Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lines, Molecules and Metaphors of Painting 2006

If you ever sat still long enough near me, you probably will have heard me talk about material and illusion and information and time as a source for painting. What's below is not news to anyone doing animation, or anyone pursuing mathematical topology modeling for a living, or probably anyone who's read Tufte's classic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, except for the end result.

I was sketching a little graphic today, somewhat like one of these: {

Then I doubled it: {}

I then treated it in three dimensions, building this shape on the full xyz axis, on paper, sketching out the results, adding another, adding another. It builds into kind of "spin." When you spin it on one axis you get a solid shape, sort of a like a sphere with a brim. A two axis spin is even more interesting.

The process of drawing the spin of this {} fits neatly into a model of the operation of the natural progression of time on a line shape. I take a 2 dimensional shape and twirl it, and as I draw more positions of the shape in illusionistic 3-d space, the shape becomes a solid, each step adding more material, each illusion I add representing another step in the progression of time.

The idea is clearly fundamental to animation. But animation is also presented in a strip of time, for the purpose of presenting a direct illusion of reality - the still images with a series turns into the illusion of the passage of time. It's almost a primary application of digital imaging technology to do this precisely and cheaply.

What was beginning to be interesting to me here was sort of the reverse - the strip of time represented by the still image. The act of drawing the image involves time, adding each new {}, and the progression of one position of the {} to the next on the z axis IMPLIES and can only be the result of the passage of time. The still result, however, is an unmoving three dimensional solid, a 3-d shape almost exactly like an old metal float.

I backed up a little at this point. In a revelation for someone who last did calculus or ceramics 20 years ago, and never took topology, I re-realized that any line that was NOT straight, once spun through time, would create a three dimensional shape, a little like a Spirograph. If the line was straight you could get a flat circle by twirling it on the other axis.

Spin out any slight flaw in a line and you get a volume.

(About a year ago I got to play with a rapid prototyper and made a mathematical object that was the institial space between a regular stacking of spheres. This suggests a project of hand drawing straight lines, scanning the results, spinning them in Rhino or a similar program, and making the thin, irregular, semi cylindrical object on a prototyper. Or, save the $750,000 equipment costs and do it on a lathe. New prototypers are truly incredible.)

I can report that an interesting problem in formal topology was recently solved by a glass blower, something that really should not surprise you- material teaches when symbology stutters. But I'm going down this road for a different path - the irreducibly human: our perception of time passing, immediate past memory and anticipation of human presence, how nothing spins into something - a visual analogy to the popular summaries of string theory (see above on scraping through calculus) which suggest collisions of fields that twist and spin into stuff.

Painting can be the static image that is the spoor of these machinations, distinct, because it only forms through human consciousness and the twists and spins the body's action forms on material. In the act of painting is the static footprint in the mud of absence spinning into presence slowing into absence, and importanry to me, it occurs at the natural pace of human consciousness, which of course is a constantly evolving state, from a shade of blue to a Monkees riff to my arm itches to an irrational desire for twinkies.

The final analogy here was thinking of space-time spinning an empty volume into stuff, a mass of some kind. I suppose there are physicists who can tell me whether mass exists without time, but my suspicion is that mass without time would have no applicable meaning.

Allow me to leap to the metaphor of the molecule: and old definition of which is the smallest part of substance which has all the characteristics of that substance. Here is where I'm tying this together: a successful painting, or artwork of any kind, is a molecule of a much larger substance. In the case of painting, I'm using substance to mean the stuff of human experience (this is my metaphor and I can do what I want) - substance as a combination of material, the illusions the material creates, the physical object of the painting's relationships to all its spiritual, political, perceptual, personal implications, the way this wholly dependent on the human natural and cultural biases in perceiving those illusions.

A good painting -any good artwork - is something irreducibly "true," a single molecule of big stuff, containing what you need to know about that stuff, but unable to show the vastness of it's totality across time, distance, and human consciousness. A great work, say Brughels's 99 Netherlandish Proverbs, gives you untold volumes of information about time and experience not shown in the work, stories and smells and the plays of light and personality before the moment of the image and inevitable in the future. It is just as true of Rothko's color field paintings, which boil beautifully before your eyes, touching the spiritual impulse.

So an analogy of good art might be this: an illusionary process or object, cleaned of the extraneous, whose quality is proportional to the richness and penetration of all its implications. A single molecule of the big stuff.

Why illusionary? It has to be. Truth never reveals itself without a fight in the shadows.