Cathedral

I’ve been working on a definition (here’s the Rhino file) analyzing Jackson’ Pollock’s 1947 painting, Cathedral:

The clip below depicts a series of contours drawn through  a height field generated by an image sampler. I like the sense of forward movement in the animation, and I think it’s interesting that, though the sequence of contours in the first half of the animation seem arbitrary, the contours in the second half of the animation all seem to be working together.

In the next clip, I’ve extruded the contours, and sent them running along through a sort of cloud generated by the brightness values measured across the original painting. The first half of the clip, a front view of the animation, reminds me of a city appearing in the distance (through a sandstorm?). The second half of the clip, showing the animation from the side, starts to resemble a changing series of chapels or cathedrals appearing in the landscape. It seems…easily inhabitable.

What was striking to me in working on this definition was that, however voluminous an arrangement seemed in one Rhino viewport, it inevitably looked flat and boring when seen from a different angle. Here’s a series of “chapels” seen from the side:

and in plan:

This is a group of perpendicular contours from the side:

In perspective view:

And from the top:

This is distressing, especially in a world where sections so often become plans, and vice versa. How can something so expansive simultaneously seem so flat? For an answer, let’s revisit mid-century art criticism:

In his essay, “The American Action Painters,” Harold Rosenberg wrote, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” For Rosenberg, Pollock’s work was an heroic act which existed in three-dimensional space and unfolded over time. Arguably, Rosenberg’s understanding of Pollock’s work was influenced by Hans Namuth’s paintings of Pollock, painting:

Clement Greenberg, on the other hand, was appalled that Rosenberg would look at anything other than the painting itself when making a critical judgment. In Greenberg’s eyes, Pollock’s work is important because it reached the height (oops, look at that pun) of flatness. Pollock’s paintings were impenetrable, with no reference to three-dimensional space, whatsoever. In “American-Type Painting,”  Greenberg wrote that Pollock “had literally pulverized value contrasts in a vaporous dust of interfused lights and darks in which every suggestion of a sculptural effect was obliterated.”

In the late 1970’s, Namuth’s photographs are published as a book, and Rosalind Krauss’s accompanying essay teases a bit more out of the Greenberg v. Rosenberg debate. Krauss discusses an article by Jean Clay in which he argues that the Namuth photographs should be read as critical documents in and of themselves (as opposed to being understood as neutral journalistic photographs). Clay suggests, and Krauss agrees, that the composition of the photographs, and in particular the placement of Pollock within the images, supports an understanding of Pollock’s work as about the relationship of the human figure to an impenetrable field. Krauss writes, “The photographs, then, recreate the space of all-over pattern in which the human figure can barely exist, or in which its relationship to gravity, to a solid foundation, is made equivocal at best.”

[Incidentally, Clay brings Vuillard into the mix when describing how pattern can be used to flatten space. Krauss doesn’t buy Vuillard as an appropriate precedent for Namuth’s photographs, but that won’t stop me from using this as an excuse to post my favorite Vuillard here.]

Krauss situates Namuth’s photographs within the tradition of aerial photography, and sets up the difference between one’s experience on the ground and the view from above as an analogue to the difference between Pollock’s working practices (painting while standing over a canvas laid flat on the floor) and the work as presented in a gallery (hung vertically on a wall). The act of mediation between the two spatial situations of the painting is what gives rise to much of the tension in Pollock’s work.

I would be happy to write about this for weeks, but in the interest of time I’ll end this post with a few thoughts about what this all might mean for my work in grasshopper.

  • How can a very simple structural system be used to support a complex (voluminous) screen or wall system? Can this begin to create some interesting gradations of space, or become an excuse to explore the joints between two systems?
  • Can the scale of Pollock in relation to his paintings, as depicted in Namuth’s photographs, inform the scale(s) at which I design an installation?
  • In the Pollock Racing video, the gh work reads as a thickened ground. The later images become much more object-like. How interested am I in having a figure play across a ground? Should I stick to fields? Can I have a figure emerge out of a field?

So What?

This is the first in a series of posts that I’m calling So What? As I work in Grasshopper, I’m going to try to take some time to step back and connect a rather nerdy interest in Path Mappers to a broader set of concerns about image making, site-specific installations, and more.

‘Your art-shart, Francisco,’ she told her husband venomously, ‘it will blindofy me with ugliness.’ But he was immune to her poisons. ‘Old beauty is not enough,’ he told her. ‘Old palaces, old behavior, old gods. These days the world is full of questions, and there are new ways to be beautiful.’

Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh, New York: Random House, 1997. p. 16-17.

Why analyze paintings again? Certainly, scholars have studied Uccello before, and Pollock, next on my list, is no undiscovered talent. Designers, critics, and art historians have countless ways of understanding images. We can study a painting’s iconography, color, material properties, patronage, historical context, or social implications. We can ask how an image changed the course of artistic events, and investigate the relationship between an artist’s personal biography and her creative output. We can do—and have done—all of these things, and now we have Grasshopper.

Grasshopper’s developer describes it as “a graphical algorithm editor…[that] allows designers to build form generators from the simple to the awe-inspiring.” The program contains powerful tools for managing data, allowing for the coordination of complex lists of values and geometries. By applying this logic to 2-dimensional images, Grasshopper can be used to reveal pre-existing structures within paintings, and to expand these structures back into 3-dimensional space. Still in beta, Grasshopper analysis offers us an opportunity to understand familiar images in a new light.

As Francisco suggests, Painting for Insects is concerned less (not at all!) with negating existing analyses than with articulating a new group of questions to be asked. What’s been most exciting for me over the past two months is that nothing I’ve made so far has looked anything like anything that I have made prior to this project. More often than not, I’m surprised by what I’ve drawn or painted, and I am only rarely “blindofied with ugliness.” For now, my agenda is to ask new questions of old images; if I can do this well, then a new way of being beautiful seems not too far off.

Expanding Panels

Remember these? I’m happy to report that I have the Grasshopper file under control, and in a friendly, won’t-crash-computers format.

Here’s my initial image sampler setup:

A series of image samplers filters for different color, saturation, and brightness information:

You can see that the values at each point vary by filter:

Use this information to alter the grid structure and generate voronoi cells:

Print and draw. (You saw this last week.)

Set up a rotation sequence to manipulate surfaces formed by the voronoi cells:

Pull three layers of the rotated cells apart:

UPDATE: So What?

  • I’m interested in the idea that one process (in this case, an image sampler) repeated, but adjusted for new priorities (color, saturation, brightness), can yield a variety of results (overlapping voronoi cells). The ability to arrive at a theme and variation through a testing of variables has some scientific undertones, but what I like about these images is that the different layers of results are all made apparent. Changes in color and rotation can emphasize certain image sampler filters over others, but the structure of each remains.
  • Making the move from 2-dimensional drawings to 3-dimensional (rhino) models has been quite helpful in understanding the potential of grasshopper as a way of looking. All of a sudden, the grasshopper manipulations feel less diagrammatic, and more like spatial fields with possible social/environmental potential.