Catharsis: Appreciating the Seen & Unseen in Dario Lanza’s Generative Canvases

Wes Hazard
gmdao
Published in
14 min readOct 21, 2022

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Catharsis #729 — Summertime

It’s hard to put down in words. When I’m looking at an expressionist work that I love there are few words that I have to put the feeling into. It’s hard to talk about something like that. And I think ‘Yes, it would be hard to put it down in words … but how hard would it be to put it down in functions???’ — Dario Lanza, creator of Catharsis

I’ve spent a month now thinking about Dario Lanza’s Catharsis and also thinking about how to think about it. His painterly 999 piece long-form generative art project, the latest release from gm.studio, is a work that takes its time in revealing the full scope of its vision. And if you’re looking for maximum appreciation then time spent with the project as a whole (vs. a few minutes here and there with some choice outputs) is a must.

After poring over the pieces in the collection, reading Lanza’s collection notes many times, and listening and re-listening to the interviews with me that Lanza so generously gave his time to I’m grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts on this singular generative work.

More Than Meets the Eye

My very first thought when I saw test outputs for Catharsis was, I imagine, the same as most people’s: Jackson Pollock.

The characteristic attributes of America’s foremost Abstract Expressionist: densely dripped & splattered & poured paint, that paint’s “all-over” application to the surface, and the relatively muted palette of silver, umber, green, yellow, black and white (punctuated occasionally by much more vibrant tones), are rather hard to miss when you see them. That distinct visual profile has helped lift Pollock to a rare status — alongside the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, & Warhol — wherein the average person who possesses absolutely zero formal art history training has a decent chance of being able to identify them as the creator if shown a random example from their more prominent work. Full blown art world meme status.

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) [1950] — Jackson Pollock

But of course I simultaneously knew that these weren’t Pollocks and that they weren’t paintings at all, and that (being a gm.studio release) the images I was seeing were generated entirely from an algorithm incorporating elements of randomness. And I was impressed that Lanza had been able to produce code-based outputs that looked so human in their their variety, their unpredictability, and their aversion to straight lines and perfect corners. There was an obvious flatness vs. the 3D impasto of a physical Pollock canvas but I had to appreciate the intricacy of the digital paint’s layering on the digital canvas. Indeed, the “canvas” itself was rendered with enough detail to be able to see individual threads of “linen” when enlarged.

Catharsis #699 — Everything I Have Is Yours

Yet, it was the kind of impressed that you feel when someone that you’ve never known to be athletic suddenly reveals an ability to do a backflip at a cookout. An “Oh, wow…that’s pretty neat” kind of feeling, and not too much more for me on first sight. My read was “A clearly talented programmer has crafted an algorithm that spits out hyper-detailed approximations of a famous artist’s work that look like they were plausibly hand-painted by a human being” and I appreciated it on a technical level and I thought some were quite pretty and that was about it.

And then I spent a few hours talking to Dario Lanza about his creation, his inspiration, what he intended and what he feels he’s achieved. And since then I’ve looked at this work regularly for over a month and…well…that initial technical appreciation of the project’s visual novelty had a 100 megaton bomb dropped on it and was rebuilt into an admiration that’s deeper, more expansive, and utterly more intense than I would have first imagined. After reflecting on Catharsis for weeks I have come to marvel at what it does technically and conceptually, and yes artistically, in a way that totally eclipses my initial understanding.

No Mere Mimicry

First things first: Catharsis is most definitely not just some attempt to mimic the work of an iconic painter. Lanza will readily and happily acknowledge the obvious influence of Jackson Pollock’s work on this project (along with that of Franz Kline & Antoni Tàpies, and others). It would simply be laughable not to. But he is at pains to stress the degree to which Catharsis is his own artistic expression striving for much more than homage. As he is careful to emphasize: “I’m not stuck on mimicking, faking, or copying, but communicating.” Lanza is trying to express himself as a creator via his work and to limit your consideration of Catharsis to a purely visual level by filing it away as an impressively warm and varied approximation of Pollock’s general vibe is to fail to grasp what kind of artist Lanza is: a creative coder.

Dario tells me that although he doesn’t tend to draw or paint very often with his hands using physical materials he has always been fascinated with both the digital and the visual. Growing up his house was filled with his parents’ architectural and design magazines which he constantly pored over. Hearing him tell it I’m reasonably confident that he was the biggest 10 year old fan of Architectural Digest in the history of the magazine. Likewise coding and tinkering with electronics has been a part of his life since he can remember, with his family’s Spectrum 48k from the early 80s offering his first access to programming. He has never looked back.

Started from the bottom.
Now we here. Catharsis #818 — Angel Eyes

In his full time job as a 3D modeler/renderer (that is when he’s not also working as a professor) Lanza spends his days manipulating lines, circles, & polygons on a screen in order to produce the most realistic images possible. There is artistry in this work no doubt, but to hear Lanza speak about coding is to hear someone who’s discovered the perfect field of play for their creative and emotional energies.

I believe that writing code is *writing*. It’s a text, written in a language, it’s some kind of literature. No two coders write the same thing the same way, even if it’s the same output.

Obviously the visual element of Catharsis is what we encounter first and there is much to admire, but to appreciate this aspect most fully it’s helpful to watch each piece being rendered live (this can be viewed and shared for each piece on the gm.studio website). Lanza has attempted to replicate the actual process of painting as much as possible. The code doesn’t create the image line by line, pixel by pixel, going down. No, it first draws the detailed canvas then each layer of paint in turn, so that you get the sense of the work being composed. Watching this unfold it’s easy to imagine the invisible hand of someone actually pouring and dripping paint as they work the canvas from multiple angles.

Catharsis #65 — I’m Thru with Love — Render: www.gmstudio.art/live-render?slug=catharsis&tokenId=65

As Lanza says “the paint strokes had to have a rhythm, a movement we could perceive” as he worked to address the problem of “how to represent masses of paint thrown at a canvas which feel liquid/fluid using just geometry (lines, circles, polygons)”. Easier said than done, but the steps taken in Catharsis to achieve this goal are quite impressive. Using only geometry Lanza has produced warm and full-bodied outputs that don’t feel geometric at all. A great deal of non-representational generative art, such as gm.studio’s own Plasticity (by P4stoboy) or Factura (from Matthias Isaksen) fully embraces hard lines and perfect corners, showcasing the fact that it was made with an algorithm, and that is often a huge part of the appeal. And even in projects where the visuals are less angular and mathematical — though no less gorgeous – such as Kōripo (Rich Poole) you would never really entertain the thought that someone may have created the work by hand. The incredible Art Blocks release Scribbled Boundaries, by William Tan, is the first generative work that I thought of when I saw Catharsis, and I personally think of it as having a similar relationship to the work of painter Cy Twombly as Catharsis has to Pollock, but as human and expressive as that project is I still feel that its code-based nature is more apparent than in Lanza’s release.

Aesthetically, using javascript as both his brush and canvas, Lanza has crafted 1000 individual studio sessions of paint, canvas, and chance (but not chaos). Echoing Pollock’s famous rebuttal of “NO CHAOS DAMN IT” to a critic’s assessment that the drips and splatters on his canvases represented just that Lanza says:

I try to create that same idea [that abstract expressionists were trying to express], when someone looks at a Catharsis they may think ‘well that was made on a computer, I can do this as well, but it’s really complicated underneath…one thing for me that was very important to understand from Jackson Pollock, and to implement here, somehow, is that with Jackson Pollock: There is no chaos. Everything has music, rhythm, the movement is NOT chaos. It’s not like when you’re painting a house here, it needs to have music.

Employing one’s creative energies to precisely craft code imbued with randomness, which precisely renders 999 unique outputs, but which appears to be made by a human painter, who imbued their work with a randomness generated by bodily movement + the whims of gravity.
OK, you have my attention.

An Artistic Evolution

As I’m trying to emphasize here, Lanza’s art is code. And as such a major portion of the appreciation of his artistry is to be found in the code and design of Catharsis and what he does with it. I will be the first to admit that I am no coder and that the technical aspects of manipulating functions and scripting libraries and such are totally obscure to me. But you can’t recognize the full achievement of this project without recognizing the *two* separate ways in which Lanza steps beyond what we’ve come to expect from most long form generative projects. And thankfully both of those innovations can be understood without having to dive to deeply into the technical specifics.

As most reading this will know: generative art simply refers to art that is made with the help of some sort of autonomous system, to which the creator cedes some portion of control over how the final work (or works) will appear. It in no way requires a computer’s assistance as things like Islamic tile patterns and Jacquard looms have long shown us. But with the aid of a computer a generative artist can really soar.

Long form generative art allows us to view 999 sides of a well developed artistic idea, each of them utterly unique, yet all of them an equally representative expression of that vision. It is one of the most appealing aspects of the work being created in this field now and I believe that appeal will hold for quite some time to come. But it is also something that we have seen explored again and again, and one reason to pay particularly close attention to Catharsis is in the subtle but powerful way that it moves this concept forward.

A viewer looking at a handful of random outputs from the series could be forgiven for perhaps not seeing it immediately, but with Catharsis we don’t just have 1000 faces of the same algorithm. No, we have a single algorithm that gradually evolves and iterates upon itself.

I think the project statement details this element as well as possible, so to quote:

Following the increasing energy on a cathartic episode, the style of these outputs evolves from the beginning of the series to the final artworks. Starting with a less dense and timid mood, the project evolves towards a more energetic style, involving more paint on the pieces, and applying it with greater ferocity. New features and high density rarities appear as the series progresses, and new color palettes show up. This makes the whole linear collection into a big artwork itself, each piece representing one step in the incremental cathartic release of creativity.

Just…damn. What an ambitious, rewarding, and well executed element here. Lanza has created not just code that produces painterly outputs, but code that produces…a painter. An algorithmic artistic avatar that grows and changes and works toward an expressive…catharsis, making each individual mint a step in the process.

First & Last: (L)Catharsis #001 — Solitude & (R) Catharsis #998 — Hallelujah

One Step Further Still

All this and Lanza was not done yet.

Finally, Catharsis was created not only as cohesive work that evolved stylistically as it was minted, it was also created with an underlying global structure that allows you to appreciate as a cohesive whole in the literal (not just conceptual sense). While fully preserving the spontaneity of its random elements, and the integrity of each individual piece Lanza has managed to unite various pieces of the work visually such that they flow seamlessly into each other.

The drips and splatters at the edges of any given Catharsis token flow seamlessly into those of the piece minted before and after it, while remaining faithful to the style/intensity, & palette of each individual piece allowing for their satisfying combination into diptychs and triptychs. Pretty rad I’d say.

But wait…there’s more! Not only is this feature found sequentially throughout the project, it is ALSO embedded through the entire work such that this pairing can be done with any mint and the pieces that were minted 50 tokens before it and 50 after it.

Below, I’ve taken Catharsis #44 — Walk On By (Jackson Pollock died at age 44) and strung it together in triptychs with every 50th piece through #962 — Mambo Inn which allows us to see not only the stylistic evolution through the project but also the long-structure woven throughout the entire work. Impressive indeed.

From top L: Catharsis #44 — Walk On By, followed by every 50th succeeding mint in the project through #962 — Mambo Inn. As can be done with any token in the project + the tokens minted immediately before and after it, any token + the tokens minted 50 pieces before it and 50 pieces after it can be joined alongside to form a diptych or triptych that will see the paint along the edges mesh seamlessly while still preserving each piece’s randomness and the color palette of each work.

What’s In A Name?

Finally, there’s one additional piece of Catharsis that, as a writer, I utterly adore and which puts a final poignantly human touch on the work: the titling.

It has nothing to do with the visuals or the code behind them but for me it contributes just as much as those components to the spirit of Catharsis. I’m referring to the individual naming of each piece using 999 titles taken from classic jazz, blues, & show tune standards. Instead of a piece that’s simply called Catharsis #131 we have “I Get Along Without You Very Well” (named after a Hoagy Carmichael composition). Rather than Catharsis #374 we get “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” (Louis Jordan..but made famous by Tom the Cat).

Aside from making each piece more distinctive and instilling them with character that a number by itself can’t provide the naming here pays homage to the jazz influences cited by many Abstract Expressionist artists during the mid 20th century. The intense emotional expression, improvisation, experimentation, and embrace of chance seen in much of the music that these titles were first applied to is also seen in the progression of Catharsis.

But there’s even more nuance to the titling at play. The names weren’t just dropped into a spreadsheet and paired to the outputs with a randomizer.

No, the titles were instead personally evaluated & sorted by gmDAO member Yorks according to their perceived emotional alignment and intensity — and then applied to the 999 tokens according to the increasing passion and intensity evoked by those titles. This mirrors the way in which the Catharsis algorithm gradually increased the velocity and intensity of the paint on each canvas according to its evolutive design.

This practice was clearly more art than science and any individual’s gut feel about the particular mood of a song title is bound to be at least slightly different than anyone else’s but the fact that it was done at all here is such an amazingly warm & human part of the work. Earlier titles read as more downbeat and “blue” (i.e. “Why Was I Born?” & “Gloomy Sunday”) while titles toward the end of the series are livelier and more playful (“Just Squeeze Me (But Don’t Tease Me)” & “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”). And although the perceived mood of each title was the guiding principle there were also some names that were used because they aligned particularly well with a given token number (i.e. #000 is “Solitude” while #012 is “12th Street Rag”).

Catharsis #738 — Namely You

It’s hard not appreciate the level of time and consideration that went into an attribute like this, and it’s just one more reason why Catharsis rewards contemplation far beyond its visuals.

If you’d like some hyper-appropriate mood music as you contemplate the various joys of the collection you’re in luck. gmDAO member Mickey Fantom has taken the admirable effort to compile a Spotify playlist featuring the recordings for which the individual works were named.

Ascension

Lanza playfully says that:

I am a generative artist, but after Catharsis I would like to be known as an Abstract Expressionist. I’m not just creating with code, I’m trying to communicate strong emotions with shape, with color, with emotion.

But in one sense he’s actually more of a cubist…not in the Pablo Picasso/Georges Braque artistic sense but literally, in the geometric sense he has cubed the dimensions of long form generative art. Now I’ll be the first to admit that math is most definitely not my strong suit, but bear with me here:

A flat line exists in one dimension, length. If you add another dimension to the plane, width, you have the possibility of a square. If you go ahead and add a 3rd dimension of height to that you have cubed your original line. With Catharsis Lanza has taken our basic understanding of the long form algorithm format and the surprises it offers and squared it with the evolutive step wherein the character of the outputs changes over the course of the mint. Then, on top of that another dimension for contemplation and appreciation (and collecting) has been layered on via the long-structure element of the project that allows seamless and intriguing diptychs and triptychs to be formed globally throughout the work without ever falling into predictability.

Are you a little awed yet? I’m a little awed.

My mental model for what Catharsis achieves.

While the visual aspect of the outputs for a work of long form generative art are no doubt what we focus on first I can say that spending so much time with Catharsis has given me a newfound gut-level appreciation for something I always knew intellectually: that the essential medium of this art form is code executed in a smart contract, and that a full appreciation of the achievement within any such artwork requires some attention to the work done on that level, though one hardly needs to be a computer scientist themselves to meaningfully pay that attention. For that I thank Dario Lanza and applaud what he has achieved here.

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Wes Hazard
gmdao

Brooklyn based writer & storyteller. Social Justice / Oddball History / Digital Art / The Metaverse. 3x Jeopardy! champ. Wishing you the best.