Designs on the Curriculum

Cyberschools Column

First Published in The Herald, December 1998

"Virtual reality and other computer-based technologies are flooding the art world," says Barbara London, Associate Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "People love their computers, and young artists, especially those still in school, are impassioned about computer-based art."

The Museum of Modern Art has several online exhibitions, many of them featuring the work of contemporary artists. It's a large and, as you'd expect, well-presented Web presence.

One section of the site features the photography of Cindy Sherman. Sixty-nine images make up a work called "Untitled Film Stills" in which Sherman seemingly provides glimpses into the life of a blonde actress. The photographs look like publicity pictures but there was no actress and there were no films. The conventions of the genre are evident but the art is in the construction of apparently candid moments.

MOMA has a number of online projects including one which investigates the effects of rendering three-dimensional objects in two-dimensions. It's only one of many art galleries on the Internet.

Nearer home the Scottish Gallery, the largest and oldest private gallery in Scotland, also operates an interesting Web site. The Gallery concentrates on 20th century and contemporary Scottish painters, which makes it ideal for the requirements of the Higher Still syllabus. Examples of paintings by artists such as Joan Eardley are illustrated and background details are supplied.

The Web can bring museum collections and reproductions of classic works into the classroom and the Web addresses of major international galleries can be found in the Yahoo directory. In fact some galleries, such as the WebMuseum, only exist online.

The WebMuseum enables students to browse through countless paintings by hundreds of artists, read about the artists and the mentors who inspired them, and find out how their work fits into particular movements. It's an effective way to see the paintings - up close - and to find out the background and technical details about them. Many sections of the WebMuseum site would help with investigation of art history and predictibly there is a lot of information about Impressionist artists such as Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Manet. The characteristics of the movement are clearly defined and one of the strengths of the WebMuseum is that it presents its information and ideas in language which is easily understood.

Art & Design, however, is not all about analysing and appreciating the work of others and this is reflected on the Web. The BBC's Oil on Canvas Web site provides tutorials in composition, portrait, light, perspective, colour and brush-work. It could help students to develop an understanding of the visual elements, for example, line, tone, texture. The site also explains that cold colours, such as blues, seem to go away from the observer, while warm colours, red, for example, seem to come forward. The pages on the BBC site are short but they're full of detail and illustrated by helpful graphics. Oil on Canvas is an excellent Web site which was designed to accompany the BBC series of the same name. Although it's now a year since the programmes were broadcast and the site includes a warning that it is no longer maintained, this is still a very valuable resource for anyone studying or teaching art and design.

Kodak also provides excellent teaching materials, explaining the ten top photographic techniques. It's a massive site which provides instruction on the full range of techniques and considers everything from film format to foregrounds to focus. Kodak suggests that you should "keep people busy" in photographs and provides several action shots to illustrate the point. Capturing the moment is evidently much more effective than a posed portrait and the evidence is there.

Light is also considered. Interestingly the Kodak site explains that although good light is essential this does not necessarily mean bright light. Apparently a little cloud produces more interesting results than clear blue skies. There are some stunning images on these pages and they provide the kind of "course material" that, for photography, would cost a great deal in book format. Even with the online costs of an Internet service provider and telephone calls, the Net is still an economically viable alternative in the study of art and it offers even more to consideration of design.

Alessi designs can be investigated at the company Web site which provides, not only details of products but also of contemporary designers. There is a full history of Alessi design from the 1920s to the present day. The development of the movement can be carefully charted.

Design Buy is the official distributor of Alessi products in the United States. Its Web site includes an area, Building Timepieces, which illustrates watches created by "17 icons of 20th century architecture". One of the most interesting, called "Crystal Palace" and designed by Moshe Safdie, was inspired by the National Gallery in Ottawa. The watch-face is an almost three-dimensional construction of circles.

The Swatch Gallery also illustrates watches created by leading designers and provides information about both the designers and the watches. Vivienne Westwood's creation is surprisingly understated: no punk protest this time. Earlier Westwood designs included the "Putti" and "Orb" time-pieces which Swatch describes as the "maddest Pop Swatches created" but this one is Autumnal, shades of brown.

Twenty designers are featured on the online gallery and the range of design solutions is intriguing.

Robert Altman's "Cinema Special" is suitably cool, ice cool, an almost translucent watch which the P.R. information suggests is an appropriate design from someone who has "exposed" institutions and authorities over the years. The watch is entitled "Time to Reflect" but unfortunately Altman's thoughts are not recorded.

In classrooms littered with labels the Web encourages research into the function and functionality of contemporary designs and could lead to interesting discussions about the economics involved. Some designs display artistic genius; others demonstrate an artistic licence to print money.