Considering information and concepts as fractal in nature is a basis of mathematical analyses. Fractals are a tool for carrying out analysis of complex forms to reveal simple underlying structures. Yet exploring fractals in ideas and artwork is an odd concept, until we consider fractals not just as complex algorithms but as ways to examine complexity. We can see this proposition in Richard Humann’s work “The Same River Twice” shown at CR10, Linlithgo, NY, Summer 2013 by looking at how the work presents a visual representation of the natural form of the Hudson river shaped by broken pieces of printed text. If the viewer contemplates the intersection formed by paintings of raw nature by the Hudson River School landscape painters with Humann’s self-similar elements of text cut out from printed books, screen plays and musical lyrics reorganized into the shape of the Hudson River, one can come to an understanding of a fractal way of looking at art and “The Same River Twice.”
The title of the work is based on the Heraclitus saying that “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” Whether commenting on the physical flow of ever changing water over the riverbed or the more allegorical idea that the river of time can only be experienced once, Humann’s work examines both with the physicality of the piece and the conceptual idea in the form of influences on his life on the edge of the Hudson River parceled out in fragments. In considering the project, he understood that he can never go back completely to the past, despite remembering elements of it. Those influences which were once important, ideas, words and phrases, are now distorted and chaotically disordered by time and age, even though they continue to impact his life today.
The fractal is a powerful mathematical concept first described by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot in the mid 1970’s which has helped revolutionize how we understand our world. Roughness and self-similarity at multiple scales are the hallmarks of naturally occurring fractals. The self-similarity can be applied widely, ranging from fern fronds, whose axial leaf gets progressively larger yet the “ragged” blade shape stays the same, to riverine watersheds, where “…every tributary has its own tributaries…so that it has the same organization as the entire river except that it covers a smaller area.” (McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Science and Technology).
Fractal Art is a form of computer generated art that emerged in the 1980’s due to the proliferation of relatively powerful home computers. For the first time computers enabled scientists as well as the general populace to explore and create fractal sets. The resulting images demonstrated the inherent power of mathematics to explain complex shapes while overthrowing the common concept that mathematical solutions would be simple and linear in form. However, in the 19th century, fractals were unrecognized. The Hudson River School painters of the 19th century were inspired by nature, ignorant of the fact that these
natural forms were bound by mathematical principles. Founded by Thomas Cole and continued by artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt among other New York landscape painters, this school was arguably one of the most significant to evolve in America. Inspired by the British aesthetic theory of the Sublime these artists were in awe of the fearful and irregular forms found in the untamed wilderness (Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory. Ithaca, 1959). This idea rejected the idealization of nature and saw it for the beauty found in its’ dangerous raw and irregular characteristics. Ironically, the very ruggedness and self-similarity depicted in their painting of the mountains, rivers or the clouds provided epic and surprisingly fractal-like results.
The stylistic approach of a contemporary Hudson River artist, Richard Humann also had no intent to be fractal in nature, yet the reconfiguration of his memories to make the work using chaotic ragged and wild associations evokes them as well. “The Same River Twice” consists of tens of thousands of words individually cut from all of the books that inspired him from his youth when he was living in Stony Point, a small town along the Hudson River. 40 miles and 30 years later in New York City, he looked back and “dissected” the works. He “gathered the writings … The Brothers Karamazov, The Sirens of Titan, Sweet Thursday, Gulliver’s Travels, Janson’s History of Art, as well as poems by E.E. Cummings, and countless other works, including movie screenplays and song lyrics. I … dissected the text, (physically from the books) word by word”. (He calls the result “cut ups.”) These works that were once full with meaning, absorbed while gazing at the whirls and eddies of the Hudson River now are a fragmented, fractalline personal history.
Humann’s vision of the Hudson River is a 32 foot long cutout in the shape of the river made out of a sheet of wood. This piece was then placed on to a solid sheet to create a river shaped channel that he then filled with the text cutups. This distorted and ragged re-assimilation of his memories, culture and knowledge are now a fractal form combining language’s self-similarity with discontinuous words shaping its rough edges.
Considering fractals as a method of approach of artistic creativity provides a path that prizes the rugged, personal and emotional edges of human experience while integrating it with hidden underlying principles that shape the world around the artist and the viewer. Humann’s “The Same River Twice” is a fascinating example of emergent complexity from simple elements, the basis of fractal organization in art and in the world around us.