Triptych: A preview of three outputs in frames, showing palettes by Sonia Delaunay, Hilma af Klint and Kazimir Malevich.
Aqueduct by Nicolas Lebrun is scheduled for release in collaboration with Atelier on December 4th, 2023, on fx(hash). This compelling artwork takes center stage in the Atelier group show, Outliers. Delving into the creative journey behind Aqueduct, I had the privilege of engaging in a series of insightful conversations with Nicolas. His well-honed creative process unfolds in the artwork, offering an exploration of fluidity, form, and self-reflection.
Nicolas’ journey into the world of art began with a childhood passion for drawing, eventually leading him to study at the École des Beaux Arts in Montpellier, France. Nicolas is a professional contemporary artist, with an art career going back over a decade, well prior to the advent of NFTs. Urged by his art school professors to think conceptually, Nicolas evolved into a generative artist, exploring the interplay between precision and randomness, protocol and surprise, in a process often focused on the study of space and architectural elements.
“My personal point of view is that art is frivolous even when it takes itself seriously.”
Nicolas speaks about how he continues to be inspired by the work of French conceptual artist François Morellet (1926 -2016), who was a pioneer of geometrical abstract art. I find some of Nicolas’ earlier fx(hash) projects, such as Entangled Shapes, or Slice and Shrink, to be reminiscent of Morellet, but more specifically, I see how the two artists share a certain penchant for an absence of frivolity, which translates visually, for both artists, into a tranquil minimalism.
Upon researching Morellet, I came across these words, very likely initially spoken in French: “My personal point of view is that art is frivolous even when it takes itself seriously.” While Nicolas made no such flippant declarations, I was struck by how he expressed a deep dedication to his craft, while also demonstrating an ability to hold things lightly. When prompted, Nicolas will happily discuss the rhizomatic thought process of French critical theorist Gilles Deleuze, but he doesn’t carry the burden of needing to tell you that he is well read. His commitment to an economy of means in art extends to the way in which he relates to the world: with Nicolas, there is no name dropping, no pretense, and no attachment to being smarter or more creative than anyone else.
Rare occurrence ‘zoomed’ output, in the Georgia O’Keeffe palette.
“The idea becomes a machine that makes art.”—Sol LeWitt
Artistic Practice and Cadence of Creation
The core of Nicolas’ artistic approach lies in the generative, where the unexpected and the predetermined collide. He writes algorithms to create compositions which allow for an interrogation on the behavior unfolding at the level of the code. The unpredictability is not confined to code but extends to the very language and protocol guiding the creative process.
For Nicolas, each project begins with a spark of inspiration, a new library to explore, or a novel approach to discover along the way. The generative mechanism is then meticulously crafted, deconstructed, and reconstructed, embodying the spirit of experimentation. Nicolas believes that ideas often benefit from being left alone to marinate for some time. Thus, Nicolas first developed the concept for Aqueduct in January 2022, only to return to the drawing table in the summer of this year, when he finally elected to bring the project to life.
Two outputs showing different trait expressions, both in the Barnett Newman palette.
The artist's longstanding exploration of themes such as order and disorder, depth phenomena, and the allure of three-dimensional spaces adds subtle layers of complexity to Aqueduct. His recurring exploration into counter-forms and intricate perspectives, evoke a sense of balance and harmony—an invitation for viewers to lose themselves in the unfolding patterns.
There is a recurring quality of intentionality that comes across in all of Nicolas’ work. This creates a deceivingly simple but conceptually rich expression. Sol LeWitt was often on my mind when Nicolas and I spoke, and while these are the famous words of Sol, Nicolas resonated with them in spirit: “The idea becomes a machine that makes art.”
As an artist, Nicolas has a practice of incorporating feedback and criticism into his artistic growth. He sees each observation as an opportunity for introspection and evolution. His dedication to archiving and documenting previous projects also reveals a commitment to learning from the past, ensuring that even unfinished works are safeguarded as the seeds of possible future explorations.
An animated output in the Pablo Picasso palette.
A Self-Reflective Algorithm
At first glance, looking at the curves traced by Aqueduct, which both juxtapose and superimpose each other, data visualization comes to mind. However, there is no actual data to be analyzed here. The shape of each curve is calculated from Perlin noise, but its expression mostly reveals a desire for precision in the form of the calculation of a threshold. The analyzed object is not a particular data set, but the program itself (‘debug view’), and each block shows every choice the program makes to trace the curve.
The curve is read as a chronological frieze from left to right, and the program traces it by forming sequences where each part can be drawn in three ways:
by successive vertical lines
by a solid shape, including color
by two solid shapes that encase it from top to bottom.
The composition has two main modes:
either it evolves the size and position of each curve section while maintaining the curve's shape (y), repeated several times vertically,
or, it evolves the curve each time it is repeated, and the composing sections remain fixed, in which case the colors are perfectly aligned vertically.
The composition aims to be abstract, while alluding to something scientific, but Nicolas hastens to add that it can be interpreted in various ways—we might be observing audio tracks on a sequencer, utilization rates of a multi-core processor (CPU), or in my experience, an abstract form of music notation. The representation is in the eye of the viewer. The algorithm itself involves the meticulous observation of an ongoing phenomenon, for the purposes of ensuring its proper functioning.
A snapshot of all the palettes being used in Aqueduct.
“The image we produce is the self evident one of revelation, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.”—Barnett Newman
A Plethora of Palettes
Nicolas’ palettes for Aqueduct are borrowed from iconic works by revered, mostly deceased, artists. From Albrecht Dürer’s muted watercolor work to the intimate, nocturnal palette of a Nan Goldin photo, each piece adds a unique note to the generative melody. I use the language of music quite deliberately here, because my personal experience of Aqueduct feels quite so musical. The subtle, tried and tested palettes may also be evocative of color in music.
Many of the palettes create musical correspondences in my mind, for example: the Georgia O’Keeffe palette brings up Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, Theo van Doesburg’s palette evokes Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the Sol LeWitt palette points to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Granted this is all exquisitely subjective! My point is that musicality, a sense of time and rhythm, color and possibility, are some of the emotional responses which may arise when engaging with this artwork.
Output showing horizontal alignment and multiple curves, in the Edward Hopper palette.
The Dance of Fluidity and Form
The title Aqueduct symbolizes the fluidity which becomes most apparent in the project’s outputs when these are animated. I also like the way in which the concept of the aqueduct is a reminder of how water adapts to its container, taking on the myriad shapes and forms of its vessel. Similarly, this project will be interpreted differently once housed in the individual minds of each of its viewers. Aqueduct is also a nod in the direction of the XVIIIth century Saint-Clément aqueduct, a silent witness to centuries of its presence coursing through the city of Montpellier, a sort of emblem of resilience and adaptability.
In Nicolas’ project, the aqueduct may also be perceived as a metaphor for the flow of artistic inspiration, channeling the essence of the past into contemporary expressions. The portfolio of carefully selected palettes contributes significantly to the sense of an artistic heritage flowing through time. I am moved to find so many palettes by women artists—a modest, yet thoughtful tribute to women visionaries, such as Hilma af Klint, who were not fortunate enough to be acknowledged as artists in their own lifetimes.
As I write this, painfully aware of the temptation many of us have to right past wrongs, and generally overcompensate for the shortcomings of history, I see how Nicolas has been generous and open-hearted in his decision to overrepresent women artists in his palette choices. There is no intention on his part to obfuscate the past, and I also sense a benevolent absence of sentimentality. This feels aligned with a no-nonsense worldview that reminds me of Barnett Newman: “The image we produce is the self evident one of revelation, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.” Possibly this is the deceased abstract expressionist’s brash way of saying that good art speaks for itself. And who am I to disagree!
Plotted output subsequently hand painted by the Artist, using watercolor. Image on the right is a detail.
Man or Machine, Long-Form or Short-Form?
Aqueduct is a foremost a continuous exploration of the potential of its algorithm. When Atelier initially approached Nicolas, we were unclear whether Aqueduct would lend itself best to a short-form or a long-form generative art project. It quickly became apparent that it could be either, given the strength of the artist’s vision behind the carefully written code, and his desire to engage in playful experimentation with paper, ink and paint.
Asked if he could only use one medium for the rest of his life, Nicolas answered that he would choose his right arm over his plotter. The question felt a bit rhetorical when I first posed it, but it created space for a larger conversation, as Nicolas explained that he was engaging in a collaborative experiment in which the plotter was tracing outlines and he was applying watercolor by hand to fill the shapes in a selection of highly curated plotted outputs.
Two framed plotted outputs in the same palette.
The limited, highly curated, hand painted editions are evidence of an intimate dialogue between the artist and his algorithm. Art is typically the place we go to meet ourselves, and with Aqueduct, Nicolas has created a versatile testing ground to observe the workings of his own mind. It’s not uncommon to liken artists to alchemists, casting spells with code. Much like the Golem of Prague, brought to life through incantations, the artist breathes life into the digital canvas and onto the page, setting in motion a dance of color and form.
Short-form or long-form, then? The answer is unequivocally, “both!”
Aqueduct on fx(hash) @nclslbrn x Atelier
on 12/4/2023 at 8am PST
100 plottable editions