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Digital Painting Transforms South Carolina History into Art

Columbia, S.C. - The Columbia Museum of Art has acquired a giant, wall-size painting, Tatara Fire, by New York-based artist Henry Mandell. The new acquisition was commissioned by the Museum in 2013 and made possible by a generous gift from the CMA's young professionals membership affiliate group, the Contemporaries. The mural is the first digital painting to enter the collection of the Columbia Museum of Art. Tatara Fire is now on view in CMA's second-floor atrium.

"Tatara Fire is a dazzling addition to the new installation of the Museum's atrium that now displays contemporary works from the collection," says CMA Executive Director Karen Brosius. "It is exciting to have this impressive work by Mandell on view. We kindly thank the Contemporaries, under the leadership of Asheley Scott, president, and Charles Appleby, vice president, for their generosity in bringing this painting to the CMA."

Mandell employs novel techniques to create abstract paintings. He transforms the outlines of words and data gleaned from the Internet. The paintings are composed of thousands of letters that have been hand-traced, placed into fine art software, and then digitally painted by hand on a computer screen using a digital stylus brush. The artwork is then painted by a giant, ultraviolet inkjet printer using acrylic pigments. The words are intact, but the shapes have become a new visual language for the age in which we live.

"It is a deep honor to receive this commission and be a part of the wonderful collection of the Columbia Museum of Art," says Mandell. "As a part of my series that looks at the theme of transformation through fire, this painting reflects the history of Columbia nearly 150 years ago when the city was burned and changed forever. My work, although abstract in appearance, interprets more than 10,000 letters and words relating to the history of the city."

Each colorful line in the work is a letter from stories of the historic burning of Columbia, as well as the ancient Japanese art of crafting jewel steel from ash and charcoal to make Samurai swords. A tatara is a large ancient Japanese kiln, or forge, built out of clay with an open top capable of smelting very pure steel from iron sand gathered from a volcanic site, mixed and melted with carbon charcoal. Beginning 1,000 years ago and peaking around the 1400s, artisans who had no technical tools were able to transform these raw materials into a pure form of steel that rivals any produced today in beauty, strength, and purity. Mandell researched the geographical coordinates of sites in Columbia that were destroyed, as well as those that were damaged, but survived, in the historic fire at the end of the Civil War. Text and data from this transformative event in Columbia's history were wedded to the story of the steel being made in the tatara-something beautiful and strong resulting from something that was melted by fire.

Words and data are part of the artist's palette. In this regard, the work is also about information as image. This highly individualized treatment of source material combines lines and colors into a rich visual metaphor about unleashing energy. The final artwork no longer refers to the literal flow of words, yet contains the vestige of their structure. "Meaning becomes tangled and repurposed into the visual language of abstract painting," says Mandell.

For a biography of the artist and to see more of his work, visit henrymandell.com

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