Flora Ex Machina: Valley Artist Creates ‘Postcards From the Future’
You might say that artist Michael Frank occupies something of a catbird seat at the intersection of mediated nature and digital culture. Georgian by birth and raised in Michigan, Frank’s work reflects those two aspects of his adopted home in California: That of both Hollywood, the world’s chief progenitor of digitally-derived cultural output, and of a San Joaquin Valley that is locus and exemplar of the agricultural industry’s biology-on-steroids approach to production.
The Fresno-based Frank, who exhibited recently at the Arts Consortium’s soon-to-be-vacated gallery in Visalia, uses 3D digital tools to explore scenes comprised of fantastical botanical forms submerged in familiar, yet disquieting, atmospheres. His dislocating effects are countered by highly specific, finely rendered imaginary stems, stalks, pistils, fronds, and stamen all defying classification, struggling for air in a digital medium often known for its airlessness.
This creative approach might be termed flora ex machina, in which Frank wrings mystery from a seemingly endless array of biological-mechanical hybrids in acidic, occasionally lurid colors. His digitally-generated plant forms and curious fauna-like structures seem to undulate in landscapes whose subaquatic tones virtually pulse with life, much as the Great Barrier Reef once did. Perhaps it is the recent demise of the Reef—due to bleaching from increasing ocean temperatures—that plays among the factors making Frank’s work relevant to our times: His artificial realities are computer-generated stand-ins for a natural world that is vanishing quicker than anyone can catalog the known world and its countless as-yet undiscovered species. Think Avatar-meets-Avalon.
But Frank’s vision is distinct from many futuristic artists who prefer digital tools to convey theirs. His work hearkens back to a more traditional sensibility. American landscape painters, especially from the Hudson River School, such as Martin Johnson Heade, and the Naturalists of the 19th Century, such as Ernst Haeckel and J. J. Audubon, provide inspiration. “I sometimes see myself as a naturalist mapping ‘new territory’ the same way these painters and explorers did, although in my case it is more of a personal, mental exploration,” said Frank. In more contemporary terms, non-digital contemporary artists who also draw on art history—Alexis Rockman, Walton Ford, and his Fresno homeboy Darren Waterston—all come to mind when considering Frank’s work.
“Not all digital art involves slick futuristic scenes, and my work is an example of this,” said Frank. “My sensibilities as an artist are strongly rooted in the traditions I learned from. My development and evolution as an artist has allowed me to make a strong statement on the parallels and contrasts between contemporary and traditional culture. I’m fascinated with the opportunities to reproduce the look of an old painting with completely modern media. Since my landscapes involve a timeless, dreamlike quality, it’s only fitting that I’d liken my imagery to ‘ancient postcards from the future,’ and digital technology is a particularly apt way to do so.”
The artist creates imagery piece-by-piece from 3D wireframe models that are rendered and then composited in Photoshop. Each image is composed of up to 100,000 objects, arranged in hundreds of layers before being compressed and printed. The end product is an image that appears photo-realistic in most aspects, and yet no photography is actually used. Each object is also 3D printable as a sculptural object. In addition, Frank’s “objects” can be animated with filmmaking tools.
Frank’s work is generally compelled by an ongoing interest in mapping and identifying the elusive qualities of his dream environments, he says. “For many years I’ve been recording my dreams and investigating, as it were, the places that have established themselves over time in my psyche. Each image is an attempt to map part of that territory with the idea that the objects themselves are remnants of bigger, deeper symbols. In a general and abstract way, these ideas can be somewhat decoded by the viewer, not as a literal statement, but a kind of story or ‘song without words,’” as he sees it.
The dark vision of H.R. Giger, who created a world of monster-machine hybrid aliens (of the eponymous movie franchise note), provides one counterpoint for Frank’s more enchanted, if occasionally jaundiced, art. “The amazing success and quality of Giger’s work is that it is so immersive and encompassing. The world he created was consistently unique and every detail was expertly crafted. I aim to approach my art making in a similar manner,” said Frank. The spaces he illustrates are made one little piece at a time. “I allow myself to explore and travel in as many different directions as possible, and since I’m doing this constantly, there is a semblance of regularity and similarity in my images and objects.”
How does Frank’s art align with and/or differ from the typical tropes of “fantasy” art? Does he see his work falling within this category? Is that classification or fantasy’s conventions limiting in some way, like Pop Surreal with all its now nearly-liturgical conventions, a la Mark Ryden’s Keane-inspired big-eyed children?
“Classifying art is in my estimation a significantly different process than, say, classifying the flora and fauna of the world,” said Frank. “Science allows us to be precise, but with art, it’s another matter; a single image or artwork can escape many traditional categories—or straddle them at the same time. I might refer to categories to simplify explanations, but I see my work in several different ways, and those ways constantly change and evolve. Sometimes my work falls within the ‘fantasy’ category, or ‘science fiction,’ even. It sounds funny to say this, but I’ve had critics tell me that if I really want to cater to the ‘fantasy crowd,’ I need to concentrate on adding castles and dragons and Celtic scrollwork in order to ‘nail it down.’” So far, Frank has resisted.
In what is perhaps a sign of the digital times in which we live, Frank’s piece entitled In Humid Calm was featured on the home page of DeviantArt a couple years ago, when Frank received more than 50,000 page views in a day, along with 26,000 messages from admirers.
Digital work as a category may still be overcoming the same critical and academic resistance that “fine art photography” has had to address, but clearly Frank’s images have provoked interest, fanned by the hyper-exposure offered by the internet. The work may be a bit mysterious, and it’s possible that deliberate revelations will remain elusive. But viewers have taken to it, invited to enter into the spaces he creates to use their own associative faculties in decoding these fantastical places.