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Robot Portrait 2006 #2 (Series of 3)

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Date Minted: May 24, 2018

Artist Description: Acrylic on canvas painted by one of Pindar Van Arman's first robots. The portrait began as a digital work before being rendered by the robot with thousands of brushstrokes. This artwork is its return to digital form. -

CohentheWriter’s Commentary:

Pindar van Arman is an artist who has plopped himself at the very crossroads between machine and man. Whereas there’s a wave of artists who communicate this communion quietly —using advanced code and algorithms to generate intensely complex pieces of art following specific artist-controlled guidelines— van Arman realizes that relationship in a way that is uniquely collaborative. At least according to the information offered in his artist description and on his Artist page, van Arman first designs digital artworks, then designs robots which bring those artworks into a physical space —painted in acrylic upon canvas— before then destroying these  physical versions in the process of again re-digitizing them. This bizarre sequence of bringing something from the liminal, digital space into “reality” and then back into digitization asks us to examine the very nature of the relationship between the real and digital worlds. Van Arman’s pieces are uniquely cross-plane, existing uniquely cross-world. And they ask us to reconsider what we even mean when we offhandedly talk of the “real world.” 

Because throughout the construction of these pieces, representatives from the digital and “real” worlds are constantly dipping across into the other. The physical artist descends into the machine to design a digital artwork. The digitized algorithm follows a sequence of internal codes, pushes out into robotic form —a literal marriage between matter and machine— and brings that art-piece into the physical world. The real artist then takes the physical painting, and converts it back into a digitized piece, though now the piece bears the signature markings of actual paint poured on an actual canvas, as was provided by the robot. There is a back-and-forth blending between the movement of actors in both worlds, to the point that at any step during the creation of a piece like Robot Portrait 2006 #2 it’s hard to tell which world has had more influence on it: digital or physical.

The piece itself appears, at first, to mimic some hallmarks of AI-generative art. The frequent criss-crossing lines, the countless small dots that make up the female face in the image’s center, along with colored clouds on its outskirts, for example. Though pointillist painters like Georges Seurat proved that humans were capable of creating incredibly complex, precise, detailed, and time-consuming works of artistry made from countless tiny markings (as opposed to less numerous or more cohesive brushstrokes) this style contemporaneously suggests the ability of a machine to work in uber-specific, uber-minute patterns, something like what we see here. It’s unclear if van Arman did indeed have the image constructed generatively by an AI or whether he himself was responsible for each choice and shape in its initial design, but regardless, even the exact origin of the piece has been made to skirt the line between human-inflected and machine-generated. 

What we’re seeing here, what’s been minted, is a recreation of the physical version of the piece, with representations of real brushstrokes, paint overlaps, impastos, and color dynamics. We can see in certain spots how the paint bunches up. We can see in others the layers of paint dried atop each other. All this in the pursuit of capturing the image of a human woman, her skin a kind of light yellow, but outlined in a darker ochre, one in which paint seems to have been laid in small globules. Only her head and neck are represented —no hair, no ears, no shoulders— as the rest of the piece extends itself into the realm of abstraction: dark blue lines of paint slide down the length of the image, criss-crossing and intersecting each other, glazing over a background of ambient tan and perhaps pencil-shaded red and blue. As mentioned, there are shapeless outcroppings around the piece’s edges which mimic the color tones and design of the woman’s face in the center. And all the while, the woman looks on seductively, a look we can gauge even though she is so devoid of specific features. 

But for our purposes today, the actual design of the piece seems secondary to the circumstances of its creation. I actually think the idea of a human woman being the unifying factor between machine and man is a rather lovely image: the all-mother, of sorts, she from whom all mankind stems, and mankind, from whom all machines (currently) receive life. It is in their collaboration, man and machine not working at the same time but amplifying the piece in their own ways, in their own worlds, sending it back across the threshold to be manipulated again, that this image of the woman emerges. It is almost as if she’s both built by the proceedings and watching over them, not a judge but a silent observer, looking on with some mix of attraction and interest and gratitude at being rendered at all. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into her barely-there expression. 

The piece is exceedingly pleasing aesthetically. The piece is exceedingly creative in design. The piece is borderline revolutionary in the way it is passed across the border between digital and physical spaces so as to reach its unique potential. There are philosophical issues here I imagine will be explored further as the metaverse —the common nomenclature for a cross-world realm— develops into an area of regular, commonplace human existence. And perhaps, therein, van Arman’s influence will be necessary: to marry the two worlds, creating things that bear the hallmarks of both worlds, are familiar to all, and yet are native to neither. 

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