(Art) The Data Art of Ward Shelley


Ward Shelley history of science fiction

I worked in ‘Data Science’ when it was called statistics, before that became a bad word, which is where I first encountered Charles Minard’s 1861 representation of the losses during Napoleon’s 1812 Russia campaign.

It’s an early and classic example of how tell a story with data. The figure not only shows the size of the army over time but also location and direction of travel mapped to temperature at the bottom, which Minard argued was crucial to the outcome. (This version has been edited slightly from the original to create more contrast.)

Figurative Map of the successive losses in men of the French Army in the Russian campaign 1812-1813. Charles Minard (1861)

I found it, as I suspect most people have, in Edward Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” (1983) which is a classic text in the field.

Unlike in Minard’s time, when data was a prize, today we are inundated. Data and its visualization is an everyday feature of our world, from the weather report in the morning to our health app before bed, from the dashboard in our car to the dashboard report at work, which makes it a suitable topic for art. Call it the landscape of the 21st century.

Ward Shelley makes art of data visualization. The results are astounding.

My paintings/drawings are attempts to use real information to depict our understandings of how things evolve and relate to one another. They are about how we form these understandings in our minds and if they can have, in our culture, some kind of shape.

Usually I choose topics from art or cultural history, such as the arc of an artist’s career and its influences, or the effect of particular ideas in an aesthetic or political movement. They are “wide-screen”, with all information available to the interacting eye at every moment.

In a sense, once the topic of a painting is chosen, the content is “determined”. It is history, a matter of record. But we know this content is mediated in a thousand ways before it takes shape in our awareness. Moreover, content is also shaped by the receiving mind which, as a pre-existing form itself, exerts a strong shaping influence (contemporary studies of cognitive dissonance are describing this effect).

These paintings are oil paint with a special alkyd binder and toner on frosted mylar. I chose to work with oil paint because of the deep radiant transparency of the colors when used as glazes, which enhances and not obscures the texts. Mylar was chosen as the ideal surface because it is archival, because its smooth surface allows for fine detail, and because it allows the light to penetrate and bounce through the color.

These works are full of compact information. It takes months to collect and organize the information on a page; it is done with pencil on paper because each piece goes through constant revisions during this time.

Three versions of the painting are made from same information. Normally the pencil drawing goes through minor changes from version to version, and the painting is entirely different, using different colors and brushwork.

Click to enlarge. The detail is extraordinary.