Place: Where Art and Fractals Overlap

As I concluded in my previous posting, there are only two art genres which fractals are capable of contributing to: Abstract Expressionism and Landscape/Place. Everything else created with the fractal medium is what I would call snapshots: interesting, even fascinating imagery but lacking in expressiveness or the portrayal of a tangible “place”. If it doesn’t go with Pollock or look like a place you could step into then it goes into the photo album. Most fractal imagery is of the photo album variety because most fractal “artists” are really craft and decoration makers and so they pursue pretty things rather than artistic things. That’s who they are and so that’s what they do. Art has a deeper dimension to it, a mental resonance, and fractal art can have a deeper dimension to it also but it only seems to achieve this when it creates works that fit into the categories of Abstract Expressionism and Place. That’s where the fractal medium has it’s artistic application; that’s where art and fractals overlap.

Mandelbrot is the founder of fractal science, but Pollock is the founder of fractal art

Mandelbrot is the founder of fractal science, but Pollock is the founder of fractal art

I guess you’re thinking along the lines of the old argument that it all depends on how you choose to define what “art” is? Let me propose this simple, practical definition: we recognize art because it’s the stuff that’s harder to forget. Art makes a stronger impression on us and that’s what separates the “art from the toys”, if you will forgive me for making such an attempt at humour. I agree with the opinion that art is subjective, but I would also add that art is collective, and not because it rhymes. Purely personal, exclusive tastes in art are simply the eccentricities of one’s personality; art is a social thing because it’s communication/expression/conversation and that requires something in common, a interaction between people, a sharing of experience/ideas/revelation/perception. If no one else sees what you see then it’s all in your head.

One of the things that has always distinguished fractals as an art form is how hard it is to define in terms of artistry because it’s made in such a different way and bends and breaks all the normal definitions of “artist” and “medium”. Fractal imagery is incredibly easy to make and but it often has more detail and “workmanship” in it than almost any great painting. And yet, after more than several decades of existence there isn’t a single great “standard” or influential masterpiece of fractal artwork to point to that has any sort of widespread acceptance in the art world or even within the fractal art world itself. There have been many prizes awarded over the years in the fractal art world but there has been very little artwork that deserved them.  The “great” fractal art of the past seems to have been easily forgotten: the hallmark of “not-art” because it hasn’t left a lasting impression on the minds of its audience.  Fractals are dramatic but art is traumatic.  Memory is a like a mental dent.

A word about art sales

I think the easiest form of art to sell is not really art at all but rather something I would more precisely label as “craft”. Craft differs from art in that it’s something pretty and visually soothing to look at rather than mentally provocative. Craft is like visual air freshener or decoration or a comfy graphical couch to rest our eyes on. Craft is something that most people always like to look at, while art is something you have to be in the right frame of mind for. As a result people will more likely buy a big piece of craft to decorate their living room than they will buy an art print.

Living room, dining room or front hall?

Living room, dining room or front hall?

While art is something we will often stare at we don’t really like it staring at us –all the time. And so we like to have art, like Picasso’s Guernica, or just about anything made by Salvador Dali, –in a book on a shelf– so we can take it out and put it away when we’ve had enough of those ideas and things. Art satisfies a mental appetite rather than a purely visual one and so the hunger for art is much more unpredictable and has a wider range of intensities. Art is often not beautiful in the common sense but possesses a mental beauty which at times is unappropriate. Craft is fun and much more marketable. Art is highly respected and honored by generations to come but Craft makes more money and drives a nice car right now.

Most fractal artists confuse craft with art because craft is what they like and the only kind of imagery that achieves consensus in online social groups, the primary venue for presenting fractal art (ie. “Fractalbook“).

Back to art…

What’s been separating fractals from art for so long is the inability of artists to capitalize on the few artistic themes that the fractal medium is capable of reproducing. Instead of looking for fresh examples of abstract expressionism, fractal artists have been collecting wispy pinwheels, or, as I said a few years ago in another post, Sheets in the Wind and Rings of Gold. Eyecatching but shallow stuff that makes the question, Is it art? not worth asking. I came to the conclusion years ago that artists just don’t find the fractal medium to be very exciting and for that reason there are very few of them getting involved with it.

However, the 3d fractal revolution has changed that. Art has become an easy thing for 3d fractal artists to pursue because the 3d fractal medium makes it easy to capitalize on another artistic theme, other than abstract expressionism, that fractals are capable of: the theme of “place”. Place is a room, building, landscape; any location or spatial situation you can find yourself in. Place is any “place” you can be; It’s the physical context of “being”. Place is where you “are” or where you could be. It’s a rich fertile artistic theme and one which 3d fractal algorithms have a natural talent for. Abstract expressionism benefited greatly from the use of post-processing methods like photoshop filters which meant 2d fractal artists had to expand their skill set and incorporate non-fractal tools, not to mention a more traditional artistic sensibility, in order to make innovative work; something which rubbed most members of the fractal art “herd” the wrong way. But place is the natural domain of 3d fractal programming and the herd is taking to it quite well.

Place: the portrait without a face

Portrait (from Wikipedia)
A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.

The portrait is the most potent form of realistic art. Nothing is more expressive and conveys more information, subtle and nuanced, than a human face. People can easily relate to other people because we know them like we know ourselves. Art is colossally human-centric and facial imagery and the human form attract the majority of artistic activity and attention. Here’s where fractals (but not photography) get cut off, alienated and exiled from the world of art. Without the ability to create facial imagery or the human form, fractal artists are practically castrated when it comes to creating art.

Next to the portrait in artistic powers is the landscape. One could even call a landscape painting a landscape portrait. Once again, we can easily relate to landscape imagery because we live in landscapes ourselves. Landscape is the environment we live in and portraits are the people. Between those two themes is most of what is called realistic art –realism. One is either looking at a person’s face or the environment they live in. Art is about ideas: thought, ruminations, commentary, criticism, speculation, analysis, life, enjoyment, beauty. It’s not surprising then that most artwork literally reflects the people who make it and the things that surround them because the human mind is what art comes from and revolves around. This is a problem for mechanically made imagery like fractals because it lacks relevance and connection to the ongoing human soap opera called life. Art is cognitive, not simply what is visual. Art is about thinking, not merely seeing. The mind is the audience, not the eyes and so it’s the impression of art that counts, not really the imagery, particularly the quality of the imagery that creates the impression.

Godzilla vs The Mona Lisa


This doesn’t need a caption

Whenever I feel in a balloon-popping, iconoclastic mood about art, I like to belittle the Mona Lisa. This usually provokes people into becoming more interesting as they attempt to either fight back and defend that great masterpiece or join in with the attack on it which then quickly spreads to everything that has ever gained any respect in the art world. Often, later on, while reflecting on my Mona Listic insults in private, I sometimes felt I had actually stumbled onto something intelligent and not merely a conversational toy: pry off the face of the Mona Lisa and something genuinely intriguing is revealed.

That intriguing thing is the landscape in the background; that mysterious road through the bare, desolate mountains that looks both pristine and ancient; that wispy world of “both shadow and substance”.  It’s my favorite part of the painting (here I go again), perhaps not even painted by da Vinci himself who probably delegated such peripheral elements to his students while concentrating his own artistic efforts on the serious part of the painting, that of Mona’s face. Fractals are more likely to come up with a better “landscape in the background” than they are a “face in the foreground”.

We can see as much emotion and feeling in a place as we do a face although place is more subtle and not as direct. We can convey a mood with an environment as well as a human face. It’s not as powerful as an actual portrait of a person. When it comes to artistic expression, you can’t beat the human face! Look how ridiculously famous the Mona Lisa is. And for what? Is she really about to smile, or to grimace at having to sit still for so long?  And for that matter, isn’t that famous “smile” thing just an example of mental suggestion? Now no one can look at the painting objectively.

All the feeling of a portrait without a human representation

Place represents the subtle smile or the much more subtle facial expressions, or even the so subtle it’s not possible to portray them as facial phenomenon expressions that are faceless yet deep and moving. Like the feeling associated with the imagery from a dream, that has no logical connection with that feeling, and is as if it has been merely painted with it, like an ordinary rock bearing the fragrance of a strange perfume. One of the most easily recognizable surrealist painters is Giorgio de Chirico.  In his simple and minimalistic paintings, de Chirico has, like most surrealist painters, captured the “fragrance” of a dream –feeling or sensation.  The effect often comes as much from the place and the non-human elements in the painting than it does from the secondary roles played by the human forms or faces.

The Anguish of Departure, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

The Anguish of Departure, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Place is more than landscape: place is location and is any spatial situation one can find themself in. In short, anywhere you can be. Place is context. Place is as primordial as the human face. Somewhere in my first year Psychology course it was mentioned that all human beings can relate to the simple imagery of trees with grass around them because that’s the primordial nursery our race was born into: the African Savannah.

Fractal imagery can’t compete in the portrait category because faces are an unlikely outcome for geometric or organic algorithms. Faces are too unique, specialized and complicated. But fractals, especially 3d fractals, are quite good at creating environments, landscapes and places. 3d fractals lend themselves to architectural imagery and often surpass the creativity of the hand made arts in this respect. Place is becoming the most successful niche of fractal art thanks to the development of 3d fractals. You could go so far as to say it’s the only thing they do consistently well.

I think it’s because architecture as well as landscape is much more geometric and textural than portraits are. A smile is a complicated thing and composed more of impression than design. It’s extremely nuanced and involves all of the other facial elements like the eyes, cheeks, complexion and so on. Fractal algorithms have been used for a long time in computer generated landscape creation because it uses their natural abilities. Landscapes are very fractal while faces are not. In fact, landscapes are fractal. 3d fractals have brought fractal art back full circle to where the concept of fractals originated: describing natural phenomena like coastlines, clouds and frosty window panes. That’s where Benoit Mandelbrot got his ideas from.

In the next posting, Part 3, I’ll focus on some examples of fractal art that lay in that shared artistic space where art and fractals overlap.  Finally, some examples of real fractal art –after all these years!