In our latest AD MAG feature, contributing writer, Andrew Reach, conducts an oral history with digital art pioneer, Steve Sherrell. An artist and educator, Sherrell is one of the digital art world’s standout creatives, bringing to the fore a wealth of knowledge about the technology and the people involved, whose influence has shaped contemporary, new media and digital art. And tracing his artistic roots back through the contemporary, to pre-war Modernism, he holds a firm belief that core truths put in motion at the Bauhaus school nearly 100 years ago, are alive and well today, saying of digital art:
“When I started working with that first Amiga, I realized that if Kandinsky were alive at that moment, he would have been a computer artist…in today’s world the computer is used for all sorts of permutations of visual art, but in reality the computer uses binary numbers to do everything…inherently it is Bauhaus, if you think about it…aesthetically, that is still an interesting space”
An Interesting Space
Andrew Reach Interviews Steve Sherrell
Andrew Reach (AR): Hello Steve. Welcome to the Interview.
Steve Sherrell (SS): Thank you, Andrew. It is my pleasure.
AR: Give us a little background about yourself. Where were you raised and could you give us some insight to what led you to decide to devote your life to the arts?
SS: I was born in Muncie Indiana, at the midpoint of the 20th century. At this point in time there was very little contemporary art in the United States, and what art there was a contemporary nature was being done in New York City. My father was a window trimmer for an upscale department store located in the small town of Muncie. The store was owned by the Ball family who also owned the Ball Corporation that made canning jars. They also founded Ball State University, which is also in Muncie. At that time windows were very important to department stores because there was a much greater pedestrian presence in towns and my father was regularly sent to New York to look at display windows.
My father was an artist also, so while he was in New York he took time to see the latest trends in art. This helped him as an artist and also helped the company because his display work was up to date. It also introduced me to the notion of ‘cool’ before it had reached my town through the media.
I grew up without much pressure and I really didn’t get a lot of training as an artist when I was young. The art that my father was doing was very contemporary and all around me. I grew up with many books around the house about art but the local school system was rather backwater and didn’t really understand the type of art that I was looking at. I was looking at Modigliani and Picasso, Pollack and Pop when the other kids in my school were looking at, well honestly, not much of anything. You have to realize that out there in America in the 50s, even someone as traditional seeming as Reginald Marsh would be considered outrageously progressive. Someone like Jackson Pollock had not even been derided by Time magazine as “Jack the Dripper” yet.
Art was not common. I came to my seventh grade class with an abstract drawing and was told by my art teacher that “we don’t do those kind of things”
So from early on, I was a rebel. Art was not really important to me at that point so I concentrated on rampant curiosity and running wild, much to the chagrin of my parents. But in the late 60s my rebelliousness helped me, considering the cultural climate. In 1968, after I went to Woodstock, of course, I thought I’d take a drawing class at Ball State where I was enrolled at the time and while doing my second drawing I had an epiphany. I completely realized that I was an artist and that I would be the rest of my life.
Then it was just finding a place that fit. That place was the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I moved to Chicago in 1972 with my wife and my baby daughter and started attending classes in 1973. I finished my bachelor’s degree in 1977 in painting and drawing in my Masters degree in painting and drawing in 1978.
AR: Max Eternity, founder and publisher of Art Digital Magazine coined the acronym TADAE which stands for Traditional and Digital Artist Engineer. We see a shift where artists are embracing science and technology and expanding their arsenal of tools beyond the paint brush. You have a traditional artist background and have expanded from paintings and mixed media to digital photography and digital art. Could you fill in the blanks as to how this transformation happened?
SS: I remember talking with one of my teachers in the late 1960s about the potential for computers and the notion of design. At that point computers were only punch card systems that basically formed perfunctory math and business tasks. But my studies as an artist took precedence over my curiosity as a budding computer engineer and for 20 years I studied the art of painting and drawing while showing pretty extensively in the Chicago art scene.
I come from a background of hands-on designers who considered craftsmanship and old-school technical skills as a prerequisite to any kind of art. Things like being able to build something square or being able to join things together that look nice or being able to cut a line were of great importance. I spent a lot of time learning how to hand letter signs, for example. But I also spent a lot of time studying art history and looking at the physical way that art was made. I’ve always believed that art is a handmade entity ultimately, even digital art.
I was teaching painting and drawing in the late 1980s and the school had one Macintosh computer. I was fascinated with the computer although the fellow who controlled it was not very cooperative about me playing with it. It really didn’t matter because at that time I was trying to get a job in painting and drawing and it really didn’t seem to me that learning the computer was so important. In the early 1990s a very good friend of mine was studying printmaking at the University of Wisconsin. He had access to some very high-end computers and was very excited about the future of computers. We spent a day discussing the possibilities at the Art Institute of Chicago while walking around the collections. He convinced me that I should look into Amiga computers and I did. When my Dean told me that my future as a teacher would be greatly enhanced with computer experience, I started to get excited about the possibilities. I purchased an Amiga 1200 with a 60 meg hard drive and 1 MB of RAM and started working with Dpaint.
Amigas were amazing computers in those days. They had spent much time developing their graphic capabilities and independent developers had developed very good graphics programs. DPaint, for example, had features in it that rival and exceed certain paint programs that are available today. The pictures that were created with DPaint were incredibly small, and I could fit eight to 10 of them on a floppy disk . This allowed me a flexibility of doing work that could be sent to places for entry into competitions for very little money and very little headache. This was long before the Internet was as versatile as it is today and long before the transferring of files was as easy as it is today. Scanner technology was expensive and touchy so I just made art completely with the computer without many filters or tricks. My work then was 640 X 480 interlaced.
So I started as a computer artist at a time when it was almost like being a child playing with a new toy. Considering the type of curiosity and creativity that I have, this was a good fit for me. Plus Amigas were almost impossible to destroy and were WYSIWYG, so I could play around with the computer and learn the way that computers worked without having to worry about hurting things or learning [Arggg] code. Shortly thereafter my Dean found out that I had been in some shows in Europe of computer art and asked me to teach graphic design. They gave me some money to buy a Mac and I learned how to use Photoshop, Illustrator and Pagemaker.
I became versed in Apple Computers and then learned how to use PCs. I started with Photoshop 3 and a couple other programs and have worked ever since with a variety of different kinds of computers and software.
I developed one of the first computer art courses in the state of Illinois in the late 90s that I have taught ever since. I’ve been making art on the computer for 20 years. I’m interested in all the possibilities of how you use a computer to make art, including printing, transfer methods, and just painting and drawing the output of the computer onto large format old-school art materials.
AR: Your work is of many varied themes, informed by many sources, especially art history, taking cues and making references to such varied sources as the Romanticism of a J.M. Turner Landscape, to the plasticity of Kandinksy to the dreamy transformations of the surrealists to name just a few. Could you expand on how you take so many disparate ingredients, mixed them all up in a big cauldron and create a wholly original Steve Sherrell?
SS: Originality is interesting question for an artist. I’ve been looking and thinking about art my whole life and have lived through a time when the nature of art has evolved in very many ways. For example I saw Robert Motherwell speak in the early 70s during the inception of of body art, Pop and Op, Performance and Fluxus and the dawning of conceptual art. Motherwell said at the time that objectivism had been solved by Bauhaus, the abstract expressionists had finished off subjectivism and the rest was Marcel Duchamp. Considering that Motherwell was the person who brought the DADA papers into the New York art scene after they had been rescued from Germany I thought his observations were particularly insightful. He said that the new artist would find a way to reconcile all these different ideas.
Coincidentally at this time I was studying with a New York artist named Jonathan Borofsky who was a conceptual artist that was starting to branch away from pure conceptualism and moving toward a sort of open approach to art making, where everything was allowed to happen freely. I was working on a large painting that was eventually shown in a large show at the Art Institute. He told me that the painting was great but he said there is much more to art than just creating things that the public would respond to. He told me that an artist should never hold back anything; that the new role of the artist was to be observer and creator without concerns for past work or current styles. So I started down the path of just doing whatever I felt like I should do regardless of the consequences.
At that time the gallery system demanded a signature style, so what I tried to do was work in groups or series so that if someone was interested in a certain type of work that I was doing I could pull together a show without much trouble. I adopted this idea 40 years ago and it has served me well ever since. This is now considered a postmodern stance but whatever the label, I have been doing it for a long time.
As for your observation about art history, that is interesting. Many people today consider saying something looks like art or art history as a derogatory statement. But then when you look at their work most of the time it is stuff that I’ve seen many times in the past in an art context. For example one of my students has been gold leafing tools. Clive Barker did that in the 60s, Jeff Koons did it in the 80s, so originality is a treacherous subject. I mentioned before that Motherwell said everything else was Duchamp. It seems to me that the reality of the situation is that there are certain artists you can be influenced by and certain artists you can’t be influenced by without wandering into the situation where people will say that you’re not original.
Honestly I don’t care if you see some Kandinsky in my work, how could an abstract artist not have Kandinsky in their work? I’m not ignorant of art history and I love it and my memory banks are full of it and I don’t care about influences, so for me it’s a joy. If I could be a quarter as good as Picasso or Turner or Philip Guston or Gerhard Richter my life would be complete.
AR: On your website you have seven different categories of digital work. One of the categories is a series of beautiful fantastical portraits titled Cosmolina. For me they are reminiscent of Ed Paschke’s portraits, whose work first made me aware of the Chicago art movement of the Imagists. They are beautifully crafted with highly worked and densely populated symmetrical overlays of texture, fauna and pattern. What are these works about? Do they have a connection to the influence of the Chicago Imagists?
SS: I’m glad you caught that. My mentors were Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead. Ray was also the teacher of Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg and many of the rest of the second-generation imagist artists who went by the moniker “Harry Who”. Ed Paschke did not study with Ray, in fact when I was in school he was teaching at Northwestern University. At that time I worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and those guys were around all the time. I knew some of them well and knew some of them slightly but I knew their work and couldn’t help being influenced by it. I used to hang around with Roger Brown’s brother, Greg. We were in a cooperative gallery together called West Hubbard Gallery that was part of the cooperative scene in the late 70s on Hubbard Street in Chicago. (I am currently with a co-op called 33 Collective in Bridgeport in Chicago at the Zhou B Center)
Chicago is a very large art scene and runs on its own rules. It’s also a tough art scene and many of the artists that leave the Chicago art scene for other places do really well. Chicago teaches them how to be tough and competitive and unafraid to be yourself. Jeff Koons also came from the scene. In fact we had Studios next door to each other in undergraduate school and were friends. He became friends with Ed Paschke and studied with him before going on to New York and to fame and fortune. Unfortunately pursuing the traditional imagist path became a losing proposition by the 80s. A friend of mine was in a three-person show with Roger Brown and Ed Paschke, but by that time imagism was fading and my friend did not achieve the fame of either of the two.
Cosmolina developed from a couple different ideas. One of the ideas is one that has been bantered around and involves itself with the nature of perfect human beauty. The other idea has to do with the notion of individual persona versus combining various aspects of different persona into a face. The girl that is in most of the pictures is named Candace Anderson and was a model that I used for my life drawing class for a few years. As you can see she is a very beautiful girl and I took some photographs of her face just to see what I could do with them. First off I divided her face down the center and made two faces, one with each side of her face repeated and reversed. These were two different faces completely although belonging to the same person. Since they say that beauty is symmetrical this seemed logical to me and it also gave me two different models that I could work from. I then became interested in overlays and how symmetrical overlays could be used in conjunction with the notion of beauty and particularly the notion of beauty in a human face. For many years I’ve been doing open-ended computer pieces that were never meant to be finished pieces in themselves but could serve as backgrounds, drop-ins and all sorts of other things when I needed something like that to embellish a piece. So I started dropping things over the top of the face and realized that it led to all different kinds of possibilities. The face could be extremely removed from a piece and still be there and that beauty could find its way through huge amounts of layers and still shine from below. So in a funny way these were imagist and in a funny way they weren’t because imagists were never concerned with beauty, except maybe the beauty of the surface of the painting. But by studying beauty one also can understand ugliness and understand the point where something that’s beautiful can carry with it many things that one would not traditionally associated with beauty.
Cosmolina also became the female Archetype. She became a sort of emblem of my love of people and their persona and my intrigue with the human face. She also served as a sort of muse; one that is related to the “V” of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name. Her beauty is ideal but also mechanized, a facsimile of a face or a robot face. Maybe the face of the computer muse.
So perhaps she became the muse for my love of the computer and it’s capabilities of creating worlds so complex and rich, so divergent and complete that some are drawn to completely immerse themselves in that reality while forgetting their place in the real reality. Maybe Cosmolina is a metaphor for that thing that the computer draws us to look for in its hidden places, that thing we are all looking for and find hints of in everything we do.
I still, even after using the computer for 20 years, am finding new and unique ways to use the computer’s possibilities. It has both expanded my capabilities technologically and traditionally, with old school materials. It has made me a much better painter, made me much more productive, given me ways of both visualizing and creating very original art, while giving me outlets and promotional tools undreamed of as a child. It is a perfect art machine and a great medium.
AR: Being an Architect as well as an artist, an aspect that speaks to me personally in many of the works is a constructivist and architectural quality they have. Pieces like “MacGoofhaus”, “Structuro” and “Tower” are constructivist compositions of architectonic shapes and colors all seeming to defy gravity. Coined Goofypics, they are playful and inventive. You talked earlier that you learned early on the importance of craftsmanship and technical skills; being able to build something and make it square, cutting a straight line and that comes through in these works. Could you elaborate more on the architectural connection and the idea of craftsmanship and how it plays into new digital paradigms?
SS: It’s interesting that you ask me this question. Lately I’ve been looking at the art of Lazlo Maholy Nagy, a constructivist and teacher at the Bauhaus. My computer art grew out of my painting, and my painting ideas formulated my early experimentation with the computer as an art making tool. As a painter I never broke away from the notion of the rectangle as picture plane. I do not believe painting is dead. I was never really drawn to conceptual art and I’ve never been really drawn to deconstruction so constructivism is a logical place for me to be. Architecture is constructive by nature. I suppose there is deconstructive architecture but I think of deconstructed architecture as rubble. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of the varieties of the way that one can create space in a rectangle. And when I say create space I mean both 2-D and 3-D space as it’s perceived in a painted environment. In other words I start with the rectangle and I start to compose a spatial construction within it. I was doing that before I started working with the computer and it was a logical step considering the constraints that early computer art tools had.
Almost immediately, when I started working with that first Amiga, I realized that if Kandinsky were alive at that moment, he would have been a computer artist. In a sort of logical way the computer is an objective machine. In today’s world the computer is used for all sorts of permutations of visual art, but in reality the computer uses binary numbers to do everything. Inherently it is Bauhaus, if you think about it. Bauhaus was Architecture. So it is a hop-skip-jump from digital space to massive real world objects like buildings. They say we live in a media world, but I live in a world of architecture mixed with nature. Aesthetically, that is still an interesting space.
I also have a romantic side that manifests itself in other things that I do, so the other functions that a computer provides also interest me, but honestly as time goes by I’m more and more fascinated by the intellectual process that I used when I did my first computer paintings and become less and less interested in using scans and pre-existing imagery. Except for photography, which I see now as purely digital phenomena, I love to think of the computer as an art making device.
AR: I’d like to probe a little bit into your teaching. You pioneered in computer art education with the computer art curriculum you developed in the 90s. What are the principles of your curriculum and could you tell us about your personal experience of teaching computer art?
SS: I teach at a junior college and we have a nice art department, but we have a great many students who come in from other disciplines to take our classes. We have strong set of art students but we also have many students who are interested in graphic design, web design and other areas of the applied arts. Some of the students who take my computer art courses are artistic in the traditional sense but some of the new type of students in the computer arts don’t take traditional art classes at all, but are very involved with Deviant-Art, graffiti and illustration. Many students feel intimidated by working on paper or canvas but don’t feel the same sorts of fears when working with the computer. In fact for many of the students it becomes an outlet for their creativity that art never provided them.
My curriculum starts out with three lessons that teach basic skills with the computer. The first is a painting and drawing assignment where I don’t allow the students to use any scanned images. The second assignment has to do with cutting and pasting so that they can learn techniques in Photoshop. The third lesson involves image composting and the fourth introduces a theme (nostalgia). Each of those lessons requires that they do three pictures, 8 x 10 inches at 300 dpi. After that they are just required to do a set number of pictures.
I’ve always believed that each artist is an individual and things that move an artist are the artist’s choice. But I also believe that young people are not very sophisticated when it comes to the arts and so I encourage them to look at computer art. However, in the classroom I talk about contemporary art and I show how contemporary art connects to what you can do with the computer. For example, next class I’m going to talk about Dada and show them the work of Francis Picabia, who pioneered the idea of image composting. My goal is to try to help them learn to make high-quality artwork while still operating in the world of digital images.
AR: Looking at your newest work in your “20 Newest Pieces” gallery page, in addition to your digital work you’re working in a wide range of media. There are acrylics on canvas, acrylics with collage, watercolor on paper, mixed on board and crayon on board. Do you work concurrently on different pieces, switching back and forth between digital and traditional? Do different ideas that you want to express intuitively want to be in one medium or another? It would be interesting to hear how that process works.
SS: I have an exhibit opening at 33 Collective Gallery in Chicago in November that I’m thinking of titling “Unstable, new work by Steve Sherrell” Another title I was considering is “All over the Place” LOL. I am not an artist with a signature style.
My answer to your question is: Whatever I feel like doing, I do. I do not confine myself to one thing, one medium or one type of art. I generally call myself a painter and digital artist. Right now I am working on two encaustic pieces done with crayon, a large acrylic painting (5 feet by 8 feet) and I am pricing out 2 large computer prints for my exhibit.
I am really interested in crossing back and forth between the possibilities of bringing digital things into the real world via traditional means. For example, I have been using transfer processes to place hand worked digital photography onto painted substrates. The process hides the fact that it was glued onto the surface so it has a kind of Trompe l’oile quality. Maybe like Trompe l’photograph… People cannot figure out what they are looking at.
I work fluently in oil, acrylic, encaustic, watercolor, tempera, collage, bricolage and various digital means. I am really less interested in printed digital giclee than I am in various left handed methods to bring stuff out of the box. So when I say I am going to have things printed, I may end up printing the large pieces with a color laser and work them onto a treated surface. I will decide when I get the itch.
AR: Again looking at the “20 Newest Pieces” gallery, I’m focusing on the digital work. Some of works are so painterly like “Heart” and “Pod”. They are as fluid and organic as any painting, drawing or watercolor could be. And then, compare these to another series of works like “Jewel” and “Somewhat near bliss” which feels purely ‘digital’. This diversity of technique, I think shows your versatility of the medium and reinforces your championing of craftsmanship. The painterly works are looser and freer than your earlier works. Could you tell us more about them?
SS: I remember when I first started working and printing with the computer. I had an early Hewlett-Packard printer. The drivers that were included on the Amiga were not very good so everything pretty much had to be set up by hand, including color matching. I had to do about 200 prints and keep the logs of what the settings were so that I could print to match the colors on the screen.
I say this because in my early days working digitally everything I was doing I was making up. It was sort of like being a child with a really complicated toy. The first Amiga was a very computery computer. It didn’t really cross into other worlds very well. The highest resolution was 640×480 so detail wasn’t very easy to achieve. When I started working with my first Macs and started scanning imagery I began to see the potential of detail and sensitivity that the computer had. Today that detail and sensitivity is obvious and completely manifest in video games and films. So as I started to see the sensitivity coming into the medium I decided that I would try to emulate various real-world situations (at least my real world) and started to try to use the computer to emulate painting, drawing and true collage.
It is not a complicated process to make a digital piece look like painting. The difficulty lies in understanding the difference between what a painting and a digital piece of work looks like. Another way of saying this is: paintings have their own logic and computer work has its own logic. What you have to do is try to bend the computer’s logic towards painting logic and then the bend painting logic towards computer logic. That seems complicated, I know, but it is a subtle but very important difference between the two mediums.
I was talking with a student who has been a photographer for a very long time. He took my class to learn to make versions of his portraits that look like paintings. He understands photography but does not know painting so he is a little frustrated because as he says “Painting on the computer is really just smearing stuff” I will have to figure out a way for him to see the difference. Perhaps I will take him down to the painting room.
AR: The new works “Jewel” and “Somewhat near bliss” that I mentioned before, I characterized as purely digital because you comment on your ACM Siggraph page about them:
“I am attempting to use the computer as a pure medium with no tricks except the ones that are natural to the medium.”
These beautiful works feel like atomic waves and particles in flux as if energized by some hidden energy source. Could you tell us a little about these works and expand on your statement about computers as a pure medium?
SS: I was thinking when I completed “Somewhat near bliss” that bliss is a pure state, one that has to go clear down to the molecular level. All things in the universe are both possible and improbable. We come near to that perfection, but never really achieve it unless we are very, very lucky. I’ve been reading Deepok Chopra lately and have been contemplating the idea of source versus manifestation. It seems that source can be pure, because it does not need to really exist. It can just stay an idea, a possibility.
When you cook a very complicated dish, a curry or a pie, you leave behind a good amount of waste and clutter. You need to clean up afterwards. Then you eat the food and it always falls a little short of your hopes of what it could have been. Then it is gone, just a memory. When it was just a thought, an idea, it was perfect.
Painting is like that; dirty and complicated, falling a little short. It always disappoints on some level. It can send you on an inspiration high to the moon, but Mars still floats out there, waiting for the next attempt.
Inside the computer, there is a form of purity. It is an electrical, digital purity. It never spills out onto the floor. It does not contain grit or dirt. That world is different from our world. It is somewhat like the molecular level of bliss. But unlike bliss, which we can only imagine in our mind, the world inside the computer is visible. We can see it with our eyes, but it is only a flickering image. We can look, just to get a little peek, but then we move on and go about the business of reordering those things we can fix and living with the disappointment of those we have no control over. We can get “Somewhat near” bliss, but even the pure place of the digital, can never achieve it fully.
The thing that intrigues me the most is that the computer is really out of this world. The minute that you bring a real, scanned or photographed image in, you sort of corrupt something that is pure. Not to say that doing so is bad, just that a change occurs.
I have had about 25 real world exhibits in the last two years. I have been so busy making things to show that I haven’t been able to spend much time working on the digital stuff. I look forward to this winter, when everything is hibernating, to go deeply into the computer and make new things.