Painting by numbers
Ken Keller’s fractal art suggests nature’s recursive structures
Swirls of water, or lightning-edged clouds or ragged stars, seem to repeat their colorful patterns, an occasional bubble or odd sphere popping out of the jagged maelstroms as they recur over and over, both down endlessly into a microcosm and far up infinitely into a macrocosm.
Welcome to the art of fractals.
Artist Ken Keller first became interested in fractals roughly 10 years ago, when he happened onto a Web site displaying several of the colorful, repeating pieces. Since then, he has been running fractal printing programs through a computer, altering the repeating equations by mere fractions, producing through the most up-to-date printers available many diverse, colorful and wonderfully intricate images. His current show at Moxie’s, Fractal Art: Exploring the Boundary between Creation and Discovery, presents many of his latest works, from large pieces that seem hand painted to small gray tone works that seem almost like strange black-and-white photos of subatomic patterns or perhaps even alternate realities.
“I started in ‘94,” Keller explains at Moxie’s, during the show’s opening reception. A photographer initially, Keller did not, however, come by chaotic systems and Mandelbrot sets as many of us did—by reading James Gleick’s fascinating book, Chaos: Making a New Science.
“I was turned on to it by exploring the Internet,” he admits. “And I came to it from a purely visual aspect. I was a commercial photographer. I’ve had many black-and-white photography shows, and I’m inclined that way. But this really caught my attention.
“And also,” Keller continues, “I’m very scientifically curious. You know, these things that the scientists are coming up with, which turn out philosophical.”
The implications of recursive structures, I suggest.
“Yeah, but when I started,” Keller says, “it was because of the visual possibilities. It just truly is infinite.”
From his initial exposure, Keller began to get more into computer programs and the latest technology that would allow him to create his own fractal pieces. Unlike other fractal artists whose works he has viewed online, however, Keller is more inclined to let the random patterns run their courses.
“There are fractal artists who use other programs to manipulate colors and put other things in,” he says. “One of the things that I’ve tried to do from the beginning is to just use the program [as is]. I’ve put this restriction on myself. The final product I might tweak here and there. But 90 percent of them I don’t.”
Keller draws an analogy with a traditional painter.
“A real artist, a painter, let’s say, will use his paint with a different brush or brush stroke for an effect. The fine nuances that a painter can do, like pull it back a little bit, let it blend in here … this can be done mathematically with computers. We’re using math here. So, let’s change this variable. Let’s figure the colors in this way. Instead of your hand, it’s just numbers.”
That makes me think about the philosophies of the Pythagoreans, those ancient followers of Greek mathematician Pythagoras, who suggested that the entire universe and all its workings could be reduced to numbers.
“I just love that,” Keller says, enthusiastically. “Fractals—you can zoom into them forever.
“And it applies to the basic situation we’re in,” he continues, “in this world and this existence. [Scientists] are really just now looking into chaotic and nonlinear dynamics. As we look out with the Hubble [space telescope], we’re seeing structures in galaxies. And we’re finding that these structures are fractal shapes.
“And in my stuff I hope people will somehow get that," Keller states. "Even if they don’t want to think about the math."