Aesthetica Art Prize Anthology Essay 2014
Painting Between the Pixels
– Stuart Semple
I’m a painter which means, quite simply, that I wake up in the morning walk to my studio and push paint around a surface until it is time to return home. I’ve been doing that, in one way or another, for as long as I can remember. Whilst that’s been going on, the world around me has been shifting; the very structure of the cultural landscape has become increasingly digitized. I’m pretty sure that process has had less impact on painting than it has on those that paint. In fact it’s had an impact on all of us. I suppose my work tries to make sense of that expanding universe whilst fathoming out it’s relevance to art and to me as a person. If anything I’m fascinated by what it has done to images and what those images in turn do to us.
Maybe the paint I push about is a technology too. The progression of communicating with images has most probably led us to this digital point. At one stage in that movement artists ruled but they were eclipsed long ago, still the legacy of paint lives on. We dug colour from the earth to make our pictures more vivid and the by-product was a more colourful world of printing, cars and products. We invented metal tubes to keep our oil paint fresh and the result was tubes of AquaFresh for the morning. The days where painting was the magical high-tech Hollywood movie of it’s day was way before my time. We of course went on to perfect cameras, moving pictures and telephones and then work out how to send images down wires, before speeding it all up. Painting never stopped, it ran along parallel, watching, marking the time and trying to understand it.
The Internet was born twenty-five years ago and its rise from the military to our daily lives has been rapid and in many ways unexpected. I was 15 years old when the World Wide Web arrived in our home. I remember logging on, that indistinguishable, bing-bing, bong-bong, blip-blip sound whilst it established a connection and the painful wait whilst a jpeg loaded line by line. In those days I was more into evidence from area 51 than I was in seeing what contemporary artists were up to. 18 years later it’s hard to see an image that isn’t made up of backlit pixels on a retina display. Even music has been reduced to 0’s and 1’s in the great digital cumulus in the sky. We are at a point where we take surrogate friends, trapped in silicon chips, to bed with us courtesy of a vacuous socialgraph.
My sketchbook is obsolete; it’s been that way since I was a teen. Today my Mac is my collage tool of choice. A scalpel and spray mount would do, but with a mouse and a screen I have the same potential that songwriters do, I can drag snippets and passages around, tighten them up and try them together. I can compose a work in ways that previous generations never could. My source material is hard-drives full of images that I’ve collected and tagged over the years. As I work the soundtrack is provided from my iTunes library, which tells me it would take me 34.8 days to get through. As a tool this machine is invaluable but machines have been in the studio for a long time. If you believe Hockney’s hypothesis then you’d have artists as early as Van Dyck in the 1400s relying on lenses to project their work and get the proportions right. So when Warhol switched his overhead projector on in his studio in 1960 and traced the outline of Dick Tracy he wasn’t breaking any kind of mould he was bringing the wider culture back into paint.
Once I’ve worked out what is going where, the digital project ends for me and the analogue mark-making painting process begins. In a digital age, that act of freezing something in real paint, injecting real emotion, is all the more vital. When you slow something down in paint you literally force it not to evaporate. When you move digital culture into paint you shift context, you have malleable meaning and you have an opportunity to make something spiritual or emotive, in short you’ve got space to fill in the bits between the pixels with something real.
As hard as I try to shut the world out when I’m in here, I’m really never alone. I’m surrounded by a pseudo society capable of ‘liking’ something but incapable of truly loving me on a human level. I’m connected yet atomized, estranged from a real community but entrenched in an artificial digital one. Whilst I work I’m under siege by a collage made of pre-roll YouTube ads for bands I don’t like, cats sitting on things they shouldn’t and ‘friends’ I’ve never met living out fantasy lives via 144 character tweets, peppered by shots of their dinner on Instagram.
Perhaps the biggest impact of all is the speed of which todays artists can build upon the progression of ideas. We don’t have to wait for the museum show, nor do we have to wait for work to make its way through the editors, printing presses and distribution networks to the libraries and bookstores.
We have access to the progression of art faster than any other time in history. I can be in my studio and see on Instagram what Richard Prince just finished in his studio in upstate New York. Contemporary art has been marching ever faster since the birth of the Internet with image making exponentially multiplying at breakneck speeds. The equipment has made it possible for anyone to share photography or work but it hasn’t made everyone an artist. The amateur image-maker has been empowered but the gauntlet and the responsibility has now been placed at the feet of the artists of our times to deal with responsibly.
When I finish a painting it is photographed and saved as a binary series inside a jpeg container. It really is impossible to reproduce art, even the Google art project using the best camera that humankind has been able to build, capturing the greatest artworks in history with over a billion pixels, fails. If you sit in quiet contemplation with a real work in the flesh one on one, it’s genuinely as if a bit of soul is caught in the marks, noughts and ones cannot replicate that.
Not so long ago a mobile phone was a brick, now it’s a computer. With these devices we move our entertainment with us, our leisure time has encroached on our silence, a right that we lost years ago. It’s within that oppressive, violent cacophony that todays painters exist. It’s my great fear that future painters will be forced to create images that add to that background radiation, works that will survive a sort of hybrid collage type curation that floats with a finger swipe bounce on a tablet. Images have moved so fast and so far they have left us isolated yet craving more of them. That kind of tension and that kind of feeling needs to be explored outside itself, in physical tangible reality and I think painting is a very good place to do that.
A generation ago, artists were asked for slides. The YBAs met face to face in Soho bars. People visited studios more and art lovers jumped on planes to see museum retrospectives. Now that we can see highlights of a show online we simply don’t have to bother. Even the collectors are buying off glowing jpeg pixel interpretations of real art. At the start of the millennium I started sharing my works on eBay, thousands of them, as a means of disseminating them. Sharing what I made in my bedroom with people around the world. There were no blogs or social networks then, and it really wasn’t about sales it was about audience.
Paintings have everything going for them to last the test of time. The battery never runs out on one. Technology and the Internet have built in obsolescence and images themselves are victim to that, a popular visual meme can plummet down a Facebook wall faster than Lady Gaga can put on an outrageous outfit. For all we know one day the power might go out or the information superhighway might crash but one thing is certain paintings will still be hanging on walls.
I pop my headphones into my iPhone, tap my radio app and listen to a live feed from a station in Brixton and leave the studio. I look forward to a future where painting and technology continue to co-exist but I hope that technology won’t get lost as a mere tool, or a way of promoting or selling art, rather that it will become an art form in it’s own right that inspires generations of painters to come.
The 80s Are Vital for Our Art – Stuart Semple on The Guardian