Not So Messy

Head on a Block

A friend of mine once said ‘The good thing about sculpting in clay is that you can stop at almost any point and the model can still be interesting’. A great observation, I thought. But I wondered whether it was true, or rather whether the implication that the same can’t be said for models made on the computer, was true. Because if it is, the consequences are far reaching and explain something that has bothered me for a while; why is it that 3d modeling is not used by artists outside of the entertainment industry as part of their work or for itself, in the same way that painters do with paint or sculptors with whatever materials they may be using at the time? Pretty much every other type of medium and activity or object can be found in galleries around the world. Is there something inherent in 3D on the computer that prevents it from being adopted as a useful expressive medium in it self? Perhaps it’s the association with glossy Hollywood films that turns people off, or maybe its something a little deeper.

At the risk of ruining the elegant precision of my mates point, it’s worth trying to unwrap it a little before moving on. What I think he was saying was that clay modeling isn’t a process that is entirely defined by your goals i.e. clay has real physical properties that can’t be ignored, and that a model made with it benefits from these properties even when incomplete. Indeed it’s often more interesting to see a clay model half finished than totally nailed. (For the purposes of clarity I’m talking here about clay modeling, but these observations are applicable to all natural media, from stone, to paint to pencils).

The reasons are interesting and perhaps have a lot to do with the fact that clay modeling not only proceeds through a dialogue with the material (an idea commonly used to describes the process of making) but, importantly, makes that dialogue visible. It can be seen in the form of tool marks, fingerprints, areas of incompleteness, or areas of redundancy were the clay sits in its untouched lumpen rawness.

There is no digital equivalent to this, for while you can argue that effective digital modeling relies on a similar dialogue with edge loops, polygonal flows, surface continuities, discontinuities, the digital stuff does not explain itself or record the artists interaction in the way that clay does. Points, polygons, edges or curves carry with them no visible history and in its absence the viewer is left with nothing more than a shape.

Why is this significant? One reason might be that modern taste enjoys the play between the raw material and the shape into which it has been or is being formed. It creates a satisfying irresolvable tension (a bit like the famous rabbit/old woman drawing that is both things at the same time): clay not clay, or stone not stone. We clearly enjoy it and throughout the 20th century in particular artists have made much of the tease. From the impressionists onwards, serious artists have been careful to declare their methods and materials, whatever other intentions they may have had, and it has struck a chord. So much so that now we search out the same qualities in work from earlier times, which were almost certainly overlooked at the time the work was made. We love Michelangelo’s slaves because we see the chiseled stone and sense the block from which they were hewn, or Constable’s cloud studies and their quick thick paint, or Turner’s seascapes  (is it a cloud or a dab of paint?). We love them for the same reason we enjoy Rodin, Phillip Guston, Frank Auerbach, Henry Moore or Richard Deacon (the list is long), because we can see the material and the process at the same time as what is being represented, and that’s exciting. If at the same time we catch a glimpse of the artist at work so much the better. It’s about transformation and personality.

Now, the idea of transformation is a massive topic which I don’t intend to deal with here even if I could, I hope it is enough to say that it has been central to the work of many artists, as well as our appreciation of it. And, in relation to my mate’s observation, it is helpful because it points to change as being an important ingredient of work we find interesting. Its worth emphasizing this: whether you’re modeling a figure, an abstract form, or just messing, you are changing one thing to another, and importantly, when working with natural media you start with something that already has an identity, in this case clay. Through the process of modeling it may take on other characteristics, skin, hair, smoothness, lightness, etc but they never completely overwhelm the material that you start with. Or at least we prefer it if they don’t. I think this is part of the interestingness that Jon (my mate) was talking about.

Returning to the 3D computer model in the light of this discussion, it’s interesting to consider what’s being transformed? Frankly, very little. Points, polygons, edges and curves have no especially strong natural characteristics that provide for the sort of tease outlined above. They are brilliantly neutral, like water molecules, and give no hint of any qualities that can emerge from their combination. But even if you concede that they do, or that the process of working them can be similar from the point of view of the artist to working with clay, the absence of any visible record of interaction can’t be denied and affects what we think about them.

Perhaps this is the problem then; digital models hide too much of the process, and the artist behind it to be very engaging, and further don’t have enough in the way of raw material presence to make any transformation especially satisfying.

Maybe, but I’m not sure. Apart from anything else this all sounds very old-fashioned, referencing a bunch of old ideas that suppose that meanings are constructed from the inside out. It incorporates concerns for ‘truth to material’ and by extension authenticity and honesty. Didn’t these go out with the ark? I think so, and whatever their continued resonance in some quarters, and the abiding popularity of those artists already mentioned, we live in an exciting new age of immersive/alternate realities and virtual communities. In this arena, embodied by the Internet on one hand and films on the other, we can forget worn notions of reality and build new ones, forget about our old selves and try on different ones. New media is not so much concerned with the journey but with destinations, or more accurately, arrivals. It’s about what things look like and not what they are.

And in these times nobody is going to allow themselves to be tripped up or held back by a set of musty old concerns that passed there sell by date at about the same time that Gollum crept around the corner of that rock. Take photography, it is a powerful medium that is widely used and appreciated in many different contexts. It declares no history of construction, its methods are similarly transparent to the viewer, and it is no less effective for that. But this makes it all the more surprising that the same can’t be said (yet?) for 3D.

You might argue that it’s just a question of maturity: Cg in all its forms is very new and it will take time to find its place in the scheme of things. After all it’s only in the last few years that the tools and hardware have been available at prices that individuals can afford. This is true in one way, but if, rather than thinking in terms of the number of years it’s been around, you think in terms of the man hours that have been devoted to it, Cg, and 3D particularly, suddenly look ancient! It may be that my perspective on these things is skewed by too many years scheduling in game production, but it seems to me that there’s been acres of time. Add to this the fact that the art world thrives on novelty, and it’s still interesting to ask why, outside of the entertainment business, or scientific imaging communities, 3D has not had much of a run.

So, if the problem (if it is a problem) is not to do with the material, and you allow that the point about maturity is not watertight, and further, accept that conditions are not unfavourable to new approaches, perhaps the explanation can be found in a more difficult area, to do with expectations and context.

In the second part of this article I’ll be looking at some of other issues that impact on the ‘interestingness’ of 3D models. Stay tuned!

Taken from an essay written in 2005