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Q&A OCTOBER 17 , 2001
Digital Abstract Expressionism
[Page 4 of 7]

Detheux Before staring to work full time with the digital medium, I would have totally agreed with you. But now I don't! There is a surface when one is working only as long as one has not reached that point of transcendence at which the image ceases to be an image, and becomes a totally credible world, a "space." It was for me a surprise (maybe) to realize, experientially, that the image we work on and towards is, above all, a "mental image." By that I don't mean that we have a clear mental image in our mind working to transpose it on canvas or screen, but instead, that we have this "feeling"—"intuition" may be a better term—which one needs to grope towards, by trial and error, until, through diligent work and seeing it for the first time, it is being "recognized" there on the screen or canvas/paper/whatever (though very often, it is simply abandoned, only to be recognized much later when one is free of the psychological tension present during the work).

What I meant when I talked about being in a familiar "bubble" when sitting for the very first time at a Mac, using Painter, is very much that: After a few short minutes on that first computer, I was again experiencing a credible world made of marks, strokes and colors, a credible world that would not exist without my being there painting, but yet that cannot be called "mine." I like Picasso's "what saved me is that I became much more interested in what I found than in what I was looking for."

What is really magical in art, and a real paradox, is to reach this point at which one "knows" one is in a totally fabricated universe, but nevertheless, this fabrication takes on a life of its own and attains total credibility, becoming "other."

A big dilemma again, to fall totally in the belief that the painting is "real" is akin to madness, but to remain strictly at the level of "surface and design elements" is meekness. This is a "space" that is available only to personal experience; we can't describe it too well with words, though the better writers can bring it to life as an experience, but not as an explanation.

Nagel That's true about the surface. Nevertheless, the surface is such an integral part of the process—the way the media works with the texture, the way it feels and the way it can dictate the application of stroke and pressure. You don't miss this at all?

Detheux I don't miss it at all because, at my "best" time with natural media, those things would vanish and I would be in presence of (or rather inside of) a totally "real" world, no longer made of strokes and colors, but a really real world that would rival "reality" and often become a lot more credible than "the world."

I think it is Giacometti who said something like: "When going into a gallery, don't just look at the paintings, look at the people looking at the paintings. If the paintings can't compete for reality status with the people looking at them, they're just mere images, not Art." (My paraphrasing here.)

Besides, with glorious applications like Painter and Studio Artist, one has immediate access to much of the best of what natural media can offer, and then some.

Nagel Have you ever thought of strapping canvas or burlap or something over your tablet? Even just too see what would happen?

Detheux At first, I found the tablet surface a bit too slippery, so I taped a piece of paper to it to slow down the stylus. Then, something changed in my way of working; I no longer feed directly from my physical, tactile sensations, but rather, I seem to have connected "directly" with what happens on the screen, and that totally dictates what my body does. It is no longer how it feels to do it, but rather it is now "what it does."

This is so very similar to my best moments with natural media, when there ware moments of grace during which all there was was the sound of the brush tip on the canvas, and I was there watching an image being born as if done by itself.

This is happening very often now with the digital media.

Philip Guston, one of my "heroes," once quoted John Cage: "When you start working, you are in your studio, along with all your ideas, and your friend's ideas, and the works you admire and the ones you don't like at all. They are all there with you. As you keep on working, and if you are lucky, they start leaving, one by one. Now, if you carry on, and if you are very lucky, even you leave!"

Nagel I've seen you refer to your art as "digital abstract expressionism." Can you tell me what this means to you?

Detheux I will first give a definition of an "abstract expressionist" offered to me many years ago by a NY painter friend: "We had this immigrant plasterer come on our house to fix some damaged walls. I noticed he was having problems with a particularly difficult corner, doing it carefully only to knock it down, redoing it again and again. Now I knew enough about plastering to ask him why he was not using a metal corner bead. He replied: 'That would be cheating!'"

That was an "abstract expressionist plasterer!"


"Painter 11" from "Group L." Click image to see the series.
Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

"Abstract expressionism" is to me an approach to painting that attempts to connect with what we are at our deepest core, without reverting to "good taste" or any other similarly limiting conceptual "filters." In that sense, either we believe that art is inherent or that it is acquired. Having been trained in art through many years in a very good European art school, I can tell from experience that what is available through acquired knowledge does not amount to much if one is looking for meaning, for "intrinsic worth." What I feel is needed comes from another direction; it comes from what is "always-already-there" (as Heidegger might have said). That requires one work much more by de-learning than by accumulating knowledge, something I was "familiar" with in my natural media days, and pleasantly surprised to see it could carry on also in the digital medium. This is akin to working on Being instead of Having, and is very much a process of attrition.

Nagel Explain the "Being" versus "Having."

Detheux I most certainly cannot do that, zillions of books on philosophy have tried to do it, and look at the world we live in now after all that effort! However, I can say this: either we are, as we are, whole and complete, or we have to fabricate our "self" by adding this and that.

I strongly suspect that the best of our being is there with us as we are when we are born, while we often cover that inherent state with a lot of acquired "stuff."

Much of our work, especially but not exclusively in Art, is to recover conscious contact with that initial state.

An apparent lack of Being cannot be compensated by an excess of Having; adding more cabbage to cabbage is hardly removing weight off of one's shoulders.

Nagel You're never going to have anything near a consensus on this concept. I think there's something Deconstructionist about it—at least if you stick to the principal Deconstructionists. And yet, "subversion is affirmation," right? Your work is not non-referential. There's geometry, color theory, a very well trained composition and stroke and even history. You're not going to convince me that simply getting in touch with your being is what's responsible for your work. There's training, talent and the evolution of several forms.

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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.