For the first time in the New York City art scene, an entire gallery show of works will be displayed created solely by an artist-AI collaboration: AICAN and Elgammal, a computer scientist by training who directs the Art & AI Lab at Rutgers University. HG Contemporary in Chelsea is hosting “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time.” The show will be open to the public February 13- March 5, 2019. This marks the primary art market opening its door to this new genre of art.
For the HG Contemporary show, Elgammal unpacks the concept of the portrait, creating images with AICAN in two distinct ways, one surreal, one abstracted from Renaissance portraits. AICAN generated possible portraits and Elgammal curated them, selecting the most compelling images. A face is shrouded in a flurry of color, blurred as it emerges or disappears into an unsteady background. There is a recognizable humanity and an eerie estrangement in the featureless, yet expressive figures. The tension feels fitting.
“For the abstract portraits, I selected images that were abstracted out of facial features yet grounded enough in familiar figures. I used titles such as portrait of a king and portrait of a queen to reflect generic conventions,” notes Elgammal. “For the surrealist collection, I selected images that intrigue the perception and invoke questions about the subject, knowing that the inspiration and aesthetics all are solely coming from portraits and photographs of people, as well as skulls, nothing else.”
The process and the results provoke questions about the nature of the portrait--and by extension of the human individual. “Usually portraits capture something about the people depicted. Here the image has no reference to a specific person or a historical point. It’s totally faceless. The portrait becomes a very abstract concept that doesn't have a particular meaning or context.” Yet these portraits evoke emotion, a sense of movement and moment, that allows viewers to connect deeply. It’s a thought-provoking suggestion of the blurry edges at the intersection of machine process and human creativity.
Though the results are astounding, AI is not what you think, and its role in creating art is not to replace the artist. “All the data comes from people. The machine only sees the data of people,” Elgammal explains. “And in the end, interpretation is up to people.”
AICAN + Ahmed Elgammal: “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time”
HG Contemporary 527 W. 23rd Street, New York
The series of carefully trained algorithms is a medium, and this medium was front and center at a recent show at SCOPE Miami Beach, when artists Tim Bengel and Devin Gharakhanian used AICAN to generate new works, pieces shown alongside AICAN’s autonomously created images, one of which was featured prominently in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the art fair.
AICAN has been trained on five centuries of European canonical art. Training eschewed emphasis on a single style, period, or aesthetic, allowing for a broad range of potential outcomes. Modeled from psychological theories of the brain’s response to aesthetics, AICAN generates images based on the more than 100,000 works it has learned, giving its new image a title. The generation process can be adjusted, and Elgammal and his team have figured out how to quantify uniqueness, a number used to push the AI to get farther away from expected results.
“We give the machine a dilemma, a tension to explore between two opposing forces,” explains Elgammal. “On one hand, AICAN weighs what happened in art history, the movements and styles. On the other hand, we push it enough to come up with novel art. By these two forces, we make sure the machine doesn’t do anything that is totally out of the realm of art and incomprehensible. I believe that great artists find the sweet spot between being innovative and avoiding complete viewer rejection.”
The exhibition is presented in collaboration with Jessica Davidson, founder of Davidson Art Advisory LLC.
“So why are so many of these images so alluring? What does it know about me that I don’t? Why do I like them? And why do I feel like this is just the beginning?”
- Michael Brodeur, Boston Globe
“The biggest artistic achievement of the year”
- Rene Chun, Artsy
About Ahmed Elgammal
Ahmed Elgammal is the founder and director of the Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and a professor of computer science at Rutgers University. He developed AICAN, an autonomous AI artist and collaborative creative partner. Dr. Elgammal’s research on knowledge discovery in art history and AI art generation, received wide international media attention, including reports on the Washington Post, New York Times, NBC News, CBS News, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, Science News, New Scientist, and many others. In 2017, an Artsy editorial acclaimed AICAN as “the biggest artistic achievement of the year”. In 2016, a TV segment about his research, produced for PBS, won an Emmy award. AICAN art has been shown in several technology and art venues in Los Angeles, Frankfurt, San Francisco, and New York City.