Digital Art, aka Computer Art, entered the scene in the 1960s and up until recently many people have questioned its place in the art chain. Is it a technique, a method or a medium? Perhaps it is all three. Today, it is widely understood that “digital” is both a medium and a method used by artists to accomplish ideas and visions the same as artists use a paintbrush, a camera, a pencil or a hammer and chisel.
The basis of digital art rests on a foundation of relinquished control. To some degree, all artworks enable artists to allow the mediums to act as they will, unless they choose otherwise. Sometimes the artist allows the medium, or the tools, to lead and other times the artist takes a commanding lead. In the digital world, this process can move forward and backward and is non-destructive. Unless each step is recorded as part of the creation history, the additions, modifications, subtractions and manipulations are forgotten. When the artist is ready to commit the art moves to the final stage for presentation.
The perceived difference between an artist that manipulates pixels on a screen and the artist that applies paint to canvas or hammer and chisel to stone is disappearing. We now consider that the final artwork relies on the artist's control over the creative and technical processes, no matter the medium. Even so, we are still at the crossroads of analog and digital art due in large part to the availability and affordability of technologies that take the artwork out of the digital realm and translate it to the tactile.
Michael D Ellenbogen embraces the challenge of working with technology to capture his photographic images. He has been working in a darkroom since early childhood, shooting black and white film, developing the negatives, enlarging and developing the prints. In 2005 he got his first digital camera and eventually stumbled on a process by accident, creating an image that reminded him of the color field artists of the 50s and 60s. “Essentially, I break the algorithms of the camera hardware and software that are designed to manipulate the image in order to deliver what the manufacturer thinks is the best image,” says Ellenbogen. “I return the camera to its primitive state - a device that captures light without trying to manipulate it; I retain the rights of manipulation, from focal point to composition to exposure.”
It all happens in the camera and the moment; the attention to color and composition over figurative content and an intentional flattening of the image allow Ellenbogen to communicate his idea and provoke an emotional response using shape, color, composition and energy. “These are the elements of my art,” he says, “and when the art is done, I take the picture. The rest is delivery and presentation”.
Relinquishing control of the process the moment the lens shutter snaps, Ellenbogen allows the image itself to exist in the viewfinder, as the viewer will see it on the wall, at the moment of camera capture. There is nothing to go back to, to correct, to focus or to adjust in any way. “My artwork exists prior to the image being captured, in the moment, in nature and invisible to everyone but me, until I share it with you”. Working with the natural world and embracing distortion this process emphasizes the temporary visual world we experience. Balanced compositions, through a combination of contrast, line structure, and depth perception aid Ellenbogen’s work by acting as anchors and mediums in the final artwork.
In contrast to Ellenbogen’s intentional degradation of the natural world to reveal the ethereal, Vermont - based artist Michael L. Williams utilizes absolute control while creating his complex Computer Constructs. Williams studied extensively over a ten-year period at several prestigious art schools such as the Corcoran School of Fine Art, Washington, D.C.; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and St. Martin’s School of Fine Art in London, England. He was Studio Assistant to Kenneth Noland and fabricated sculptures for Isaac Witkin, Brower Hatcher, James Wolfe, Willard Boepple, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Wendy Lehman.
William’s practice exists in the digital world of computer software such as Adobe Photoshop, often originating with a series of colored marks or scanned images. He navigates and affects a digital canvas using his tools, skills and ideas to achieve compositional balance, suggesting a type of radial balance that emits bursts of color coming from an unidentifiable starting point. His repeated color combinations fuse into an endless web of interlocking lines and shapes, suggesting the work could continue forever.
To elaborate on the previous point, that the work exists beyond what we can see, may be true among a variety of artworks, in particular photography. The world exists beyond the lens used to capture a still image, and many artistic decisions made by the photographer involve carefully selecting scenery of subjects in order to best portray their creative vision. In a similar way, artists working via software and digital spaces or canvas are both limited and liberated by the size of their “surface”. Realistically, digital art is the most adaptable when it comes to experimenting with size and display, creating unique opportunities for digital artists to expand their 3D presentation skills beyond artists who work with more traditional physical mediums.
Williams’ creative process embraces the digital nature of the works themselves. Many artists use digital technology to give their work a more realistic finish but Williams’ dives headfirst into the psyche and creates evolving pieces of digital poetry. His artworks resemble images that may have been generated by an AI code, but are created intentionally.
There is a literary approach in several of William’s pieces, particularly seen in Yellow Mixer (2019) and Color Land (2019). These works almost read like text on a page, each detail fused with the next, all supporting the greater visual narrative at play. No mark is left to float alone, each component to the work compliments and enhances the one beside it. This harmony is what justifies the chaotic nature of the work. Thriving in a sporadic and seemingly impulsive atmosphere, the decision to change one element of the work, changes the entire work. All lines merge.
Limited physically as he approaches the screen, the lack of gestural movement does not appear to limit the gestural strokes and fantastic use of line running through his complex pieces. It is captivating to stare into the abyss that is one of William’s works, as they only achieve physical reality once they are printed and brought into the world. Until that point, they are a combination of pixels, carefully arranged on the screen of a monitor. The pixels and colored fragments respond to the direction given by William’s through the use of a tablet and pad...almost mimicking the relationship between a conductor and an orchestra with the swipe of his digital pen; the pixels perform, following each note in the sequence until the work is complete.
Both Ellenbogen and Williams have charted paths that end in a world constructed of color. Ellenbogen reinterprets the natural world, deconstructing it and converting earthly scenes into shapes, lines and color. Williams creates his worlds out of a digital “nothingness”, starting with one pixel and adding, building, layering and evolving. Each artist finds themselves immersed in the developments and changes in technology, keeping an open mind to the possibilities of digital art.
Michael D Ellenbogen and Michael L. Williams
Digital Photography, Digital Art