The Universe, born in a Big Bang of matter expanding to the edges of infinity, appears to be heading in the opposite direction these days. In ever-narrowing circles, the boundaries of space and time are shifting, shrinking, contracting, as our – sorry, what? – attention-spans wither under the weight of too much information.
We type our thoughts in tweets, we swallow the News in bites, we listen to songs that are only as long as the ringtones on a cellular phone.
Small wonder, then, that the big thing in the world of fine arts right now, is a little thing. The screen of an iPhone, no bigger than a business card, and on it, an application called Brushes.
Except, you don’t use brushes, you use your finger, skating and gliding on glass to produce finely-nuanced masterworks of texture, colour, and tone.
Well, you, maybe; all I could manage was infantile doodles, and psychotic scribblings to conceal the infantile doodles. So I took my iPhone to some real artists, and asked them to have a go.
First up was Matthew Hindley, a classically-trained painter whose studio affords him a picture-postcard view of Table Mountain. But he ignores it, and labours on wall-sized canvasses of people posed in sensual, unsettling scenarios.
He was instantly intrigued by the phone, and asked if he could use it to take a photograph, and then use that as the basis for a painting. Yes.
He snapped a photograph of a photograph: two women on the floor, one holding a gun under her chin, the other studiously contemplating her own black-stockinged knee.
Matthew, who is used to working with computers, needed no briefing on the way Brushes works; in fact, he showed me how to zoom and pan the tiny canvas, while I stood and scratched my head.
I left him to my own device, and when I returned a couple of hours later, he had finessed that cold tableau into something very bold and painterly, with a feel of chalk and acrylic, and he had added a fluttering dove and a thunderstorm into the scene for good measure.
He was smiling, surprised and satisfied with his Lilliputian fingerwork, and that night, he tweeted about how much he’d enjoyed it.
Back in Johannesburg, I handed my iPhone to Lindsay Jaehne, an artist and art teacher. It was love at first touch.
She learned the basics – choosing colour, texture and line, undoing mistakes, magnifying details by up to 800 percent – with the ease of a three-year-old, and then she rushed home to do some painting.
She produced a whole gallery of marvellous miniatures: nudes, landscapes, still-lifes, in styles that stretched her own boundaries, even as the technology constrained them.
She was thrilled by the paradox, and by the no-mess, no-fuss, pick-it-up and put-it-down nature of the app: “It invites you to play,” she said, “and you become less prescriptive in yourself. It opens up space and opportunity in your mind. It brings new things. To lie in bed and produce a work of art…that, to me, is amazing.”
Then I let Roy Blumenthal go wild. He is a 21st Century Bohemian, a poet and stand-up comic, although he earns his living as a “visual facilitator”, using a tablet PC to sketch notated caricatures of speakers at seminars, projected live on a screen as an antidote to PowerPoint.
Swapping his customary stylus for an index-finger, he swiftly got to work on the iPhone, knocking-off a scarily accurate likeness of me in a couple of minutes.
Then he spent some quality time crafting a trilogy of works – a portrait, a collage-style sketch, and an insect study – that somehow managed to look loose and intense at the same time.
He was more critical of the phone’s limitations, particularly its battery-life, but still, he said I’d have to prise it from his hand when next we met, so I had to take along a chisel.
So is the iPhone the future of fine art? Of course not. But it is an easel and a canvas and a palette that you can slip into your pocket, and if you don’t feel like making art with it, well, you can always make a call.
*From today’s edition of The Weekender