Brain Pickings

Analog Infoviz: Ward Shelley’s Hand-Painted Visualizations

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What Warhol has to do with lost loves, boat building and the VCR.

Here at Brain Pickings, we believe that our understanding of the world at large takes shape through our understanding of the interconnectedness of various cultural patterns — aesthetic movements, political ideologies, technological innovations, literary traditions, and everything in between. We’re also big fans of data visualization as an intuitive way of digesting and illuminating these patterns and connections. Which is why we love the work of artist Ward Shelley, who swaps the algorithm for a paintbrush to create phenomenal hand-painted infographic visualizations of art history, from the invention of avant-garde to the life and work of Frank Zappa.

It is the mutually formative effects of subject/mind and object/world that gives shape to the space that exists between them. These paintings are a record of this shaping process. They are about the struggle of form to express content in the cognitive space that exists between the Subject (us) and the Object (the world). If that cognitive space is a territory, these paintings are landscapes of that territory. ~ Ward Shelley

Each oil painting takes months to create, starting with the collection of the data, which is then organized and tentatively layed out on the page in pencil to accommodate the constant revisions. When a somewhat stable layout is reach, Shelly transfers the work to mylar, which enables him to use other photographic techniques, inching towards a permanent version in oils.

Shelley makes three versions of a painting based on the same information, each unique in its actual production, from color scheme to brushwork. Which we find to be a wonderful metaphor for the subjectivity of human experience — the idea that two people can have a dramatically different interpretation and experience of the exact same set of circumstances.

Bridging historiography — the study of how historical events are interpreted — and pseudo-statistics, Shelley’s paintings convey a self-referential story of art, a sort of meta-cognition about art history and aesthetic tradition that bespeaks our complex and ever-evolving relationship with the art world.

One of our favorites is his autobiography, which displays his lifetime’s loves, philosophy, identities and other nuggets of personality — from his sequence of close friends to the VCR to the abrupt dead end that is advertising. It reminds of the Feltron Annual Report, Nick Felton’s brilliant visualization of his personal life over the corse of the year.

It this age of the art of the algorithm, it’s refreshing to see the art of art — about art. Explore Ward Shelley’s wonderful analog visualizations for a dose of candor, humor and delightful one-point-ohness.

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