[ISEA94] Panel: James Faure Walker – Computers, Painting and Ambition

Panel Statement

Panel: Output Sufferings

Some artists using electronics take for granted that the art that will be significantly new is going to emerge through new technology. If they look at a painting, they see a medium that doesn’t do very much except sit on the wall. Old medium, old ideas. The new media involve intelligent and ambitious systems, radical shifts in our thinking. So it’s natural to expect radical and impressive art, too.

Working as a painter who also uses computers, I am more sceptical. The art of painting is built on asking questions about what you see, and the process has the feel of a stumbling search. Obsolete? During the sixties and seventies we had exhibitions with “beyond painting” in the title. Kinetic, Op, Minimal, Conceptual, all mixed make-believe and pseudo-science to suggest a future where only “de-materialized” art would be possible. In fact what evaporated wasn’t the “art object” but the credibility of this way of thinking, discredited and soon forgotten because the work with real punch and ambition proved to come from painting.
As well as finding another country for art – albeit a virtual country – the visual creativity of computing can function just as well within traditional media. The given technology of a painting – flat surface, nothing moving, no sound, no buttons or head-set, not even a plug required – is unimpressive, but it can whirl into life through the touch of colour, the dance of line, the stare of a face. At the Minneapolis conference last year (FISEA’93) the neighbouring museum (the Walker Art Center) held a small exhibition of Matisse’s graphic work, its vitality and simplicity a reminder of how far the computer graphic exhibits (mine included) fell short.
The technophobia of the mainstream art world is the routine excuse for the failures of computer works to be as impressive as they should be. But on exciting, sophisticated technology is just the starting point. Picasso on an Apple II might still be interesting. Whatever else is possible, a fusion of computer techniques and painterly sensibility shouldn’t be discounted too hostily. If there are frontiers in art they certainly aren’t where you expect them to be.

  • James Walker, born in London, UK, 1948, painter, exhibitions: Hayward Annual 1979, Whitworth Manchester (one-man) 1985, SISEA Groningen 1990, FISEA Minneapolis 1993, Computerkunst Gladbeck 1994. Tutor in Computing at RCA 1989 – 1993. Editor Artscribe Magazine 1976 – 1983, articles on computers in art in Modern Painters (92, 94).