Monday, 12 July 2010

Through a glass brightly

(Fernand Léger's stained-glass window at Central University of Venezuela courtesy of Caracas 1830).

David Hockney made quite a splash last year with his iPhone art. The light, the colour, the spontaneity, the freshness all gave his images a distinct appeal. And as you'd expect with any new art form, people are working through its potential, including how these works might be displayed. Just because it was made on an iPhone, doesn't mean it will only ever be viewed in the palm of your hand.

Tinker, a design business based in London's Shoreditch, has come up with a means of displaying Hockney's art in a more traditional fashion, i.e. on a wall. Their project involved taking a number of iPod touches and embedding them in a frame, where they display the artist's jewel-like pictures.

Alex Deschamps-Sonsino, Tinker's CEO, explained to me how the framed screens are programmable, the idea being that you can remotely upload whatever picture you'd like or, perhaps more interestingly, subscribe to an artist's image feed. Hockney tends to email his i-art to his friends as it's made - often in the early morning, which is why it so often features sunrises. Imagine waking up in the morning to find your daily art has already been delivered, digitally and fresh from the artist's screen.

The use of iPod touches does have its problems, however. They're small and you need a few of them to create visual impact across a room. Hockney is now making use of the larger iPad, whose size makes it a more suitable vehicle for wall-mounted digital art. Perhaps the frame could be some sort of recharging station whereby you could make aesthetic use of your iPad when you're not holding it?

But how about TVs? Flat-screen TVs have long been pushed as a way to display art (and now in HD) but without ever really taking off. Perhaps we should persist with them? Personally, I think not: in my book TVs are for watching, not looking. Displaying art at such a focal point places a burden on it that it's not designed to bear: art in a domestic setting really should be peripheral, available for the refreshing glance or to turn to for some quiet contemplation. A TV, perhaps a bit mysteriously, doesn't seem to fit the bill.

My own preference would be to go with an outsize, high quality, strongly-lit, digital glass photo frame, the ones with connectivity and a memory.

I suspect, though, that domestic digital art will only really catch on when you have a wide variety of decent artists producing for the market. Where might these artists find inspiration? Certainly, the possibilities of a new medium are exciting. But I would argue inspiration is available by looking back as well as looking forward. You see, this art form isn't as novel as we might first assume. In fact, one could argue that what we're actually witnessing is the rebirth of a rather ancient artistic medium.

All pictures use light, of course: its bouncing off the surfaces of an oil painting, for instance, creates the multifarious effects that make the possibilities of this form practically inexhaustible. However, Hockney's digital paintings use light not to reflect off surfaces but to illuminate them; the light doesn't fall on them, it's emitted by them. This illumination gives them a boldness and, depending on the colours used, a freshness or a warmth that cannot be consistently reproduced in painting. They're decoration but also potentially a light source, so able to project colours and create moods.

A moment's thought will tell you that these effects and their application are actually very well known. Until relatively recently they had been explored and implemented by a whole class of craftsmen and artists and for hundreds of years. I'm talking about another form of illuminated wall decoration, the stained-glass window.

A number of modern artists have used this medium, including Léger (top), Richter, Doesburg (above) and Chagall. But the last group of artists and craftsmen to have regarded the stained glass window as a central and vernacular means of expression were those associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, itself born out of the Pugin-led Gothic Revival.

An artist who I'm familiar with (from St Mary's Church in Bibury) who continued to work in this revived tradition well into the twentieth century was Karl Parsons, whose windows are to be found across England and Wales. Their vivid colour combinations and sheer effervescence make them a joy.

It's intriguing to consider the possibilities here. Firstly, old wine might be put into new bottles. We might be able to enjoy in our homes a detail from one of Parsons' windows or something from one of the glories of Gothic, such as Chartres's Rose Window. Or if straightforwardly religious art isn't something you'd consider then perhaps a scaled-down version of an entire modernist window such as Doesberg's one above might suit? Or alternatively a piece whose abstract qualities come from its materials such as the one (right) from Zurich that incorporates slices of agate, or a section of one of the alabaster windows of Orvieto Cathedral.

However, the new is often made by finding inspiration in the old, by reworking and reinterpreting it. Certainly, contemporary artists such as Hockney, David Kassan and Brian Eno - whose  ambitious 77 million paintings project mustn't go unmentioned here - are blazing a variety of trails. But perhaps digital artists of the future might be able to rework the aesthetics of this thousand-year old stained-glass tradition? If so, who knows what might be produced? From the Renaissance and its classical antecedents to Modernism and the inspiration it found in the 'primitive', artists have always been inspired to innovate under the influence of strange and distant traditions.


Brit said...

It's an intriguing idea. A big iFrame on the wall, and you can download artworks for a quid each. The National Gallery could be the new iTunes.

worm said...

as new display technology comes on board, I'm sure we'll see all kinds of things like this coming into play, where perhaps the structure of the house and windows works in a similar way to a chameleon's skin, and you can change light, shadow, pattern and colour of wall, windows and rooms to suit.

Gaw said...

Brit: That's an excellent idea. Imagine a National Portrait Gallery subscription where you could get a different random portrait every week. That would be fascinating.

Worm: Sounds great! Our rackety Victorian terrace would be a challenge but would look pretty fascinating if it did happen. When though, I wonder?

Malty: I shall purchase a foil-covered disc of chocolate forthwith. Thanks for the gorgeous images from St Andrews church. They look a treat. But the Parsons window in St Mary's Church in Bibury is unmatched, for me at any rate.