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Q&A OCTOBER 17 , 2001
Digital Abstract Expressionism
A conversation with artist Jean Detheux

by David Nagel
Executive Producer
[email protected]

Somewhere in a small village on a small farm in a rather remote part of eastern Canada, there lives an artist with his family. I'm still not entirely clear on exactly where he lives—somewhere roughly between Montréal and Toronto—but I am sure that there isn't regular mail service and that when foul weather hits I don't hear from him for a week or so, as preparations have to be made for taking care of the food, most of which he and his family grow themselves. I also know that the wild animals in the area tend to help themselves to his food, and, despite my advice to the contrary, he refuses to eat them back in reprisal, as he is a vegetarian. The artist's farm is in the environs of McDonald's Corners, which is the nearest access point for sending mail. I also don't know exactly where this McDonald's Corners is; I only know the name because that's the return address on the packages he sends me.

It's an unlikely place for anybody to wind up, housing, as it does, a scant 0.000002 percent of the world's population. In fact, you're 100 times more likely to die in a plane crash each year than wind up moving into this particular portion of the world. Statistically speaking, of course. It's an even less likely place for a former captain of the Belgian National Ice Hockey Team (1963 through 1971) to wind up, let alone one who has also been an automobile racer in Tourism, GT and Formula Vee categories; the head cook at The Rochester Zen Center in New York; a graduate of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts et Institut Supérieur d'Architecture de Lège in Belgium; and a self-styled "digital abstract expressionist" who also happens to be a Macintosh fanatic.

I don't think I have the math to calculate the percentage chance of all of these things coming together. So let's just say the whole thing is unlikely.

The artist is Jean Detheux. He and his wife, Carol, moved to this wooded area soon after the birth of their daughter, Yolande (now 13), preferring the seclusion to the prospect of raising their first child in the "rough" and "selfish" conditions of Toronto. Since the move, they have added a second child to the family, Georges, age 4, who has recently begun corresponding with my 5-year-old daughter, Claire.

"Image 8" from "Group D." Click image to see the series.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

The artist's background reads like something of an impossibility. But you have to add to this the fact that he has been an assistant dean at The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture and an instructor at Parsons School of Design, as well as New York University, Algonquin College, Concordia University and the Alberta College of Art, where he was also chairman of the department of drawing.

It's an impressive resume, even a curious one, but it is just that—a resume. Lots of people have impressive and curious resumes. What drew me into this artist's life was his work. I was first introduced to it a little more than a year ago and immediately took to it. To put it concisely, it's "my kind of art."

Which is strange, since I've never seen anything like it.

Every piece he's produced since I first saw his work has drawn me in further. It's abstract, but it's also moving. There's something familiar about his work. Not that it resembles any other artist's work. But there's something traditional about the stroke and the composition, something rich about the color and texture. Although he himself protests this characterization, it is the work of a highly trained talent who is consciously breaking away from anything traditional—including Modernity itself.

What's more, Jean Detheux works exclusively in the digital medium via his aging—but upgraded to the teeth—Power Mac 8500. Why did an artist with Detheux's credentials suddenly toss away his oils and turpentine in favor of a Mac and pressure-sensitive tablet? Well, he had been working in natural media for quite some time and exhibiting it since 1971. And then, at some point in the last decade, he developed an allergy to the chemicals and simply couldn't work anymore. So he decided to go digital. It was a difficult choice, since back then (and even today) digital art in many circles didn't carry the same kind of prestige as natural media. It just wasn't considered "real" art.

Nevertheless, Jean (by all accounts a "real" artist) and his wife began researching their options. Carol went around to schools and studios asking which platform to go with. When the word "graphics" was mentioned, the answer came back "Macintosh." Then one of Jean's friends showed him Fractal Design Painter (now owned by Corel), and there was no issue left in his mind.

"Model," 1976, oil on paper. Click image for more of Detheux's
early natural media work. Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

The switch to digital may have been a difficult choice. But, having made it, Detheux says he couldn't go back, allergies or no allergies. Jean now works with Synthetik Studio Artist and Corel Painter on his Macintosh to produce his still images and animations. Both programs and the platform, he says, have helped him to move beyond the limitations of natural media and explore areas of art that had previously been unavailable to him (or to anybody else).

As I mentioned, he terms his work "digital abstract expressionism." It's difficult to characterize—certainly impossible in the few pages of this interview—but it's more of a working mode than a description of the end product. It is an exploration of the media available to him and the self, and it's an approach that shuns the "photo-representational" in favor more spontaneous expression. All of this tempered by years of study and a sophisticated palette for the visual, although, again, he would deny this.

Image 1 of a 29-image series called "Pandora. Click image to see
the series. Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

Jean speaks and writes on the topic of "digital abstract expressionism" and is a champion of the technology that has enabled this mode of exploration for him. The technology is limited by means and, somewhat, by location. As you might well imagine, there is no high-speed access in the environs of McDonald's Corners, and yet he's producing motion art that is often dependent upon the Internet for distribution. (Imagine uploading dozens of QuickTime files via a 56 Kbps modem and having to make the difficult choices between compression and dimension.)

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications.

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