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Scott Fraser Shares his Experience of Subjecting “Three Way Vanitas” to Scientific Scrutiny

May 11, 2014

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Scott Fraser’s Three Way Vanitas. Oil on Board. 35 x 49″ 2008

These days it seems that the boundary between art and technology is getting more and more blurred. Quidley & Company gallery artist Scott Fraser discovered just how interrelated the two have become when he was contacted back in 2008 by David G. Stork, chief scientist of Ricoh Innovations and adjunct professor at Stanford University. Scott told us that Stork had read an article related to a show Scott helped organize that year, called The Object Project. The Object Project, a group show that travelled to five museums over two years, featured the work of fifteen artists, each with their own unique style, technique, and approach to a project that involved painting the same five objects.

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Applied Reflections, by Scott Fraser. Oil on Board. 27 x 37″ 2014

Scott’s contribution to the show was a painting entitled Three Way Vanitas, which featured the same mirror he later used in his painting Applied Reflections. Professor Stork was quite taken with the perspective challenges Fraser faced while executing Three Way Vanitas. Stork, whose specialty is optics and art, has done a great deal of research on how the Old Masters worked out their perspective, with a special focus on images reflected in mirrors. A particular piece he has analyzed closely is the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s iconic Arnolfini Portrait, with its use of a mirror to reflect the space and its unusual geometric orthogonal perspective.

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Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Professor Stork shared with Fraser that his studies were in large part a rebuttal to The Secret Knowledge, a book by David Hockney which investigates Old Master painting techniques. Professor Stork, whose studies focus primarily on such artists as Caravaggio, Da Vinci and Holbein, disputed some of Hockney’s assumptions, and asked whether Fraser would be willing to serve as a modern-day guinea pig for his research. Fraser confessed to us that the idea of Stork’s team deconstructing Three Way Vanitas caused him a bit of trepidation; since he works from life, never from photos, the artist knew a close examination by Stork and his research team might expose his perspective flaws. Fraser explains that his hand and eye move all over the place when he works, and that he often relies on instinct rather than scientific formula.

In the spirit of curiosity, and in support of scientific inquiry in general and Stork’s explorations in particular, Fraser ultimately rose to the challenge. The results were fascinating, if at times difficult for the average art lover to grasp. Read the paper, “Three-dimensional reconstruction from multiple reflected views within a realist painting: An application to Scott Fraser’s Three way vanitas,” here:

http://sfraser.com/pages/docs/SmithStorkZhang.pdf

Fraser explains, “Yes, my faults were revealed, but the painting was accurate enough for Professor Stork to run a 3D computer recreation of the work showing its various dimensional anomalies. I found it all very interesting, if well outside of my realm of understanding. One revealing image his team produced shows how far out of sync my reflected objects were in relation to each other, in particular, a glass of water whose reflected level is distinctly higher than that in the original glass. The glass is significant, since for me it signifies the evaporation of time. It’s interesting that the water level is so obvious in the scientific data. These discrepancies were conscious decisions I made from an artist’s point of view, in order to portray the spacial effects I was pursuing. Doubtless Stork would find similar inconsistencies in Applied Reflections, and yet it is one of the reasons I keep returning to this mirror and the challenges of light and perspective it offers.”

The article by Professor Stork et al. is a fascinating example of the application of computer technology to the problems of fictive space in art history. But it raises questions at the same time: what makes a work of art beautiful? Can technological advances create a “better” painting? We think not. We celebrate the aesthetic, technical and conceptual choices of fine artists, and we know that what makes a painting great is the degree to which it pleases our eye, the extent to which we love it. We hope Scott Fraser’s “brush with science” hasn’t distracted him from that truth, and we look forward, as always, to more spectacular work out of his studio!

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