At the beginning of the twentieth century there was a strong connection between mathematics and avant-garde art. The Russian suprematists were partly inspired by Georg Cantor and the mathematicians of Kazan University and the cubists were fascinated by relativity. Recursion has long been part of art from Velázquez’s as Meninas to M. C. Escher’s elaborate tessellations and distortions. Mathematics was seen as a way of touching something sublime or universal that transcended figuration and mimesis of nature, and as our perceptions are increasingly mediated by the digital, this becomes more imminent in our daily lives and identifying of self. This is a vector which informs the curatorial approach of Christchurch’s AfterMath gallery and the exhibition square (a coincidental pun given the gallery’s relative proximity to Cathedral Square).
Digital art is so very new that it still offers a lot of unconstrained freedom in the way it defines itself. Loosely it is art where digital technology plays a role in the process or presentation. It’s not something that is often addressed in New Zealand art, creating a unique niche for AfterMath to explore. The first digital art was created by Andy Warhol in 1985 on a Commodore Amiga as a marketing stunt, putting a black and white video still of singer Debbie Harry into an early graphics program called ProPaint and colourising it with flood fills. Obviously the work in square is orders of magnitude more sophisticated than those rough beginnings, especially now that the computer is has evolved from mere tool into a sophisticated prosthetic extension of the mind. To call some of the work in square “outsider art” probably gives the wrong impression of its sophistication, though it does self-consciously exist outside the traditional art world context to a degree. It retains, however, a formality and seriousness, even if it doesn’t feel obliged to conform to accepted critical expectations and is as much likely to pursue a mathematical solution to a visual problem as an aesthetic one. The curatorial concepts behind it are more closely rooted in the obsessions of geek and tech culture (there is a broader sense of community at play) than fine art as popularly understood, giving it a fresh angle on some familiar ingredients, and doesn’t necessarily approach aesthetic concerns from a neurotypical consensus. As the name suggests, the work is unified by its rigorous process, a general tendency to minimalism and a strongly geometric basis.
The show brings together the work of four artists. Self-taught street artist Alicia Ward’s paintings are what the gallery calls “digital adjacent”, which is to say that while not a product of an algorithm, they share a conceptual relationship. These “shatter paintings” find an aesthetic starting point in the analytical cubism of Picasso and Braque, but without trying to reference or depict the real world. The Christchurch-based Ward is more interested in those radial and fragmented geometries in their own right, as a symbol for the self-invention and reinvention of the psyche. The mathematical aspect is instinctive, visual and metaphorical.
Melbourne-based AUT graduate Nick Berry is interested in the mechanical production and process of painting, aligning him with the likes of Leigh Martin, Ted Lawson, Pindar Van Arman and other artists who are either interested in algorithmic creativity or want to remove themselves from the act of making and thereby subvert the romantic idea of the inspired artist-hero and notions of authorship. Starting from a drawing process of filling in the squares of graph paper, Berry has adapted this to an app on his phone which he uses to create striking minimalist geometric prints. Berry also includes a drawing robot in the show, which acts as its own frame for an intricately patterned, algorithmically-generated abstract drawing, like an elaborate knight’s progress traced out on a chess board.
Tom Ludvigson, a jazz and electronic composer and musician, uses the freeware drawing program Processing to create boldly geometric op art prints it the tradition of Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley that finds inspiration in classic optical illusions, drawing on perspective ambiguities, repetition and recursion. In the footsteps of Gordon Walters, there is also a playful homage to Māori visual culture and biculturalism in the use of a restricted palette of black, red and white, distant echoes of geometric kowhaiwhai patterns and the use of Te Reo in the titles. The strong visual rhythms are perhaps suggestive of the artist’s other career – music being as much a powerful logical code as the most elegant programming language.
Ronan Whitteker is also based in Christchurch. His prints are the record and end result of an unselfconscious experimentation with non-linear mathematics, primarily fractals and cellular automata, and how to visualise that. The seven exhibited images, culled from around 1500, are as much a product of happenstance as algorithmic logic. He initiates the process and selects the best results. It hardly seems possible that they aren’t simply depictions of real world phenomena, instead of being visual representations of data and mathematical transactions. Coincidentally they bare a resemblance to the photographic experimentation of László Moholy-Nagy and other modernist abstract photographers, however here the art is a virtual property emerging from mathematical complexity rather than a piece of three-dimensional reality staged to look as though it were a flat abstract drawing.
In all cases the artists are interested in the space between life, art and perception. There is an active desire to investigate the invisible mechanisms behind form and simplify the compositional mechanism of the artwork down to its irreducible essence. The background process is as essential to the art’s production as the resulting image and reflects a fascination with processes that lie outside the conscious control of the artist. Nonetheless these processes follow an intrinsic, inevitable structural order and rationality, which ultimately must be interpreted through aesthetic decision-making and artistic gesture.
Andrew Paul Wood
5 April 2018