The Art and the Arduousness

Daniel Kliewer's hypnotic moving paintings

The Art and the Arduousness
Photo by John Anderson

As anyone who participated in the recent East Austin Studio Tour can attest, it feels as if we've reached some sort of artistic event horizon here in Austin. We're experiencing a moment when the city is positively exploding with a whole new generation of artists in all disciplines, utilizing every known – and, in the case of digital artist Daniel Kliewer, sometimes only semiknown – medium. You're as likely to find a new filmmaking collective going over plot points at Justine's as you are to find a rebel theatre troupe plotting the death of Shakespeare via fire-dancing mimes around the Spider House fire pit. Which tempts a question: Is Robert Hughes' concept of "the shock of the new" possible anymore? And does it even matter? After all, in chaotic new times, there's comfort to be found in the known, no?

Enter lanky, 27-year-old Kliewer, looking every bit the old-art guard magicked into the manic, frenetic fold of the modern. Utilizing cast-off computers and some serious outsider art skills, Kliewer's created a digital artwork-cum-animation technique that he calls "moving paintings." Comparisons to Bob Sabiston's groundbreaking rotoscoping animation in Linklater's Waking Life are technically apt but totally inaccurate and, frustratingly, miss the point. Kliewer's moving paintings in their digital frames are, according to him, meant more to be ambient background art rather than the focus of attention. (Something of a revolutionary idea for an artist of any kind to put forward in the first place.)

Experimental? Avant-garde? Yes to both, but Kliewer's ecstatically vibrant moving paintings feel like more than simple digital tomfoolery gussied up for gallery installation. There's something new going on here, and although it's difficult to pinpoint in words why his work is so powerful, the fact remains that it is – so much so that it almost immediately attracted the attention of Austin Film Society Director of Programming Chale Nafus, who premiered Kliewer's feature-length animation, Ritual in Circular Time, as part of the Avant Cinema series this past October. Not a bad debut gig for the artist, who moved to Austin just over a year ago from Temple and remains virtually unknown within this city's overflowing arts community.

"It's been a really productive year for me," explains Kliewer, sitting on a chair in the closet-sized side lot of his East Austin home. "Basically I spent almost an entire year just producing creative work every day. At one point my routine was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Twelve hours just doing painting and working on the computer. There was about a four-month stretch where it was that rigorous."

A graduate of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor near his native Temple (major: history; minor: philosophy), Kliewer uses Wacom tablets and discarded or home-brewed PCs to hybridize hand-drawn images with the varied and variegated styles of other, better-known artists (say, for instance, Vincent van Gogh). Using his PC's screen capture feature, he then loops the resultant, newborn imagery into a circuitous, altogether mesmerizing meditation on the creation and dissolution of art itself. Or not. With Kliewer, the viewer's interpretation of the images is every bit as important, or possibly more so, than the artist's intent. Or so says the artist.

"I've been painting and creating art my entire life. When I was a little kid, I didn't have toys, but I did have aluminum foil, so I'd make my own toys out of the foil. And ever since then I've kind of been amusing myself by creating my own art."

"Wait. When you were little you had no toys at all?" I ask.

"Well, I had some toys, but I chose the aluminum foil over other toys. You could create whatever you wanted and then destroy it or whatever."

"And for your birthday they gave you the pricey Reynolds Wrap instead of the cheap generic stuff that'd rust if you left it out in the rain, right?"

"Right, right."

"OK, we get it. But for a moment there it sounded like you were born during the Depression, or possibly The Jerk."

"No, it was actually pretty great. I've been painting and drawing my whole life, but I started getting seriously into canvas art, mostly pastel, acrylic, and oils, around age 20. I ended up selling somewhere around 70 paintings between 2004 and 2009. Which sounds like a lot, but if you drop your price, you can sell a lot of paintings. My main focus was doing pastel portraits. I'd spend all day every day just figuring out how to draw faces. And then I had an accident ...."

<i>Ritual in Circular Time</i>
Ritual in Circular Time

On Feb. 24, 2010, Kliewer explains, "I got up to go running in the morning and slipped on a patch of ice – that was the one day of the year we had ice in Temple – and basically disabled my right arm for a whole year. I had nerve damage which then developed into complex regional pain syndrome, which is more like a postural problem, really. I've spent the last three to four months going to physical therapy and correcting that, so I'm most of the way better, but not entirely ...."

At the time, Kliewer was making a living waiting tables when he wasn't working on his art, although, as things tend to do in minuscule Texas towns, work and art converged.

"Temple's a small town, so people actually like talking to other people. There's not much else to do. I would show my customers pictures of the paintings I was working on, which was a really great way [to get tips]."

Although he was raised around computers (his first was a Commodore 64), at the time of the accident, Kliewer didn't have a computer of his own. After his tumble – and the resultant inability to continue waiting tables – he purchased an inexpensive Gateway PC and began learning coding from the ground up, and from his bed, where his doctors suggested he remain until the nerve damage healed.

"That was probably the exact opposite of what my treatment should have been," he says, "but since I suddenly had so much free time, I just sort of began learning everything I could about computer science and programming. At one point I taught myself Linux."

And then one day ....

"And then one day I realized I could use Photoshop's paint tools to paint, for example, the Mona Lisa, but who's going to care about that? Anybody could use a filter and do the same thing, so the only way I could prove that it took real artistic ability to make 'painted' art via Photoshop was to capture the screen. And that was the core idea that, eventually, led to Ritual in Circular Time."

Kliewer's lightbulb idea – using a series of time-lapse screen captures to show how the virtual brushstrokes of Photoshop combined to create a genuine work of original art – galvanized his creative energies and eventually led him to the other core idea behind his moving paintings.

"I thought, 'The best way to display something like this would be to have it in a digital picture frame,' ... so I bought a cheap one from China. Once I figured out the archaic coding scheme that I needed to upload the video, the pieces started to come together. Up to that point I had been using the mouse to operate Photoshop, but I switched to using a Wacom tablet not long after. That was in late September of 2010."

Flash forward to spring 2011 and a chance encounter with AFS' Chale Nafus, who immediately programmed the artist's Ritual in Circular Time into the Avant Cinema schedule after Kliewer showed him a two-minute sample loop on his iPhone.

For now, Kliewer is busy creating a series of specially modified monitors – hand-painted, with their own laptops attached – as additional platforms for displaying Ritual in Circular Time and other, future moving paintings.

"Because film loops back on itself ... it was really meant to be something encountered, maybe, in the background, like a painting, rather than a primary piece of narrative film. The idea is that you can just come in any time [in the film] and leave at any time. To me, what's more important is human interaction. That's one of the things that I kind of don't like about traditional film media – it's so engrossing that it precludes real life."

There's something very, dare we say, Slacker-esque about the idea that this high-tech digital art should function, more or less, as a backdrop to decidedly low-tech human interactions like, say, lounging around Quack's discussing the merits of a vegan lifestyle or the 8mm work of Maya Deren. But ultimately that's Kliewer's point: "It's captivating enough that you can watch it, but it's not so captivating that you aren't going to be able to think about other things, or interact with other people."

Ritual of Circular Time (video excerpt)

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Daniel Kliewer, Ritual in Circular Time, Chale Nafus, Avant Cinema, moving paintings

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