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The Fractal Artist - Leonardo 34:1 Leonardo 34.1 (2001) 3-4

The Leonardo Gallery

The Fractal Artist

The twenty-first century may come to be known as the Age of Complexity. It is an era that is attempting to grapple with irregularity, metamorphic forms and changing notions about order and disorder. Whether they be scientists, sociologists or artists, people are addressing the existence of the irregular, the fluid, the irrational and the "inbetween"--ideas that are viewed as the building blocks of a new paradigm for creativity in art.

The artists presented in this gallery are part of an international group working with fractal art. Fractal art is an artistic practice based in concepts from fractal geometry, chaos theory and complexity theory. Each artist shown here pursues his or her individual artistic expression and style and yet remains linked to the others by an interest in exploring complex forms, themes of self-similarity, scaling, order and disorder, and the relationship of the microcosmos to the macrocosmos.

Fractal artists project a fractal imagination of the world through their work. It is a world in which space has become fractal--i.e. imploded, dense, hyperactive, interconnected. The fractal artist declares that space can no longer be considered minimal, expressionistic or conceptual. Instead, contemporary fractal artists seek to reflect the condition of space in their time as they perceive it, with its fractal dimensions and qualities. For the fractal artist, the physical and psychological landscape of today has nothing to do with the Cartesian-Corbusien concept of space that has dominated contemporary architecture. The fractal artist sees the utopianism of the Euclidean form as a vestige of Cartesian philosophies formulated around the concepts of measurability and predictability. The fractal artist believes that the Cartesian model excludes the irregularity and dynamics of reality, as observed in the physical cosmos as well as in human nature.

The fractal artist projects the artist's vision of the complex contemporary city's architecture of overlain conduits and labyrinthian networks, of nature's forms now reflected in the sprawling cityscape that threatens to obliterate natural space. Paradoxically, the fractal spaces of nature are being replaced by the fractal spaces of our hermetic, dynamic societies.

New York artist Edward Berko was one of the first American artists to begin working with fractal painting. Berko's work has been exhibited in Europe and the United States in both solo and group exhibitions. Painting in oil on wood, Berko documents and then transposes the fractality of form that he observes in the world around him. As an explanation of his work, he writes: "Nature makes fractals in all its processes: the formation of a forest, the paint which peels off a wall, the cracks in the road, the clouds in the sky, the wood which ages. In man also. This is why I create the fractal-made-form in art." In 1994 he published a book of his thoughts on art and fractality [1].

The paintings of Jean-Paul Agosti are metaphors for a vision of the garden as an expression of competing forces of order and disorder. Agosti was perhaps the first French painter to explore fractal form, befriending mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot in the early 1980s. His paintings are a series of imaginary gardens titled after the gods of Greek mythology. Lyrical and yet formal, Agosti's paintings convey an almost musical visuality as a testament to the artistic possibilities of fractality. He has exhibited throughout Europe, including in a large solo museum exhibition at the Musée de Sens in 1996 and most recently at the Musée de l'Hospice Saint Roch. [End Page 3]

Artist Carlos Ginzburg was the first fractal artist I met in Europe when I moved to Paris in the late 1980s. Ginzburg, Edward Berko and I began meeting regularly to discuss our interest in the ideas of the new geometry. Our early group, which we called le noyau (the seed), played a role in the emergence of an interest in fractal art in contemporary art [2].

Carlos Ginzburg began working with the idea of fractals in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he began to talk about fractals to the artists and thinkers he met: Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, art critic Pierre Restany and aesthetician Jean-Claude Chirollet. Ginzburg believes that his pieces function as "fractal hybrids," intermingling his perception of our culture with the tetralogy of complexity of sociologist Edgar Morin: order--disorder--interactions--(fractal) self-organizations. Ginzburg is the creator of the Fractalman image, a figure of Mandelbrot sets replicating into infinity. Ginzburg's image is a metaphor for the hermetic, dynamic fractality of human identity. With Fractalman, we can project the idea that the human being is the ultimate fractal subject, destined to exist in an oscillating and contradictory state of free will and systemic limitations.

Susan Derges is a British photographer working in the Devon countryside. She captures her images by exposing natural phenomena, such as a running stream, directly to the photographic paper using moonlight. In this way she records the images of a fractal world: the stream, the branches that overhang the water, the shadows of the trees, etc. Derges attempts to capture worlds in transition that use the language of fractality of form. Her images are projections of turbulence, disorder and order, instability and bifurcating structures; in short, her works form themselves from the vocabulary of chaos and complexity.

Lebanese painter Nabil Nahas, currently working in New York, consciously decided to bring a fractal perspective to his work when, walking along the beach after a storm, he observed the disordered order of the randomly deposited starfish upon the sand. He felt a natural affiliation with the idea of fractals because his work is concerned with the idea of order emerging from disorder. Lush and vibrant, Nahas's works are reveries, contemplations of formed formlessness that present themselves for our reflection. His paintings are places where the microcosmos and the macrocosmos exist in labyrinthian self-containment.

U.S. painter Jim Long became interested in fractality of form when he decided to explore a new kind of complex and mathematical grid for his work. He was investigating the possibility of making an infinitely thin plane of paint upon the canvas. One night he left some solution to dry in a bowl. In the morning he noticed mysterious forms, cartoon-like and ghostly, which had formed spontaneously. Some students visiting his studio remarked "Oh, you're growing fractals!" Long's work connects the fractal subject with hyper-real pigments and plays with the tension between graphic elements and painterliness, imparting a purely American irreverence to his work.

Susan Condé
Art critic and writer
33 East 70th Street
New York, NY 10021
E-mail: <>

References and Notes

1. Edward Berko, Sur Le Mur (On the Wall) (Paris: Les Editions de La Différence, 1994).

2. In 1993, I published a book as a poetic manifesto called Fractalis: La complexité fractale dans l'art (Paris: Les editions de la différence, 1993). My second book on fractal art is L'Art Fractal: L'emergence de la complexité fractale dans l'art (Paris: Les Editions de La Difference, 2000). In the fall of 1999, I presented three of the fractal artists presented here (Berko, Ginzburg and Long) at an art fair at the Louvre called Art Paris.