For over 30 years, James Faure Walker has been integrating computer graphics into his paintings. A magazine founder and editor (of Artscribe, which he founded and subsequently edited for eight years from 1978) and prolific writer, he remains passionate, forthright and committed to working in ways which bring together painting and the digital studio. We caught up with James to ask him about his work and views on contemporary and digital art.
You recently gave a talk entitled Working with digital paint, and in a Siggraph Q&A you refer to your work as "Painting with the computer". How important is the physical analogy of paint and painting for you, in digital space?
JFW: I find this difficult to answer. First, my understanding of painting – of regular painting with a brush – is that it is not especially ‘physical’. You are not working against resistant material such as clay, or steel, but more within a world of light and colour, of illusion. I use watercolour quite a bit, though in the main I work on a large-scale with oil paint. Watercolour is the most ethereal – or immaterial – medium.
Second, I do not have a clear idea of what ‘digital space’ means. I am aware of it being used in conversation, of course, in the same way as ‘digital culture’ is used: shorthand to take you to a further topic. But what or where is this particular type of space supposed to be? In the display screen, behind it, in the ether? The space in a bathroom is not the same as the space beyond the solar system, or the same as the space inside an ant’s nest, or inside a Picasso. Those spaces interest me. I don’t think of the web as ‘space’ in that sense. There is the space of 3D program, but I have never really mastered [such programs].
Does the analogy of "digital paint" separate your work and view of this specific medium from the wider one of "digital art" which implies a wider, more diverse use of media and artistic process?
JFW: Perhaps it does. My aim has always been to bring the two together.
How did your formal education at the RCA help to shape your thinking and practice?
JFW: I was lucky to be a student at St. Martins from 1966 to 1970, where I spent a term in the sculpture department (as well as in the painting one). So, I met, and got to know some formidable artists and writers, such as Tony Caro, Leon Kossoff, Bill Tucker, Barry Flanagan, Jon Thomson, and Aaron Schaarf. There were fellow students like Gilbert and George, Richard Long, Roger Bates, and so on. I edited a magazine, called Jam there, which brought some of these together. I learned what it would take to be ambitious, to be pragmatic, to be intelligent rather than showily intellectual.
The Royal College was a different set-up, less adventurous, more complacent, more Establishment. I did not undergo a ‘formal’ education at either school; some sustained periods of life drawing, clay modelling, and at the RCA I did learn symbolic logic (on my own) – because of an interest in 18th century aesthetics, the books in the V&A library. That would have been good grounding for programming.
But, I have never gotten into programming. The straightforward logic of the early paint programmes appealed to me – so like painting. Other artists started off with computers long before I did, and some stayed with the geometry. I was more of an expressionist.
What prompted your move towards a more digitally-oriented practice in the late 1980s? Why then?
JFW: A term like ‘digitally-oriented-practice’ would not have meant much in the mid-Eighties; it would have been ‘computer art’. To undertake any type of computer graphics, especially in colour, would involve awesome expense - or booking time at a desk in a college, if you were lucky. The Quantel was tens of thousands. Even when I borrowed an Apple II in 1988, I had to take out special insurance.
The Amiga, the best available and affordable hardware, was seen as a games machine, with demos in Tottenham Court Road. The available printers were not ‘fine art’ printers. They couldn’t even print photos. The ‘artists’ making use of this were few and far between – Harold Cohen was well known, and William Latham. I should add that ‘computer art’ had little status beyond its aficionados. It wasn’t regarded as cool or avant-garde.
I was just excited by what you could do, like painting opaque yellow over black.
Another Dream of Summer, 2013
What do you work with now, and what are you working on at the moment?
JFW: In terms of equipment, I have a new MacPro (the cylinder), with a Wacom Cintiq 24HD. I use Painter more than Photoshop and Illustrator, despite it being buggy. I also use a large Intuos tablet in my painting studio, with a projector run from a Mac Mini.
Has it ever been of interest - or even temptation! - to work with a broader range of media, given the ease of use afforded to do so by digital technologies?
JFW: I have played around with animation, and a little 3D, but my heart hasn't been in it. I have enjoyed doing a few commissions (within painting and print) which could not have been done without digital tools. If the question is about ‘broader’ in the sense of screen-based or interactive formats, well no, I haven’t been tempted. Perhaps I should have been.
But, let me explain something about why I don’t think of painting as a ‘medium’, i.e. a vehicle for advertising, or for efficient graphic communication. The formats of painting – usually a rectangle, usually no movement, just an image to stimulate the imagination – might be considered a limitation, a constraint. But it is part of the deal... like the stage in a theatre. They are simply the given constraints of the art form. Yes, there have been plenty of exhibitions that go ‘beyond’ painting, and plenty of polemic on the lines that painting is obsolete, or dead already. And yes, there are acres of mediocre brushwork, and I don’t think you can ‘defend’ painting as an art form regardless of what is done with it. But to balance that, I don’t see that using the latest VR headset, or programming demo, makes your art any more ‘advanced’.
I have spent many hours in immersive and interactive works at SIGGRAPH, ZKM, ISEA, and elsewhere, and have here and there been really impressed. But do I buy into the view that here we have a superior delivery system – even in embryonic form? No. Do I feel that influential critics and curators in the mainstream art worlds have failed to recognize these innovations? Yes. So, my answer has to be nuanced.
I never felt that ‘art’ could be upgraded wholesale by ‘going digital’. (That was the credo of Wired in the 1990’s. An editor asked me what would happen when art ‘went digital’.) I don’t believe that the past thirty years has been witness to a super-smart generation of artists who make the previous thousands of years of art redundant. Smart gadgets, yes, of course. Wonderful technology. Generally, I have found the commercial section of SIGGRAPH (the section called Exhibition) the most exciting. I remember Lev Manovich saying the same thing, amidst all that overwhelming noise and clutter, the special effect displays. Art, or fine art, just can’t compete. In terms of computer graphics, the displays at airports and stations, TV graphics, or effects in movies and adverts, far eclipse what has been achieved in ‘art’. Ditto for the web. (Has ‘web art’ turned out to have been a major contribution?) Lately, there is this tendency to identify ‘digital’ art as ‘significant’ when it is attached to a significant cause (critique of corporate culture, of surveillance, of global warming and so forth). That is fine, but it need not be the whole story. I would feel uncomfortable expressing any sort of agenda. It is difficult enough making reasonable pictures.
I wander round the British Museum, the V&A, the Tate, National Gallery, Louvre, and any museum. The thought that Iznik ceramics, Persian carpets, Early Flemish Painting, Cubism, would have been improved if they were interactive... well, this has never occurred to me.
Confessions of a Conjuror, 2009
How do you work in both the physical and digital realms, and how do you develop interplay and/or tension between the physical and virtual media in your practice?
JFW: I described the dilemmas of crossing between the physical and the digital ‘realms’ – and part of that dilemma has been what those terms imply – in my 2006 book Painting the Digital River: how an artist fell in love with the computer.
In my earlier experience in the 1970’s, when I was a critic as well as a painter, the task was to change the terms in which causes were debated, to challenge the preconceptions. At that time the talk was about ‘modernism’ and its failure to be a ‘people’s art’.
During the past few years, I have been piecing together a book about drawing, specifically about the drawing manuals of the 1900 to 1960 period. I have collected well over a hundred of these. One initial stimulus was realising how the lay-out had obvious similarities with the layout of early drawing programs. All through there have been arguments about how drawing should be taught – freedom or discipline, observation versus grammar. There have been numerous attempts to redefine drawing. I draw quite a bit myself, digitally and physically, but don’t have any better idea of how to teach it. I have seen art schools evolve to their present state, and know first-hand how ‘fine art’ has been blind to the digital revolution, fogging it over with misconceptions, or setting up a special dark room called ‘new media’. I don’t believe in that separation. So, much as I enjoy the absurdity of those early how-to-draw books – chapters like ‘other vases in difficult positions’ – I also enjoy witnessing the Byzantine thinking of the contemporary art university.
Being ‘immersed’ in the mindset of those drawing instructions can give you the odd moment of inspiration, just an idea for how to twist a line here and there.
James Faure Walker is Reader in Painting and the Computer at the CCW Graduate School, Chelsea, University of the Arts.