Why Figurative Motion?
When I first stepped into an Ohio State University Department of Dance rehearsal room in the spring of 1973, I had no premonitions that I would still be drawing moving figures fifty years later. In 1973, what started as a self-challenge to develop the gestural line in studio figure drawing, ended up becoming an end in itself. Simply stated, for me there is no other way to draw the human figure other than drawing the figure in motion. The figure never stays still (we breathe, we twitch, we scratch our noses and we get bored). While sleeping, the figure respires, the breathing changes through the night, and the body unconsciously seeks new positions. Even in death, the figure decomposes, wasting away to dust.
For all one's time on earth, a lifetime is spent moving. Constantly. Differently. Everyone moves differently, but then again there's similarities, usually less obvious. Certainly, most of us walk, but some walk slower, some with a loping gait, some with an unsteady shuffle. And some of us run, some even run very fast. And a few of us crawl.
Why is motion so fascinating? It is so much like music: best experienced, sometimes skillfully played and arranged, but usually everyday, common and deceptive. Music can be recorded; it can be reproduced amazingly well. But the music coming from the stereo speaker is not coming from Mozart's harpsichord. It is coming from electricity, from science. And so it is with motion capture; with motion pictures, films, photographic analysis a la Muybridge, with light moving at the speed of "reality." But it is no more real than the compact disk the music was recorded upon.
Again, why is motion so fascinating to me? By capturing the line of the figure moving through space, I can express not only my reception to another human being's existence, but I can I can determine subtle human meaning. I have learned to pick up "body language" to help me understand what other people are communicating to me, and among themselves. As body language is quite an inexact science, my interpretations aren't always "on the mark." Any professional dancer understands that any short sequence of movements or "pathways" can mean different things: nuance is art to the enraptured eye. How the movement is shaded, how the pace lightens or what part of the sequence is stressed, can often mean a world of difference.
From my experiences painting figurative motion, in 2003 I explored motion capture as another way of visually sampling the passage of the dancer in front of me. From point A to point B, in just so many seconds. But with my brushwork captured digitally, there are a range of tools at my disposal. Not only the different software "filters" that can "color and style" the moving line, but also software that can interpret of the digital form of the dancer as a perceptible three-dimensional form in motion through wire frame restructuring.
Visual sampling was an extraordinary potential to go beyond the mere recreation of a human form in motion, but to sample with it, to build new meanings with it, to alternate the digital reality with a visionary experience. Sometimes the digital visual activity may suggest "human" movement, and other times it may only result in a visual moment. In hip hop music, a primary element is the acoustical buildup of "sampling" that synthesizes into a rhythmic pattern, resulting in a musical sound of depth and complexity, but still simple enough to "dance" to.
Motion capture does not necessarily have to be about camera tricks or ironies. It doesn't have to stop with "ghostcatching" the incredible rhythm and movements of Bill T. Jones with photographic "flavoring." What interests me is to develop a reality of the process -- the art unfolding -- the art experience of creation. The act of search and identification upon a canvas of air. Is that not what our eyes, in concert with our brains, perceive to be "reality?" Against the canvas of air. In dance, in painting, there is always a counterforce. There is gravity, resistance. Scrumbling. Dragging a loaded gummy brush against a rough, blistered surface. Synthesizing with color.
What is different from capturing the motion contained within a "stage" ringed with motion camera sensors, in a calibrated grid than drawing a room full of dancers rehearsing in a 30' x 50' room -- or on a sheet of paper measuring 8.5" x 11"? At the conclusion, do we frame the motion capture session like a painting and hang on a wall, or view on a monitor? What's the difference here?
I think the difference lies in the potential of the unknown. A form animated is not necessarily a form captured. What is digital form on a monitor screen but a perception? I think the layering of visual referencing with the visual drama of a line pushing against the future -- a moment at Point A, the next at point B, and where will Point C leave us? It is about courage beyond known perceptions.
When I walked through the galleries of the Wexner Center for the Arts exhibition "Suite Fantastique" I was reminded again and again of the diverse realities of our dreams, our vision quests. Some of the artists think in terms of surfaces (Lynn), of mixing (Marcaccio -- in the closest approximation to what I perceive to be visual sampling), and of integration (van Gastel). The metaphors and allusions that were sampled in the film titles were another example of visual sampling. Placed in a certain order, the visuals tell an indirect story. Placed in a different order, I suppose they could tell a different story. The range of creative models shown at the Wexner were far-reaching and still comfortable. They were not surprising, at least not to me.
No matter what software we use, no matter how the capture session is set up, no matter how powerful our hard drives can be -- the most important thing is how far can our imaginations take us? How much should we let the technology show? In capturing our motion today, will we lead better lives tomorrow? Is that important, or irrelevant?
I think our motions are important to us, in ways we still have a hard time understanding. When I watch a dancer in the class develop their choreography with a partner, I can see their body thinking while it still moves forward. And at the moment of inspiration, I see the body race to the next step. Are we trying to capture the way we were? Or the humans we don't know ourselves to be?
If the medium is the message, then let the message emerge from that counterpoint where the idea becomes the reality. Show the flaws with the polish. The work will produce its own reason for being.
In my first stab at motion capture, Orpheus and Eurydice, I purposely chose a theme I had been wrestling with for some time. Whenever I attacked the theme while painting, it escaped me. I could not locate the Eurydice in my painting. Orpheus, I knew as well as the back of my right hand. But Eurydice was deceptive. Like Orpheus bringing her out of the dark cave, I could not tell if she was following me. I could not hear her behind me. And if I turned around, I would lose her, again, maybe forever.
It was easy to develop the initial concept that was rehearsed and eventually captured. I had been playing with the idea for years: paint my way out of the cave, searching for my memory of the living Eurydice, while she slowly came to life behind me.
But there is so many other avenues I wish to explore. Carving the space around Eurydice, creating a burial shroud. Painting her death in the meadow, with a snake of a line darting out from nowhere. Like Death, sudden and bold. And seeing her for the first time again in Hades, painting my case with Death. There is a story, without words, without music even. I suppose the rest will wait until I get another chance to work with a dancer and the motion capture equipment. I am intrigued by all the possibilities, even in such one small example. I hope to get an opportunity to pursue this vision.
In the summer of 2022, I was fortunate to attend a workshop in the University of Akron with the Groundworks DanceTheatre organization. I was able to watch a rehearsal by professional dancers under the direction of David Shimotakahara, the Executive Artistic Director of Groundworks. In addition, I attended the stage proformance of the dances in Akron's Firestone Park. I was excited about the new dance movements which led to more innovative calligraphic gesture and sequences. A few of the new paintings that resulted from this experience are shown below.