North Shore Magazine, March 1998
"SPATIAL EFFECTS: Ed Paschke + (Art)n = The Future"
by Abigail Foerstner

Ed Paschke's high voltage paintings always look electrically charged, but only recently has he vaulted into the futuristic field of electronic art.

Paschke still fills canvases with a Technicolor cabaret of heroes and misfits at his longtime studio in the shadow of the Howard Street el tracks. But 2.5 miles and a space age leap away he now has a "post-Canvas" studio at a cyberspace outpost called (Art)n Laboratory. Housed at the Northwestern University Research Park in downtown Evanston, the laboratory specializes in making 3-dimensional, virtual reality visualizations.

"This is a marriage of art and science," says Ellen Sandor (Art)n director and founder. "Scientists coveted this right away, but now it's getting more accepted in the art world."

Enter Paschke, internationally acclaimed painter and the godfather of Chicago pop art. At (Art)n, Paschke trades his paintbrush for a computer stylus to create hybrid, high-tech digital sculptures called PHSColograms in collaboration with Sandor and (Art)n artists Stephan Meyers and Janine Fron.

PHSColograms combine aspects of photography, holography, sculpture and computer graphics to create vibrant 3-D visualizations of such subjects as the AIDS virus, chaos math equations and the writer Franz Kafka. The kinetic illuminations shimmer on the walls of the cavernous, dimly lit laboratory and suggest a sci-fi pavilion of windows opening into alternate universes. The pieces--backlit in the lightboxes--collapse into surfaces as dark and barren as a blank TV screen as soon as the power goes off. But with the power on, the images appear to move with you and it's only natural to try and catch the full effect by swaying back and forth in front of them. "Sort of like being on the Titanic," Paschke quips.

He clearly relishes the risk of taking on a medium in which the seductive technology easily can overshadow the art. "These kinds of opportunities become challenges to take more risks, to stay on the edge, "he says. "When the world applauds you, there's a tendency to become more and more conservative.

Paschke has edged into PHSColograms by incorporating some of his own paintings into them, just as his paintings frequently incorporate mass media imagery. The viewer looks into the totemic, masklike head in "No Fumare, Por Favore" (No Smoking Please") and sees Paschke's painting "Fumar" suspended like a mental flashback.

For his most recent PHSCologram "Primondo," he incorporated a 1986 painting of George Washington into a bust of a kitschy pharaoh. In Paschke's succinct expression of cultural ironies and excesses, reverence for the founding father transforms him into a god-like icon--or perhaps a new restaurant facade.

Both of these pieces started out as 3-D computer simulations of a bust that Paschke could alter, paint and texture in the "post-canvas" digital studio using an electronic tablet. Each stroke he makes on the tablet with a stylus becomes visible on a computer screen. He chooses colors from a limitless digital spectrum and Meyers helps set commands so that the stylus, by turns, doubles for chalk, colored pencils or a brush.

"This is truly virtual," says Meyers. "The surface he paints is multidimensional--but it doesn't really exist."

The art work created in the computer generates the "hard-copy" PHSCologram, a large scale film transparency that is mounted in a light box to be viewed like a stained-glass window. The PHSCologram interleaves 65 separate images of the work, each photographed digitally from a slightly different angle of view. As you view it, only one image filters to the eye from any one perspective. But move past the PHSCologram and the images change, resulting in the grand illusion of depth and motion through the process (Art)n has invented.

"I'm not really computer literate. I liken this to someone who is stranded up in the sky and is being talked down by the control tower," Paschke says.

However it works, most of Paschke's limited edition "No Fumare" PHSCologram are sold out. Collectors, including singer Elton John, paid $10,000 for the 20" x 24" PHSCologram, made in an edition of 16. A 30" x 40" rendition, made in and edition of 6, sells for $18,000. The work, along with the recently released "Primondo," is on view at the Maya Polsky Gallery, 215 W. Superior St.

The fusion of art and technology has played a pivotal role in the intertwining stories of Paschke, the Chicago art scene and (Art)n Laboratory.

Hungarian artist Lazslo Moholy-Nagy transplanted the Bauhaus school of design from Germany to Chicago in the 1930s and brought with it a utopian ideal of surrounding people with everyday objects that meld art and mass technology. His New Bauhaus school evolved into the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology and became a catalyst for influential directions in abstract and documentary photography.

But television and pulp photography set the stage for another influential movement in town as young renegade painters from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago reincarnated mass media images into the city's own brand of pop art. Paschke, with his irreverent human forms and atomic blasts of color, received national attention as a key player among the confrontational Chicago "Imagists," as the artists were called.

"The 1960s were sociologically a time of confrontation, with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Both those issues had a lot to do with forming who I am. My early paintings were characterized by the attitude of in-your-face confrontation," Paschke says. "My theory is that good art should provoke and challenge you to evaluate your beliefs. Otherwise, it's just Muzak played in the background."

Paschke has taken his philosophy to the top of his trade. "He's our senior figure, one of our real cultural icons in Chicago," says Lynne Warren, who organized the "Art in Chicago" exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art last year. Paschke and (Art)n had separate works in the show. Warren applauds their collaboration. "Even though Paschke's imagery translates well to this [medium] with his fluorescent colors and sense of movement, it's the sculptural quality that should be most interesting, " she says. "PHSColograms are very, very sculptural."

Paschke, 58, grew up on the Northwest Side of Chicago and started drawing as a child. He graduated from the School of the Art Institute in 1961 and, after a stint in the Army and some travel, returned to earn a graduate degree. His early works scratched the dark side of society with disquieting references to fame, violence and outlaws such as JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and mass murderer Richard Speck. By the 1970s his work delved into caricature and explored with off-beat humor a variety of loaded issues about gender and counter-culture.

Paschke's figures became more abstract in the late 1970s, evolving into anonymous forms lost in an electronic stream of consciousness that resembled a distorted television picture. Paschke's renegade art had moved to the top drawer of culture by then. In 1977 he began teaching at Northwestern University, where he is an art professor, and in 1980 he rented his Howard Street studio.

Unfinished paintings of figures glazed in an apocalyptic light dominate the studio with its clutter of paint tubes, brushes, magazines, clippings, easels, canvases, plants and memorabilia. Sandor, herself a sculptor, started (Art)n and began making PHSColograms in 1983 when Chicago was already the hub of the technological revolution in computer imaging. Computer pioneers at the University of Illinois at Chicago helped invent the image-processing tools that have since become accessible on many home PCs. In the 1980s, computer imaging turned to immersive, 3-dimensional visualizations and virtual reality. (Art)n was right on target.

At first, Sandor made PHSColograms by taking lengthy time exposures on large-scale photographic film to get the series of images that she needed for each final work. Meyers wrote the proprietary software that has allowed the whole process to be completed digitally since 1989.

NASA, the National Institutes of Health and countless researchers, scientists and artists have collaborated with (Art)n for visualizations. A panorama of 16 PHSColograms at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City tells the story of Jewish history before and after the Holocaust. An immersive installation of (Art)n PHSColograms of diamond molecules magnified to the size of basketballs stands near the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C.

As the name implies, (Art)n steadfastly believes in the artistic potential of scientific imaging. "Scientists are the rock stars of the future, but scientists need artists to do these visualizations, " Sandor says. The combination of beauty and cutting-edge technology promises to make PHSColograms a fast-track art medium.

(For more information on "No Fumare, Por Favore" please go to PHScologram in Ed Paschke's Biography Page.