Animated art

A critique by digital abstract expressionist Jean Detheux (communication with animator Stephen X. Arthur)


This is an email dialogue between Canadian independent animator Stephen Arthur and Belgian abstract painter/animator Jean Detheux.
It was compiled and introduced by Stephen X. Arthur, 2001. Used by permission. Introduction written for publication in the newsletter of ASIFA International, Fall 2001.


I met Jean Detheux at Ottawa 00 where I gave a workshop on Experimental Bitmap Animation. From the world of abstract-expressionist painting and art teaching, Jean recently dove into digital animation, and he wanted help exploring this new medium. I'm an old-time filmmaker (live action and animation) and graduate of the University of Southern California's film production program (1981) who animated the paintings of Canadian artist Jack Shadbolt (Transfigured). Jean is now set to demonstrate his own version of experimental bitmap animation at the next Ottawa festival (SAFO '01), using new software that lets him capture animated painting and morphing created in real time.
As the e-mail flew we saw that we often held antithetical points of view, but with a desire to reach a synthesis. Jean -- with training in Zen and phenomenology, and hopes of transcending the ways of the "engineer/technician/bean counter" -- defended a subjective attitude. In contrast, I -- with a master's degree in neurobiology and a history of narrative feature screenwriting -- came to represent a more objective point of view, so to speak.
Following is an except from our exchange that took the form of "artist versus animator."

JEAN: I hope I can be very candid here, this is rather important: first I thank you for showing me many things I otherwise would never have had a chance to see [the abstract animation of Walter Ruttman 1921, Oscar Fischinger (Allegretto), John Whitney (Moon Drum), Jordan Belson, Clorinda Warny (Premier Jours), Vibeke Sorensen, Joan Gratz (Dowager's Feast), and Richard Reeves (Linear Dreams)]. But, I am very disappointed by what I am seeing... Almost all the stuff you sent me is extremely weak from a painter's point of view, more than weak, almost pathetic! I can really see how much of what is being done by people who have technology as their background lacks the frame of reference that would set the bar higher at least as far as the form of it all is concerned.

STEPHEN: I guess I don't understand a painter's point of view, really, coming from a filmmaking background, and not art. My motivation, though, was more to show you the range of things out there that would be called abstract or fine-art animation, plus things that I had thought might have inspired you in terms of ways to approach animating. Of course, anyone doing animation that's not made in real time, like yours is, has to have a more technical bent, or at least a different technical bent than a painter, of necessity, partly to be able to do it and partly to stay motivated with it, I suppose. You're on the leading edge of real animated painting, which has only just become possible because of your real-time digital tools. I'm sorry that you find these films by artist-animators all so disappointing, but I would be very interested to hear from you what exactly you found lacking. Also, do you remember Fall Forward, Spring Back, my animation of twelve paintings by Canadian abstract painter Peter Voormeij? It was shown at Ottawa 00 in the Canadian Panorama and in my Workshop on Experimental Bitmap Animation. Well, one of the stated intentions of this collaboration was to find out if a film made by animating a sequence of paintings conceived and arranged by a real abstract painter for that very purpose would be significantly different, more true painterly art, than a film such as Transfigured made solely by an animator from pre-existing paintings. Your answer seems to be no, it isn't. Our film, apparently, shows the same lack of painter's concerns, remaining in the same ballpark as all the others [made by artist/animators historically]. So what this means to me is that this experiment essentially "proves" that animated art becomes a different thing, that cinema is fundamentally different. The more I seem to get clear on that, the more I feel confident in defending my long-standing web-page statement "Why Animated Art is Not Gallery Art" against your strong objections. If you're able to make your digital abstract animated pieces as films, then you may be able to prove me wrong. But if your end product will be computer-based installations in galleries, we may never really know because it's not the same medium or context.

JEAN: Painting has grown terribly sophisticated over the past few hundred years, and that has resulted in a language that I see sorely missing in all your examples. I really don't care if it is a "moving" or "still" pictorial space, it is still pictorial space, and as such, it has demands of its own that none of the pieces I saw seem to even suspect. So many things to say about this, I'll just name a few: a colour is not a colour in itself, it is not only what it seems to be because of its interaction with other colours, but also because of where it is situated on the picture plane. To a trained eye, a red shape near the centre of the picture plane isn't the same as the "same" red shape placed near any edge of the same picture plane. The way a shape moves in or out of the picture plane sets all sorts of "energies" the awareness of which I see totally absent in those examples. I "belong" to a school of thought (that includes Kandinsky and others) that posits any picture as a "world in itself," a totally self contained "universe." All the images I saw in your tape were "parts" of larger images I could never see, as if looking at a large painting through a peephole making it impossible to ever see the whole thing. "True" pictorial space is for me "equivocal," not caught (as in the examples you sent) in a phoney would-be 3D space illusion. It has taken a lot of work on the part of painters, since Cézanne especially, to graduate to this equivocal space, a space "in" which depth becomes exclusively psychological, maybe even spiritual, and the "depth" I saw in the taped examples was all of that ridiculous "literal" type, the one that has been the realm of the Disney garbage and commercial art for so long, including much of 19th Century Salon painting.

STEPHEN: I do understand what you're describing here. I've learned about it from Rudolph Arnheim's books, and I've been told that I have some natural sense of it myself. But I can see that it tends to get abandoned when structuring animation, and with film we do have a tendency to want to use open instead of closed space because of the greater possibilities for action afforded, I guess. I would have thought that at least Voormeij would have done all that you proscribe, for sure -- that was overtly the point -- but maybe he was infected by my animator's perspective, somehow -- or is the Voormeij animation an exception after all? It would be very strange if the painters who are doing animation would fail to apply what they know in painting -- is it accidental, or is it on purpose for some good reason? Why would this be? Maybe painters' intentions are different when they animate.

JEAN: I'll be once again very candid: it has taken me over ten years of intense work on these "problems" before I could feel I was starting to understand them (and I do not think I am especially slow) and another ten years of work with/on that before I could actually do it. There is a huge difference, no, an abyss of difference between what one understands, and what one knows. I understood Arnheim and others many many years before I could actually say that I knew what they were talking about. Open and closed pictorial space is a bit like being pregnant or not: one is or isn't. I feel that falling for the "plumbing/mechanics" of animation is losing sight of what one started doing it for in the first place, at least in my case. If, like Camus said so well, "the failure shall be the measure of success," one may be better off failing when setting one's sight on the masters than "succeeding" when playing "big fish in a small pond." Roberto Matta is a living master who has started doing animation, and the little bit I have seen of his recent work in that medium shows me that it is possible indeed to paint in animation and remain true to painting. I only wish his animation work were available on line

STEPHEN: I just need to know how you saw Fall Forward Spring Back -- was it better? Really the main point of making that piece was to see if someone with your knowledge and experience would find it standing out in terms of artistic composition in animation.

JEAN: That piece did not work at all for me... That piece could be a perfect example of dropping the painting quality for the sake of animating images; none of those images struck me as "placed", nor were they "coming out of nowhere" as I like to call it. I had a close friend at the school where I worked in NYC who had this war going against much of what we were seeing around us in galleries, museums and various art publications: she saw most of it as "pretending," "camp" as she called it, and I did and still do agree with her. To me a painting is the traces (in the sense of "automatic byproduct") of a (potentially dangerous) spiritual journey, and not too many pieces I have seen in all the years I have been involved with painting have managed to make the grade, far from it. (That includes many of mine, by the way.) That piece did not work at all for me, but there were two magic moments in your workshop, albeit at different levels of intensity: some of the moments in the piece on Shadbolt's works worked (when the morphing was really at the service of his paintings), and in the one on driving across Canada [Vision Point], there were moments that touched on "transposition," in which "a lie/fabrication made reality more real" (I am of the old school that posits that "art is what makes us see"). Much of everything else came to me as "intelligent," even "smart," but not "experienced/felt/necessary."

STEPHEN: It was supposed to be more in closed space, really, but I may have overemphasized the option of using open space, and the artist went all the way overboard in that direction. Nevertheless, each painting should be a good composition in itself and therefore address some of the major concerns you have described.

JEAN: I can see the going overboard part. I most certainly do not receive those images as "good compositions in themselves," far from it. Painting is an extremely demanding medium, especially if we need to practice it with our better examples (the masters) as beacons. It seems to me that animation can be so seductive for a painter, it can easily make him/her drop the baby with the bath water! Matta does not do so though, his one animation I saw in person, along with the few stills I have of that, show me that the extreme rigor he showed all his life in the analog medium is equally at work in the digital. I hope I can at least try to be as honest and focused as he has been for now nearly 90 years!

STEPHEN Thanks for the critique. Animators rarely receive criticism of their work, and my experiment was supposed to be a learning experience... In fact, would you give me permission to publish this correspondence? I think it poses some interesting questions.

JEAN: I have no personal objections to your sharing my letter with others, except this: I never meant to criticize your work or Voormeij's publicly. I took for granted our exchanges were to be frank, and private. So at no time did I (nor do I) intend to ruffle any feathers, I need to know that you understand that. I can see, from the experiences I am presently having with other animators/filmmakers that some of my ideas stick out like sore thumbs in that world, while they were acceptable enough in the world of painting/drawing to let me build a fairly serious teaching career on them.



Jean Detheux will give a demonstration at SAFO 2001 on his use of Synthetik's Studio Artist for real-time digital animated painting ("Digital Abstract Expressionism [Animating Nothing]"). Both Detheux (Eastern Ontario) and Stephen Arthur (Vancouver, British Columbia) are members of ASIFA-Canada and have Galleries on the Animation World Network SHOWCASE Web site. Jean Detheux's home Web sites are http://www.perth.igs.net/~jcydp/ and http://www.vudici.net . Stills from the animation by Matta, a member of Breton's original Surrealist group, can be seen on Detheux's vudici site (http://www.vudici.net/matta.html )

2001 SXA & JD


A note from Jean Detheux:
The above is Stephen Arthur's version of our dialogue, and I left it as he compiled it.
There are a few minor points I could add to, but I decided not to as this is already long enough as it is.

However, my workshop at SAFO did not deal so much with "real-time digital animated painting" as it dealt with "inherent animation," a far more important concept which I develop at length in my series of six articles written for the Animation World Network Magazine.

All six articles have now been published:

#1) "Animation, Prozak or Kyosaku?"

#2) "Highjacking animation (and taking it back)"

#3) "Drawing without knowing (or, the art in the doodle)."

#4) "Knowing enough about seeing to let "the other" draw accordingly"

#5) "Escaping Muybridge's Curse (Can We?)"

#6) "From Mary Ellen Bute to Pierre Hébert, Animation in a Different Key!"