Stylus and palette | February 17, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 17, 2006

Stylus and palette

Still seeking widespread acceptance, digital paintings and sculpture are focus of new exhibit

by Rebecca Wallace

You leave your shoes behind at the doorstep of Corinne Whitaker's 100-year-old Palo Alto house, slipping in socks over a bamboo floor and then into the warmth of a suede rug from India that looks like a pile of leaves.

Visitors from a century ago would surely be agape by this point. In the large rooms are works of art as modern as tomorrow: digital paintings of twists and undulations printed on panels of crisp aluminum, a crystal blob that lights up inside, and white sculptures made from the same polyurethane used by NASA in its space program.

Whitaker designed them all on a computer, her artistic tool of choice and a source of constant fascination. It's all about, as she once wrote, "taking control of the vocabulary of the computer and turning it into a vehicle of feeling."

More simply, Whitaker just loves working on a machine, painting with a stylus on an electrostatic tablet, using technology that is always growing.

"It's magical," she says, her pale blue eyes merry. "The thing that people forget is that computers are fun. They're for play."

Even in Silicon Valley, where high-tech is old news, something still feels fresh about digital art. There's the vast palette of colors ("You have 24 million, and the human eye can see 7 million," Whitaker points out), and the otherworldliness of the images.

For example, there are what she calls her "blobs," three-dimensional sculptural renderings with abstract, curving shapes. Some have been put into solid form through a computer-to-computer process called "rapid prototyping." One work, "My Translucent Self," is in silky polyurethane that looks like glass.

The blobs are her visions of what the human race could become through a futuristic evolution. "I didn't want to get trapped in the human species and our way of looking at things," she said.

The way of looking at digital art is still in flux. Despite growing acceptance, the medium is still coming into its own. Whitaker's exhibition later this month at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto will be the league's first all-digital art show. Many people still debate whether digital tools are as valid as paintbrushes and chisels.

"I think it's going to be a long time before it's mainstream," Whitaker said. "Fifteen years ago there was an exhibit called 'Is it art?' Maybe we're not past that."

Even among artists themselves, debates continue. Recently on Conceptart.org, a network of concept artists who create ideas for video games, movies and comic books, one artist recalled talking to a sculpture teacher about 3-D modeling. The teacher objected to calling the modeling digital sculpture, saying, "it isn't really sculpture."

This sparked a lively conversation. Some artists said the only difference between digital sculpting and physical sculpting is the choice of tools. Another objected, saying digital work "CAN NOT BE TRUE SCULPTURE" because it's not carved by a sculptor in real space.

Finally, one artist concluded, "We're in need of more words."

At the Pacific Art League, gallery director Deb Killeen said the response to digital pieces there by visitors and member artists has been mixed.

"They'll say 'ooh' and 'aah,' or they'll turn their noses up at it," she said. "It's kind of an evolution of experience that people have to have and then validate it."

As for Killeen, she's looking forward to Whitaker's show. The Feb. 24-27 show will be the first in a series of short shows where artists rent the downstairs gallery for a few days. This way, more artists can use the more-visible space, as opposed to the upstairs gallery, she said.

Killeen, herself an artist, admits she doesn't know much about digital art, but says it's a perfectly valid medium.

"It's another tool. It's another brush," she said. "If the end product is creative and original and shows good technique and talent there, it's art."

For digital artists, the tools are part of the excitement, be they software, styluses or 30-inch monitors. Whitaker uses four computers and often works on Adobe Photoshop as part of her vast range of software.

Helen Golden, another Palo Alto digital artist, is also a fan of Photoshop, as well as of Painter and Genuine Fractals. She also throws in such traditional tools as photography and etching, creating fusions she calls "tradigital." She works in the former family room of her house, with space to spread out and paint and glue.

"I can jump back and forth from one tool to another when I am creating a piece; why should I be limited?" she said.

Golden believes improvements in technology may be helping digital art become more widely accepted. For example, more companies are improving inks and paper.

"As the colors and media are now so refined and quite archival, more folks are willing to show and sell the work for us," she said.

Still, she notes that some gallery and museum officials still "sternly advise artists that digital work will not be accepted for their exhibition."

Whitaker seems unfazed by the ongoing debate. At 71, she's a veteran of the digital art world, having caught the bug in 1981, when she bought her first Apple IIE. There were no menus, no mouse, no paint programs.

"There was no one to tell you what to do, so we just sat at the keyboard and played," she recalled. In some of her artistic experiments, she created images by feeding irrational numbers into science programs. When the first scanners became available, she scanned her own driver's license photo and manipulated it.

These days, technology makes it much easier to make her sculptures solid. In the old days, she had to painstakingly recreate her computer-generated blobs with clay. "Lip Service," a large white sculpture, took a year and a half to make solid.

Is what she does art? Of course, she says: "I'm painting and drawing. Each one is unique."

If digital art takes time to get mainstream recognition, so be it. "It took people 150 years to recognize photography," she said.

What: An exhibit of digital paintings and sculpture by Palo Alto artist Corinne Whitaker

Where: Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona St., Palo Alto

When: Friday, Feb. 24, through Monday, Feb. 27. A public reception is planned from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday.

Cost: Free

Info: Information on Whitaker's work is at www.giraffe.com. For more about Helen Golden's work, go to www.helengolden.com.

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