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Virtual Tools, Painterly Product Stars Magazine / October 1999

Digital artist harnesses the power of technology to fuel his passion for art.


By Katherine Rushworth


Manhattan-based digital artist Frank Gillette works in a virtual studio. Missing from his studio are the common adornments of a painter's trade—the stretched canvases, paintbrushes and pungent odors of turpentine and paint. Instead, Gillette's studio is home to 2 Mac computers and probably every piece of peripheral computer equipment available. The only noticeable odor wafts from his glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Gillette says it's quite simple to conceptualize his virtual studio.


“Think of 640 MB of RAM as physical space,” he says. “Within that space,” he continues, “I could lay out 500 tables with an individual painting on each one and could be working on them all at once.” For an artist, this is a dream come true, but it gets even better than this. “I work with a virtual palette of (millions of colors), and each painting could have its own, separate, dedicated palette,” he says. High-end Macs can generate 16.7 million colors. This could make the folks at Crayola lay awake at night. He brought some of that work to the Everson Museum of Art, 401 Harrison St., Syracuse, where his show, “Frank Gillette: Digital Images, 1994-1999," is on view through Feb. 13.


Gillette's original objective in the amorphous walls of his virtual studio was to meld the technologies of today with the techniques of yesterday. “I am very interested in treating digital media as closely as possible to a Baroque, painterly way,” he says, “the question, for me, is how do you translate the pictorial structure of Baroque painting to digital media?” The answer, it appears, is “quite well.” To hear Gillette describe his medium is like listening to an art historian discuss Baroque painting. Ceno terminologies color his descriptions of his work,


Words such as chiaroscuro  the treatment and use of light and dark; sfumato, a smoke-like haziness that softens outlines; and pentimento, the presence or emergence of earlier images, pepper his conversation.


He then employs terms from “cyberscat,” the vernacular evolving around the digital medium. Words such as crashing, a system overload resulting in shutdowns, and pixelation, the breaking down of a digital image to its smallest components—pixels.They flow through his sentences.


Tapping the technology


Gillette is intrigued by new technologies and how artists might creatively use them. In 1991, he returned to the computer as a means for expression, after an 11-year hiatus while he was working in video, a medium he pioneered as an art form in the late 1960s. In the late 1070s and early ’80s he exnerimented Stephen D. Cannerelli/Staff photographer FRANK GILLETTE trated with the limits of the technology and the cost of the equipment. In the early 1990s, as computers became more affordable and the technology more versatile, Gillette’s interest was once again piqued. The problem he saw during the initial romance with the digital medium was the tendency for the technology to overpower the artistic message.


“What I saw in the early 1990s,” Gillette says, “is that users of the technology had abandoned any aesthetic sense, and the machinery determined the look and feel of the work.” Gillette calls this early style of work “cyberkitch.” It was technology for the sake of technology; its value as fine art was questionable, or indecipherable, he says. As a result, the early products of “cyberkitch” confused and distanced the spectator from the digital medium. If you go What: "Frank Gillette: Digital Images, 1994-1999" where: The Everson Museum of Art, 401 Harrison St., Syracuse, when: Through Feb. 13 Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. What to expect: 30 large-scale works. Installations of three interactive CD-ROM projection projected onto screens. Before you go: Visit Gillette on the World Wide Web at More information: 474-6064


A primer on what is art

Gallery goers respond to art consciously or intuitively. What they respond to is how an artist sets up problems and then solves them, using the basic elements of visual art, such as line, shape, texture, value and color.


Pioneer uses state-of-the art technology

By Gene Wolf


For the kinds of tasks digital artist Frank Gillette is performing, he needs a high-performance machine that produces color that looks on paper or film the way it looks on the computer screen.


That’s what he gets with the Macintosh G4, a state-of-the art supercomputer unveiled Aug. 31. The G4 is capable of performing more than 1 billion instructions per second. The processor, according to Apple, is an average of 2.94 times faster than the fastest PC, a Pentium III (600MHz), in selected tests published by Intel.


Gillette also uses 21-inch flatpanel NEC monitors for the highest visual quality of his palette of more than 16.7 million colors. According to Apple, the G4 is the “first personal computer... to deliver supercomputer-level performance.” It can run applications such as Adobe's Photoshop up to twice as fast as the Pentium III.


This setup, combined with software tools such Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, gives graphics professionals a set of tools that does not get in the way of creativity.


We, as spectators, either like the way the artist has handled the task, or we don’t like it.


When the basic elements become secondary to the technology, viewers lose their way in the interpretative jungle. Some feel uncomfortable or even become defensive. Others simply walk away dazed and confused, blinded by the dazzle factor of the technology.


Gillette claims his stylistic goal was to get as far away as possible from what was being done by other digital artists: “I wanted to disengage from anything that looked like cyberkitch and make it (the work) more painterly.”


Consequently, when viewers evaluate Gillette’s work, they will respond to it using the same criteria, instinctive or otherwise, they always used when viewing a work of art.


How the piece is made becomes secondary to the content of the artistic communication.


Gillette is an artist who uses a computeras a means for his creative expression.


Prints at Everson


For the Everson show, Gillette is exhibiting a set of 30 IRIS prints, each measuring 42 inches by 30 inches. IRIS is a state of the art system used to print large scale digital imagery. Also included is a set of 12 smaller inkjet prints. The pieces, produced between 1994 and 1999, are lush, colorful works, with a wonderful sense of spontaneity and improvisation to them.


In these pieces, he blends elements from works by other artists. He plays with the still-life genre, reinterpreting it in digital terms, and he borrows from the diagrams, sketches and texts of futurist Marcel Duchamp's notebooks.


Gillette also manipulates avariety of popular imagery, including his own photos and drawings and random images from popular media such as TV, newspapers, magazines and catalogs.


Each piece is composed of hundreds of images that have been placed in 15 to 25 carefully arranged layers. The work creates a visual ambiguity, with one image struggling for recognition over another. The pieces burst with energy, at times drawing the viewer into a central vortex.


Also included in the show is an installation ofCD-ROM projection systems, conveying 300 images in a scrolled, calibrated sequence on wall-hung display ScreenS.


Gillette expects to have the CD-ROM work ready for viewer interaction by the end of the year.


The art, not its Genesis

Gillette acknowledges it is not important for the viewer to be familiar with the technology or software he uses. It is important that the viewer be prepared to engage in the process of interpreting the work.


The pieces abound with intensity and imagery, which the—viewer will be challenged to sort through. The work is meant to provoke thought.


Gillette is comfortably at home in his virtual studio, and he says he is having a great time. With the click of a mouse, he can travel through a studio where he might have dozens of works in process at once, or he can pull out one of the 16.7 million colors from his virtual painter's palette.


But the stature of the work comes down to the quality of the artistic communication and his ability to connect with the viewer: the human element.


When you look at his work, you will know that the reason it lives and breathes is because a human has given it life. Creativity and inspiration are still two of the key elements that separate humankind from the computer.




Stars Magazine October 1999


* Katherine Rushworth of Cazenovia is a former director of the Michael C. Rockefeller Arts Center (State University College at Fredonia) and of the Centra New York Institute for the Arts in Education.

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