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The Computer, Slow Food and Stone

When Goethe suggests that the artist is a universal character, writer, painter, musician, philosopher and general good citizen, it’s a pity he didn’t have a Mac to organize his production.  Garage Band keeps my music in order and progressing, emails and the Internet help me communicating and stay in touch, Photoshop helps experimentation with images and iMovie looks to give an introduction to the world of moving images. We have the orchestra at our fingertips‚Äînow what can we build from this?

I’m writing from a small village in the Ardeche in southern France. Having just returned from my morning walk up the hill behind my house, I began thinking about a subject  that has been on my mind a lot lately:  How to integrate work and life into a harmonious whole where the work, the place, the people,  time available and the entire natural world hum. It just occurred to me, half way through my coffee that the computer is the tool that can link these elements together. In a way, this seems obvious, but how now, in our troubled times does it work and what can it mean and what can a computer do in this context of ‘going back to Nature’ particularly as it relates to the arts? Apple seems to have  understood this new concept the best, indeed has made it possible.  And here is some background to my thinking.

In Italy, a movement was begun called the Slow Food movement, ostensibly to counter the over powering fast food society that has completely taken over the States and is making deep inroads into old Europe, even the great culinary kingdoms of France and Italy. This ‘movement’ is, of course, about much more than just eating good food slowly. It’s about rethinking the way that we live. In terms of food it implies organic gardening, buying locally, eating seasonal fruits and vegetables and taking the time to cook and share meals with friends and family.  All of this takes time, that precious, furtive , contemporary  commodity. But the idea extends much beyond even this.

Which brings me back to the ‘Slow Food Movement‘. It has been an inspiration in concretizing what has slowly become apparent to me as my own artwork began years ago to deviate from the frenetic Avant Garde approach to the ‘problem’ of what it is to be contemporary. Much of the fear of being labeled traditional or reactionary dissipated when it became clear that something new is afoot, that what you read in most of the art magazines, see in the big galleries and museums all over the world is not necessarily the only direction art or life needs to go. Much of the art gibberish, the self-interest, the hype, the superficiality of what we see and read arises from the same sources. Sounds strange doesn’t it? Could we imply that Jeff Koons is producing cheeseburger art and has sold the idea to cheeseburger appetites? It’s industrially produced and easy to market.

The implications of this Slow Food movement are far reaching. It’s linked to the entire environmental awakening and demands a re-evaluation of our society’s values. Smoldering revolution will not happen on pristine white walls under neon lights in established conventional institutions or commercial publications regardless of what they tell you. It will most likely occur in isolated individuals, small communities, and probably in very diverse forms. Cezanne was pretty much considered some kind of freak until very late in his life. And he wasn’t very welcome in the Parisian salons either.

So here, let’s make a jump to the 21st century and this is where the computer comes in— as a link to these ‘primitive’, isolated  and emerging sprouts. We have the Internet, email, vast memory, tremendous research possibilities, and with all the software available, the possibility of treating images, music, and texts in creative and professional ways. This does not mean that we need to rely on the computer for the source of our creativity.

The source is Nature and our relationship to her and to ourselves. The computer is a multifaceted tool, somewhat like the powerlock multi-tools that farmers often carry with them. Now, most modern farmers also use the computer. But they don’t grow food out of it. It’s just a tool. Art doesn’t necessarily grow out of a computer either. It’s just a tool, albeit an incredible one and necessary for the new direction I’m speaking of.

As we spend more and more time in the country here in the Ardeche and continue to renovate one of the 16th century buildings, I began to feel that my artwork should also include some of the local animals and that I could incorporate some of the animal species into the renovation project as granite stone sculptures—- an homage to these creatures which may or may not survive the continual march of destruction of  the natural environment. 

I sculpted a lizard, toad, bird, a gargoyle (a modern dragon) and a portrait of a man and a woman‚Äîtwo heads together listening to each other. Some of these have already been incorporated into the building and the others will be soon.  With my own observations, photographs and internet research, I was able to create images that reflect these local species. The link from the 16th century granite building and the 21st century was accomplished.

Also, last year I felt the urge to paint some ‘portraits’ of some of the birds I was hearing outside. In the spring there were the cuckoos, in the early morning and evenings were the owls, and then there were the beautiful hawks that flew too high to distinguish for sure their exact identity.  The problem was that I could never see them clearly. What did they look like? I looked up what the local birds were in this area and studied the photographs, but still wasn’t sure which species of owl they were. And this one particular owl became a real focus for me. As it turns out, there is a website that allows you to listen to the sound birds make and then shows you which specific species it is. Wonderful!  I located the image and painted what I thought the birds might look like.  Thank you computer. (

My view is that with all the de-construction that has occurred in the 20th century, it is time to construct, to re-think the role of art, to place it within a context. Living in a building 300 or 400 years old is an inspiration to create something meaningful that will last beyond one’s own lifetime. Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons celebrate the fast food culture. They are certainly legitimate as chroniclers of a time, but they lead us to more blandness and keep the machine running for the benefit of the all the emperors men. There are cracks in the emperor’s art system too and these are very good places to plant new seeds. Stone walls are vulnerable to roots making their home in the cracks. They break them apart. The Brillo Boxes may indeed be the end of art history as we know it but perhaps not in the way Mr. Danto would imagine it to be. (Beyond the Brillo Box, by Arthuer Danto, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992)

By Ralph Petty

From a Colorado ranch to Alaska to the Painting program at the University of California at Davis, Ralph is a well-traveled Renaissance man. An accomplished musician, saxophonist, singer, figurative and landscape painter, he made his way to Paris in 1976 where he worked for Sir Stanley W. Hayter in the Atelier 17 etching studio. He currently lives and works in Montreuil, teaching drawing and painting at The American University of Paris where he is also the Curator of the AUP Combes Gallery and founder of the permanent collection. Last year he cofounded "Flesh and Flora," a textile design company specializing in bed linen.

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