspen trees (carving one's initials, etc, in these paper bark trees is a favorite pastime in the west of the US); various "coins" and rusted cans that litter this landscape and take on some of the aging visual poetry of manmade objects returning to nature.

Archival Night Notes. Same as previous, only inverted color, giving a moody version. These two prints are mounted as scrolls, somewhat in the tradition of Chinese and Japanese hanging scrolls.

Coin of the Realm- Burnt Grass. A bottle cap, enlarged, made hierarchically central, against the formal square, texture of a sun-burnt grass field and a bit of abstract calligraphy. A free associative play on the mandala form idea....

Coin of the Realm- Burnt Grass, Smoky. Same as previous - but with a distorted image of itself interacting with itself and a more painterly, smoky spatial field. This and other variations in the set of images show the efficacy of digital media to explore beyond an initial state - and preserve the different versions.

"Coins of the Realm" - is a bit of whimsy. We cap our fancy drinks and other goods in gilt, colors and symbols which proclaim value and help get us to exchange real coins for pleasure. We twist or pry them off and then randomly discard them to rust, to become flattened in idiosyncratic ways under car and truck tires and begin the trip back to base metal - from which coin and cap eventually are fashioned again.

Encountered in various stages of abandonment, each provides visual evidence of its unique history including its original imagery as well as the ravages of time and (mis)fortune. The conventions of beauty, of art, find little room for such discarded bits of our civilization. However visually interesting, the "coins", caps, lids and sometimes whole cans are strong, simple shapes altered by time and wear just enough to take on something new (in the process of becoming old) which is felt in tension with its original pristine shape and appearance. In Japanese aesthetics this quality is called 'sabi': "...mellow by use...". Words have nothing to do with it; I use words here only to point to the visual experience. Perhaps awareness of their origin in our popular-commercial culture provides a thread of meaning in the conventional sense, which flavors the contemplation of what they now are. The found objects, the "coins", are combined with other things, bringing into play additional complexity, ambiguity, tension. Sometimes these are my own drawings: dinosaur bones, cars, the skeletal remains of crabs or other things I've found interesting, provocative or beautiful. These may take the place of the images originally on the caps - of "Coke" or other product.

There are precedents in art: the "non-art" objects of Pop Art such as Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans; the implications of surrealism, of installations and of Zen/chance strategies such as those invoked by John Cage and Marcel Duchamp.

These works are realized as large digital inkjet prints on rag papers (or sometimes canvas). Being digital, they can be printed in a range of sizes - which is why the sizes are not printed along with the titles. A typical size is in the range of 20 to 40". Each is limited to an edition of ten copies, printed and signed by me. More extensive discussion and more images are provided in Transitions, my book on my work in digital art.

7] Dawn Dancer. A found piece of wire, scanned, gave a fluid motion and gesture. The rest is on-screen painting.

Door Dance. From a slide of an old barn door with lock The 'dance' is abstract calligraphy, onscreen painted.

Eclipse. Flattened can with interestingly colored label and rusting decay (Reversed color) - on a found piece of board with rich color and patterning (dark). This suggested the passage of moon stages - and eclipse... "abstract" calligraphic seal added.

Etruscan Ransom. Based on a tourist trinket, the Etruscan rider, digitally photographed from a reflection from a half open glass door, incorporated into a vertical stele monument with "Coins" and free painting through the grid of stacked geometric object fragment.

Korean Mother. A photograph I made while in the Korean War, circa 1952. Digital amplification via a high pass filter (PhotoShop), difference blending mode and then making it into a duotone to enrich tonality. From a scanned 35mm negative, it is as good a document as I have of that experience half a century ago.

Korean Mother. A comparison of the duotone and the 'original' black and white shot; for me, going a bit beyond the surface of what was there.

Night Life. A broken pocket mirror gave the dynamics, a "coin" for presence.

Night Vision ­ Star Rating. A TV used as a shotgun target - with found turkey (?) feathers, a comment

Open-Shut. Locks, again, drawings, found super "coin", a hub cap and slab of aged wood.

Orbit Haunt. A "Coins" variant - the field is from digital modification of a photographed marble wall block in Italy... which gives the texture, mood and pattern of the haunting space.

Pale Horse Riders. A reference, obviously, to the 4 horses of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible. A play on "Coins of the Realm" and the turbulent, plastic flow and moody space of oil paint (scanned from an old palette...)

Pansecret. The oven-marked bottom of a cookie tin stages an amplified, abstracted drawing of a rodent skull ­ almost Ornamental

Romano Reprise. Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano, London National Gallery version, lies beneath the abstracted lances and metal bottle cap 'coins' recalling the ornamented armor and horse trappings of the painting.

Coin of the Realm ­ Salome. A stretch to oriental dance?

Space Seal. Based on a screen shot of an early, algorithmically generated pattern structure (from a BASIC program I wrote); it was enlarged dramatically, so that the low number of pixels and the grid of monitor scan lines became visually tangible, then on-screen painting at a higher resolution and some combining with related images to yield the final.

Talisman 2 ­ Victim. With contemplation, timely and timeless.

Target Memory. Rescued from a burned ranch house, the tintype photo of an early ranch family merged into a straw bale target I used for archery practice

Totemic-1. Another piece of fractured glass and rusted metal create a niche for a drawing of a Spanish church's St. Peter sculpture.

Mel Strawn
8905 Highway 285
Salida, CO 81201