Code Director

F or artist Dan Gries, the tool of choice is a laptop, and the medium is computer code. Lines of letters and numbers and symbols—with some parameters deliberately left unspecified—generate images that can surprise even him, which he then manually refines into fine art prints. The results are evocative, sometimes otherworldly patterns of lines and dots and nameless shapes born in the space between rules and randomness.

In Art from Code, an exhibition of 33 of Gries’s prints on view at the Ives Main Library through March 15, it’s possible at times to glimpse the creative process at work, to imagine the code behind the images. Take, for example, seven items in his Stacked Lines series, perhaps beginning with Black Stacked Lines, which removes color from the equation. What might Gries, who codes using Processing, have instructed the software to do?

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Here, the code appears to translate into something Sol LeWittish, like, “Draw lines between a minimal and maximal thickness that run horizontally from one margin to the other, but not straight, at some point touching the lines above and below them without intersecting those lines.” With small exceptions, these rules seem to govern every one of the Stacked Lines pieces. The results, however, are strikingly different. Stacked Lines 20170923, hung next to the introductory panel, is electric and full of energy, hot colors streaking like tails of light across the darkness of a black background, while Stacked Lines 20170722, in blues, greens and purples, is calmer, even staid, perhaps suggesting a stack of water-crinkled corporate paperwork. Stacked Lines 20170714 is restless in both form and color, its lines elbowing each other uncomfortably, while Stacked Lines 20170711 offers an impressionistic, restful possibility of sea, sand and sky. Stacked Lines 20170712 has a three-dimensional quality, as if the kinetic lower half of the pink and orange image is undulating forward out of the frame.

If you play along with Gries, following this series through the exhibition, you’ll come at the far end to the delightful surprise of Stacked Lines 20181216, where the code has shifted to allow for thicker lines with rounded ends. They look a lot like… pool noodles? This may well be an inside joke for those who know Gries’s other work, or who’ve taken the time to read the opening panel. Gries is also the creator, with Dan Bernier, of several larger-than-life, pixelated images on the exterior of the Goffe Street Armory, where the “pixels” are colorful discs cut from the foamy flotation aids.

The pieces in Art from Code are “generative art,” which hands over some of the artist’s autonomy to a machine. Gries codes some parameters, leaving room for randomness and happenstance with others. The computer generates images, and Gries chooses the ones he likes best. Then he tweaks the code to obtain the effect he wants. “I’m controlling what’s happening, but I leave some parts up to chance: the precise color, the precise thickness of the lines, the shape of the circle or something like that,” he explains. “So I have a general notion of the structure of it, but the randomization is what adds the generative aspect.” He calls the process “iterative,” “experimental” and often “tedious.” “When you want to leave things up to chance, you have to be willing to wait for the good pictures to come out,” Gries says. If he were to take more control of the process, he adds, he “might get better results more frequently, but then [I] won’t be surprised as often.”

Gries is also interested in what he calls the “beauty” of imperfection. It, too, is coded right in. “There’s something special about a shape if it’s not perfect,” he says. “It’s easy to get the computer to draw a perfect circle, but to make it not perfect, you have to work a little bit harder.” In this sense, his art is a meditation on the computer itself. He could, perhaps, draw those imperfect lines with his own hand. But the computer makes choices he hadn’t imagined. And it makes a lot of them, giving the artist a volume of material to curate that’s far vaster than any human alone could create.

Not all the images in Art from Code allow the viewer a peek into this process as the Stacked Lines images do—at least, not a viewer untrained in mathematics (Gries has a PhD) or computer science. His Chaos series is alternately furred and feathered, leafy, cloudy, shaded in blues and often evocative of the natural world. Here, it’s harder to imagine what Gries might have asked the computer to do and easier to get lost in the images themselves.

His Fractal Cylinders are like jellyfish contrails or billowing liquid fabrics. Their entrancing, layered, fluid threads—in whorls and tangles, in graceful sweeps and tight turns—are smooth but unpredictable, twisting and evolving as if caught in a current about to carry them outside the frame.

Equally enchanting are Gries’s Perlin Lines images. The code for Scarlet Perlin Lines 2019 appears to have something to do with bringing lines together. They converge in tight, gathered points and paisley-shaped twists and concentric circles like the eyes on a peacock’s feathers. There’s no single focal point. Both the form and the color are exciting to the eye, which looks in vain for a place to rest. Its companion piece, Brown Perlin Lines 2017, has a shyness, as if folding in on itself for protection.

There’s a deeper mystery here than the unknown code. It’s the unknown itself, conjured by these cryptic lines.

Art from Code: Works by Dan Gries
Ives Gallery at Ives Main Library – 133 Elm St, New Haven (lower level)
Mon-Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri-Sat 10am-5pm through March 15, 2019
Online: Ives Gallery | Dan Gries

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2-6 provided by Dan Gries.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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