Beyond boundaries

By
From the October 2010 edition

The passageway that leads to the Urban Arts Space, located in the recently resurrected Lazarus building, is brick, bronze-colored and spotted with art deco remnants from the building’s former life. Inside, though, the aesthetic is suddenly sparse and white. The gallery is open, stripped down, unfinished, cavernous and perfect for a retrospective: There are a lot of walls for a lot of art. On this night—a Tuesday in late July—these walls are home to the exhibit “Beyond Boundaries,” highlighting five decades of the pioneering, computer-generated art of Charles Csuri. The Columbus-based artist and icon holds two impressive titles: “Father of digital art” (care of Smithsonian Magazine) and “Master of the digital renaissance” (bestowed upon him by numerous art critics).

At first, this night at the Urban Arts Space feels just like any art opening. The well-dressed mingle near art-covered walls and tables of fancy hors d’oeuvres, while synthesized ethereal music pipes in from above. And, as at most openings, the artist is here. At 88, Csuri is surely one of the oldest in the room. This does not make him easy to spot, however. If 50 is the new 40, then 88 is the new 68 or 60 or something like that. While some take up, say, skydiving in their 80s, Csuri has been busy developing an innovative animation process—again!

Like much of his other work, this process eventually may be put to some commercial or technological use (Csuri may be the only contemporary artist to influence medical and aviation technology). But for Csuri, it is the artistic use that matters. Since the 1960s, he has been pushing a medium he calls inherently “measured and calculated” toward “non-linear” ends. Playing at the “edge of reason and absurdity,” he uses computers to create works that surprise and excite, and this time the result is sculptural.

At the south end of the gallery is “Mirare,” a 13-foot free-standing animation. Meaning to wonder at, “Mirare” is a black treelike structure with high-def TVs for leaves. Each screen—nine in all—displays part of one continuous and mobile abstract animation, both geometric and colorful. This sculpture is the real reason for tonight’s gathering. This is not an opening. It is an unveiling. Csuri is dedicating the artwork to the city of Columbus. (Following a brief tour, it will land here permanently, though exactly where has yet to be determined.)

Of course, an occasion such as this calls for speeches. Soon enough the music stops, replaced by the buzz of a microphone coming to life and a female voice calling the crowd to order. “People,” she says with authority and then, in a quick instant, softens and begins to croon, “People who need people.” The woman channeling Barbra Streisand is Caroline Csuri, daughter of the artist, and she has brought this crowd to attention with just the kind of playfulness and spontaneity so present in the art that lines the surrounding walls.

Caroline, with a mix of the sincerity and jocularity that marks the tone of the evening, introduces her father as “the man who looks like Clark Kent”—he does have the glasses and the understated suit—but is “her Superman,” one who uses his “X-ray vision to see into the future.” As he takes hold of the mic, Csuri, his dark hair speckled gray, is feeling immensely grateful. To the hundred plus invitees casually gathered, he issues many heartfelt thanks. About his work, he is brief: With a wave of his hand to his left, he says, “It started here.” With a wave of his hand to the right, toward the 13-foot sculpture, he says, “And it ends there.”

So, for Csuri, where did it start? In brief: An oil painter learned to program computers and from a room-sized mainframe monstrosity of a machine and stacks upon stacks of punch cards, he created works that were, to put it mildly, met with skepticism by Art with a capital A. Looking at Csuri’s earliest shape-shifting computer drawings—the ones he waved to on his left—it is hard not to be reminded of today’s Transform tool in Photoshop and what everyone invariably does with it—tweaking, warping, collapsing, repeating. Surprisingly, this tie to our present day noodling does not date Csuri’s early work, but enhances it. These pieces, while interesting to look at and conceptually complex, also wonderfully embody the timeless human compulsion to explore and subvert—and, just as important, to have some giddy fun.

Csuri, who in time was embraced by the establishment, has called his work a kind of collaboration with the computer. But, interestingly, the computer also is part of the process for the viewer. When experiencing Csuri’s work, his technology always is present, in ways sometimes ironic. For instance, looking at “Random War” (1967 and re-created in 2010), his moving anti-battle battle simulation, one can’t help but think of another way Csuri’s graphic innovations have been put to use: in the video games Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. In “Caroline” (1989), the believability of the etching that we know is not an etching is captivating, and in “doodleFourteen” (2001), reams and reams of what looks like richly colored cassette tape create shapes so convincingly three-dimensional one wants to call this flat piece of art a sculpture. Csuri’s most recent works are meditative moving animations made to satisfy his need, he says, “For a slower-paced universe.” Yet, there’s that computer again, and the odd thought: The technology behind this contemplative cure also is the very thing to blame for our too-fast universe.

But back to the speeches. After Janice Glowski, curator of the traveling retrospective (“Beyond Boundaries” landed here after stints in Taiwan and Boston), talks briefly about the historical importance of Csuri, the lineup of speakers gets a bit eclectic. To list them sounds like the setup of a joke: an engineer, a college president, a mayor and a football coach walk into an art gallery. But each has reason to be here. Csuri’s work is technologically complex—thus the engineer. At every turn—as a student, professor, founder of the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design—Csuri has been connected to Gordon Gee’s Ohio State University. And who better to accept this gift to the city of Columbus than Mayor Mike Coleman? But why the football coach? No, Jim Tressel doesn’t spend the off-season dabbling with watercolors. In fact, he tells those gathered that in elementary school his best attempt to draw a pilgrim caused his teacher to comment, “Looks more like a mailbox with a head.”

Turns out Tressel is here for exactly the reason you would think: football, but only kind of. Csuri was an all-American tackle in 1942 for OSU’s national championship team coached by Paul Brown. All this is praiseworthy. But the reason Tressel tells every new recruit about the former Buckeye is because Csuri, after serving in World War II, turned down the NFL to not only follow his passion to be an artist, but also become the kind he wanted to be in the face of rejection and derision.

Clearly, this night is not about one sculpture or one retrospective; it is about a life well-lived. When it is Gee’s turn, he jokes, “When I grow up I want to be Charles Csuri.”

When the speeches end, there is a ceremonial signing of the piece followed by many photographs in many configurations—Csuri between Gee and Tressel, between Coleman and Caroline etc. Then the evening begins to wind down just like any art opening. Those gathered gradually take their leave. The work remains behind—and will until early October. And it is a testament, as Gee said earlier in the evening, “to a life of hard work and a life that has made a difference.”

Kendra Hovey is a freelance writer.