"I'm no longer a believer that space is empty and objects are separated,"  says Char Davies, artist, researcher, environmentalist, and software company executive. "I have an intense impulse to integrate rather than separate."  Although Davies is describing her artistic aesthetic, she might have used the same words to describe her approach to many things in life.

Char Davies, Leaf, 1990
Char Davies, Leaf, 1990
3D digital still image

One of the rare artists to support herself solely by commissions and private sales of paintings, Davies did so from 1978, when she received her BFA from the University of Victoria in British Columbia (following studies at Bennington College) until the early '80s, when she integrated freelance film making into her life. Then, in 1987, she stopped painting and film making altogether to help build SoftImage, a computer graphics software company in Montreal that then had just three people, founder Daniel Langlois and two programmers. "I felt instinctively that through building the company I would get access to the technology I hoped for," she says, "and then I would return to artistic research." She has.

Using SoftImage's "Creative Environment," comprised of integrated 3D modeling, rendering, and animation tools, Davies has produced a remarkable series of "paintings." The work has been included in exhibitions worldwide and has received prestigious awards: the Prix Ars Electronica Distinction in 1993, Honorary Mention in 1990, and Imagina Prix Pixel Image in 1991.

"Char Davies is an artist with an imagination," states Rolf Herken, painter, founder of Mental Images (a computer graphics company in Berlin), and a juror for the 1993 Prix Ars Electronica. In that competition, out of 701 entries submitted by 282 artists, only two, those from Char Davies and Michael Tolson (see the August/September 1993 issue for more on Tolson), came under consideration in the Computer Graphics Category.

Char Davies, Stream, 1991
Char Davies, Stream, 1991
3D digital still image

Tolson received the Golden Nica award, Davies the award of Distinction. "To emphasize the artistic importance of Char Davies' work," writes Herken in the jury statement, "it was decided not to award the second Distinction.

"I'd say 99.9% of computer art is bad art, and it is so because the artists don't have imagination," says Herken. "You don't see the bad artists so much in traditional arts," he says. "They're sorted out much earlier.

"Char Davies is one of the few artists in the world trying very, very hard to create images that extend what is seen and using a computer to help," he says. He elaborates in the jury statement: "Her works are spacious by nature and to a certain extent the product of traditional hand and head work, aided by a highly developed, commercially available 3D computer animation system. They can be viewed as three dimensional paintings striving to represent immaterial, yet structured, abstract, light-flooded spaces, comparable to the interior of Gothic cathedrals and attributable perhaps to the artistic tradition of J. M. W. Turner."

The artistic research that led to these honors for Davies is not separate from her work at SoftImage. Today, SoftImage employs 200 people, has captured a large share of the worldwide high-end animation software market, and is publicly held. Now that the company has grown up, Davies, a director and vice president of visual research, has withdrawn from the business side to concentrate on research.

"This research is a natural extension of the company's original goal to design intuitive, interactive 3D software for creative users rather than engineers," says Davies. "I consider my work to be a vital exploration of the software's expressive potential.

Char Davies, The Drowning (Falling from One into the Other), 1993
Char Davies, Drowning [Rapture] The Drowning (Falling from One into the Other) , 1993
3D digital still image

That research is leading her to challenge some entrenched conventions. "It's very important that this technology be used to express alternative world views," she states. "Three-D computer graphics is a very powerful visualizing technology. It's not value-free. As a progeny of Western science, it reflects certain cultural values about our place as human beings in the world. We come from a cultural tradition that has separated mind from nature. It's very dualistic. And the visual conventions of 3D computer graphics tend to reinforce those values."

She continues: "The dominant aesthetic in 3D computer graphics is 'objective' realism. I call it 'hard-edged objects separated in empty space.' I'm seeking alternatives to that; to subvert conventions in the technology in order to express an alternative view of the world." The work on these pages represents the state of that search today. It is a continuation of an artistic journey that has seen Davies move from creating paintings that describe the external world to creating images that, she believes, "represent the interior experience of exterior space."

Char Davies, The Yearning, 1993
Char Davies, The Yearning, 1993
3D digital still image

In 1978, armed with her degree and an early awareness of the importance of old-growth forests, Davies moved into a small logging community on Vancouver Island, where she supported herself by painting.

"In university, because representational painting was not in vogue, I taught myself classical perspective, chiaroscuro, etc.," she says. "I wanted to learn how to reproduce what I saw; to learn the rules before I broke them. I became a competent realist painter, and people in this isolated community started commissioning paintings."

This work led to a film, in 1981, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Titled "Jacks or Better," the documentary on logging was based on Davies' experience as a painter in the forests of British Columbia. And this work led to a dual career as a filmmaker living in Montreal and a painter working in a studio on Vancouver Island.

"The documentaries came out of my own experiences and views," she says. "But at heart, as a painter, I felt frustrated because in the documentaries I couldn't control the light."

It was at about this time that Davies began to pay attention to how she really saw the world. She took out her contact lenses and, wearing halfglasses so she could see her hand, began drawing what she actually saw with her extremely nearsighted vision. "Objects lost their edges and boundaries and dissolved in light, and I began to be truly aware of three-dimensional space," she says. "I didn't see objects, just different regions of luminosity." Space is not empty, she realized, it's full—of light.

"In taking out the corrective lenses, I weaned myself from a dependency on the surface appearance of the external world. And I became aware of the subjective sense of being in that enveloping luminous space."

That led to another fundamental shift. "It opened a whole area of philosophical inquiry, a desire to describe the subjective experience of what Heidegger calls being-in-the-world. "That's the impulse," she says. "That became the motive behind my research: to recreate a unity of interior and exterior, of subject world and object world. The work seeks to reaffirm our deep-rooted connection with nature, with the living, flowing world."

She adds: "This inquiry, this reconnecting of self to nature is very spiritual for me, and political in implication."
In her images, Davies says she wants to refer to "archetypal aspects of nature and to interior psychological space simultaneously," to create images that integrate surface and depth, representation and abstraction, structure and randomness—all simultaneously.

"I try to do this in such a way that spatial relationships of 'figure' and 'ground' fluctuate in the mind of the viewer to create a gestalt of meaning," she says. "I want a perceptual complexity that allows the image to be interpreted in multiple ways, semi-simultaneously, all related to the intended theme," she adds. "And it's really, really hard to do. Creating purposeful ambiguity without lapsing into superficial illustration is the most challenging aspect of my work. When it works, I'm ecstatic."

It's not surprising that trying to manage this complexity on a two-dimensional picture plane—paint on canvas—became limiting for Davies. "I was trying to represent a spatially immersive experience on a flat surface," she says. "Three-D computer technology allowed me to transcend the barrier of the 2D picture plane and create in a virtual space."

She discovered 3D graphics while working at the Film Board. There, she saw a computer-animated sequence from a feature film. In the clip, wireframe 3D graphics were used to create points of light. "I was enthralled by the potential of 3D computer graphics for representing space and working with simulated light," she says. She was so intrigued, in fact, that she tracked down the animator, Daniel Langlois, who became the founder of SoftImage. He told her to wait; that 3D software was not ready for artists who were not also programmers. She stayed in touch with Langlois and joined the company he founded three years later. In 1990, Davies completed "Leaf," her first image created with SoftImage software.

To create her images, Davies begins by constructing, then deforming and manipulating, geometric 3D models. "The models don't look like anything," she explains. "I don't build models to illustrate, I build them to hold the complexity I need. It's easy to illustrate. What's difficult is communicating content without illustrating."

For example, she knew she wanted "Yearning" to represent an interior womb-like space, with a luminous opening, a spiritual passage across a threshold into light. But the models she created were too literal, without mystery.

Only after going deep-sea scuba diving for the first time was she able to get it right. "It was as if the bodily experience of diving came through me and entered the image spontaneously, grounding its intended content in specific elements of the underwater world," she says. "Yearning," she believes, contains the "purposeful ambiguity" she's trying to achieve. "The image can be read as interior bodily space, a womb, a lung, an eye, but also as a coral reef in the sea: she says. "It's all of those archetypically because, as metaphor, it's about longing for light."

Using the same software animators use to create special effects, video games, TV commercials, and sophisticated 3D characters, Davies works with material characteristics of her models, such as texture, transparency, and reflectivity, and with lights, changing colors and the types of shadows they cast. She moves things around in 3D space, changing shape and scale. She moves the virtual camera through the scene as if it were a stage set, working with its virtual optics to change field of view and depth of field. So do animators and illustrators who often use these tools to produce photorealistic effects.

Davies, however, uses photorealism to bring what she calls "a sense of tangible legitimacy to what is immaterial" to her images. At the same time, she works very hard to circumvent photorealism; to circumvent the pull toward objective realism; to find those alternatives to creating hard-edged objects in empty space.

"I want a perceptual complexity that allows the image to be interpreted in multiple ways,
semi-simultaneously, all related to the intended theme."
(Char Davies)

To do this, she uses the software in unique, experimental ways. She integrates figure and ground in the same model so that object and environment are the same. She might reverse light and shadow effects. She sometimes turns models inside out and puts the camera inside shapes. She often applies multiple textures to one model to create ambiguous effects. She works extensively with transparency and light.

"The simulation of light in 3D space is an essential aspect of my work," she says. "It goes back to that discovery years ago of how I really perceived the world around me. I work interactively with the software in a feedback loop involving intent, control, and serendipity. For me, it's important that this process is intuitive. If it's all intent and control, it becomes limited in meaning. When this happens," she claims, "I start over."

For example, the foreground stem shape in "Leaf' is not a model. When asked how she created the shape she delights in saying "lighting effects and serendipity."

Davies exhibits using large-scale duratrans in light boxes to reproduce the luminosity. A better alternative, for Davies, would be to never output the images as print. Instead, she'd like to have them "remain immaterial and float up through the global information network," where, in the future, they'd be displayed on large, flat-panel screens. "To have these images called forth onto someone's digital screen like poetic apparitions seems more appropriate," she says.

Char Davies, Root, 1991
Char Davies, Root, 1991
3D digital still image

"In a way," she muses, "the picture plane that had been a barrier to me [with paint on canvas] is still a barrier. Not when I'm creating the images, but when they're reproduced as 2D. I think of my work not really as images, but as 'image spaces.' The relation between the 3D working space and the 2D compositional frame provides an essential tension during the creative process," she says. "It's a paradox that fuels my work."

"As a result, I'm looking for a more effective means of conveying my ideas, a way to transcend the picture plane altogether and take the audience into immersive virtual space."

It's an obvious direction for someone who has, in fact, been working in a virtual space for several years. "Virtual 3D space is why I became interested in computers in the first place, but I've held back from VR because of the current limitations of hardware rendering in real time. The visual complexity and subtlety of my aesthetic isn't yet possible," she says. That won't always be true, and Davies doesn't want to wait any longer.

"It will be a challenge, but I think it's possible to develop a viable aesthetic and explore integration on another conceptual level," she says. Given the quality of the majority of images now populating virtual reality, one can only wish Char Davies Godspeed on this next exploration.


Moving toward 3D
These two paintings by Char Davies, both in private collections, show the emergence of the aesthetic embodied in her current work. Concerned with recording surface appearances of the visual world, her early work was representational. "Influences," she says, "included Vermeer, Morandi, and Aldous Huxley, who wrote in Doors of Perception about vision in terms of seeing nirvana in the folds of his trousers and the Dharma-body in the garden hedge."

The Cookhouse - Click for larger image
Char Davies, The Cookhouse, 1981
The Bath:Annunciation - Click for larger image
Char Davies, The Bath: Annunciation, 1985

"The Cookhouse" (1981, oil on canvas, 18x30 inches) signaled a transition. "The subject of this painting was not the logging camp cafeteria but the floor, and the ambigu­ous space beyond its surface. I had started to pay attention to how I really see," she explains. Davies, who is extremely nearsighted, took out her corrective lenses to discover volumes of space without surface, dissolved by light. "The Cookhouse" shows Davies beginning to work with that ambiguous space. In 1985's "The Bath: Annunciation" (oil on canvas, 33x52 inches), Davies has moved inside the space, a vol­ume filled with light—here, water reflecting candlelight.

"The desire to represent space as volume filled with luminous entities led me to 3D computer graphics," she says. "I sensed that I could get past the 2D picture plane into virtual space. And because I'd already developed as a painter and had specific reasons to work in 3D," she adds, "I found my aesthetic quickly.

"But it doesn't mean doing images is easy," continues Davies, who notes that she keeps only about 2% of her work. "Many people use the computer to automate their processes, to produce a lot of stuff," she says. "I use it to produce a very specific quality."—BR


Char Davies
"It's very important that this technology be used to express alternative world views. Three-D computer graphics is a very powerful visualizing technology. It's not value-free."
(Char Davies)

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Last verified: August 1st 2013.