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Bradley Wester

Bradley Wester is an artist who uses digital media and whose work references everyday information architecture.

Be sure to visit www.bradleywester.com


Scott Weiland:

Art, design, technology and culture are rapidly converging, mixing and generating new hybrids. How have you been a part of this scene and what are your new projects?

Bradley Wester:

I finished art school minutes before the personal computer. Until only two years ago, I was more or less comfortable on the other side of society’s so-called “digital divide,” sending up the occasional flare to get a resume or grant proposal together—this nearing the end of living sixteen rather austere years mostly in an industrial loft space with plenty of square footage and chemical-laden air, and no insulation. I not only rejected computers, but also TV, and even a couch to lounge on. Besides an abundance of anxiety, I had only the essentials required to eat, sleep, read, and make art, of the non-digital variety. Until my digital awakening, that is. And it was my art’s doing, not my own, that led me to embrace technology, albeit cautiously. Sure, there is a rapid convergence of art and technology on this side of the “digital divide.” But some of us aren’t there yet, some will never be (a dying breed?), and others are new arrivals with wobbly legs.

There is, I think, a kind of “digital divide” within the art world itself, which results in a center space for a kind of work that is interested in the ordinary and the mundane, the collection of scribbles, of detritus that has gathered overlooked in our corners. It’s from this space that artists like Richard Tuttle, Tom Friedman, Tony Feher, Sarah Sze, Joanne Greenbaum, Lucky de Bellevue, Dianna Cooper, and others come. It’s from this space, not the convergence you speak of, that my current art derives. Art that is meant to pull us out of the thin air of formal platitudes (Modernism’s legacy), the cool safety of smug distances (Post-Modernism’s irony), and the seductive cacophony of visual and technical over stimulation (Hollywood & Silicon Valley’s side affect). It says, “Hey look here, in this corner. Be still. See the beauty in the almost nothing, the automatic, the overlooked, thrown away, taken for granted.” It’s ironic and unlikely to have been led from this place to one employing digital technology.

As the critic Katy Seigel wrote in Artforum on the 2000 Whitney Biennial:

“This art and these possibilities respond to our increasing distance from how things work.... This distance is part of a larger social condition, one that anyone who has ever dealt with a computer glitch or an insurance company knows firsthand—that of a world beyond our understanding or control. In this world, art that astonishes us without eluding us (like that of Tuttle and Sze) has a certain political agency.”

My particular take on this non-elusive banal-bliss was, and still is, to use common stationery store labels and stickers, materials associated with the monotony and repetition of everyday clerical activity—labeling, filing, marking, naming, designating, categorizing, coding—and reordering them into beautiful images that make surprising and varied references as elaborated in my statement on my website. But because of the sometimes astounding graphic quality of the works on paper made of actual labels, it seemed inevitable to play with scale and make the works large. I had already thought to blow some of them up into simple, blunt, large paintings on canvas. After all, I consider myself primarily a painter. But it was something about the nature of the label itself, a printed graphic on paper, that, after some failed first attempts with scanning and enlargement, forced the luddite in me to learn Adobe Illustrator in which I have re-created the labels and can now arrange them inside the computer into art works of great complexity and size to become huge digital wallpaper murals. Illustrator, being a vector-based graphics program, allows me to create enormous files that can ultimately be printed, by way of large-format print technology, to any size I desire or, more accurately, can afford. Turning some of these files into digitally loomed rugs and carpets will make, along with the murals, a complete installation and is a project that will soon get off the ground, or on the ground, as it were.

Scott :

So working digitally makes some installation work easier and you can take the inspiration that the multiple gave you initially and create your own multiple.

I thought the way you characterized modernism as formal was interesting. Of course, Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss position the “formless” as characteristic of modernism and many post-modernists whose works are somewhat scatological (Pfaff, Stockholder, Sze and others) are just continuing that aspect of modernism. Your works seem pretty formal to me, on the other hand. While I see the similarity you have with Sze who seems intent on the crafting and structuring of detritus into her beautiful mess, unlike Pfaff and Stockholder or others who come off as somewhat anti-formal, you have much more in common with Stella and maybe Lichtenstein.

The digital “pixel” works throw me for a loop. What is going on with those? Is that a new direction?

Bradley :

You had to go and emphasize the F word—Formal. In some quarters it has really gotten a bad rap these days. I like the way you characterized artists like Stockholder and Sze as “scatological” and “just continuing that aspect of modernism,” which correctly implies that this anti-form’s form is not new, and that it is indeed only an aspect of modernism. But whether my work or their work is formal or not has little to do with why I associate my work with artists like Tuttle, Sze, Feher, or the rest. Nor does it mean that if it is formal, that it necessarily embraces the idealistic ‘formal platitudes’ of high-fa-loot’n Greenbergian Modernism. I disagree with you on Stockholder and Sze, for example: Stockholder manages a disciplined art that only appears to lack formal structure, craft, and control. Yes, one could say that Sze (and my work) is more constipated, to continue with our scat chat, in her meticulousness of craft compared to Stockholder, but I would say Sze is less a formalist. When Stockholder introduces a broad minimalist square of color that intersects say the wall and one of her messy forms, it acts as formal and structural glue that thrillingly keeps her dangerous mess from completely collapsing into a pile of shit, even when at first glance it might look like one. A high-wire act. Her work is so painterly. Those long thick bundles of extension cords—3-D brush strokes, add to wildly free abstractions barely but definitely contained by formal device.

My work certainly references Stella and Lichtenstein, along with others like Warhol, Barnet Newman, and even Pollock. But I believe I have more in common, philosophically, with the artists I originally mentioned, including Stockholder, in their sense of play with a kind of everyman’s junk-drawer-as-art-supply-store approach to materials, and a decidedly non-technical (non-digital) approach. Whether one of these artists decides to riff on the idealism of Greenbergian modernism or choose a scatological approach which grooves so well with the anti-idealist, anti-Greenbergian interpretation that is Krauss and Bois’ take on George Bataille’s ‘base materialism,’ there remains a common way into the work and its subject matter that is pedestrian, simple, and familiar due to the everyday-ness and plain use of materials. The work is not elusive or indecipherable with hidden or spectacular methodology. These are materials we all know and have used before, but the work still astonishes out of shear commitment and inventiveness.

But my work led me to use digital technology, which is where I depart from these artists. What fascinates me, however, is that my use of technology comes from the same place that I shared with these other artist, which could be read to be a place in reaction to technology, perhaps implicit in the Katy Siegel quote. Yet with my particular work there seems to have been this unconscious inevitability with encountering the digital. Take my paper piece called “Circuit.” It’s made of actual layers of labels stuck to several taped-together dime store burst signs printed on card stock. There is an obvious, uncanny, but quite accidental, visual reference to computer circuitry. Then later in the larger, part-digital, part-painted piece on canvas called “Home/User,” I actually enlisted computer circuitry in order to make an image of what we already know to be made up of simple labels that mimic computer circuitry. I like the democratic device of raising the low and lowering the high.

It is the subject matter of these works, their fluidity of references, that are dependent on their formalist structure. Without it, an accumulation of labels would not be seen as computer circuitry. Other references that I am told these pieces make that might be lost are to Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass, plan views of ancient cities, religious mandala imagery, and the all-over surface of minimalism and Jackson Pollock—rarified views from the looking glass of common stationery store labels. There is no denying that I wear the hat of a formalist, that is to say I am a post-Modern, post Post-Modern, even post “Formless” formalist. Formalism with awareness! The beauty and inconvenience of our particular period in art is not the neat division of Modernism between the Greenbergian and the ‘Formless’ camps resulting from Krause and Bois’ redress, but the all-over-the-map-ness of it, which in itself speaks more to the entropic or formless nature of Modernism than the attempted proof of same by Krause and Bois’ possibly unnecessary editing of it.

While I have begun a series of pieces that take a more ‘scatological’ approach, I am wary of this so-called anti-form having already become form-ula for many young artists, and with it, an all-too-easy-ness that I think Dianna Cooper’s work may suffer the most from of the artists that I have mentioned. The trick is how to reconcile this idea of the “informe” or destructive action that renders form formless, with completion. It becomes a problem when that point at which the artist decides to stop and call the piece finished, seems arbitrary.

I want, and have inherited the freedom to use or sample any style, any form, any technique, at any time, to ultimately achieve a body of work that rejects form if only by its lacking a necessity to settle on one. A body of different collections of pieces that may seem all over the map but radiate from the same center. There was so much made over the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Modern this year for his ability to move in and out of different bodies of work both figurative and abstract. Suddenly the idea is new. But his case is grossly misinterpreted. Most people who see the show feel Richter is simply giving them more choices. The common mistake is to love-love the beautiful Vermeer-like portraits and still-lifes while rejecting the clumsy, even ugly early abstractions, or to mistake that with the Baader-Meinhoff paintings Richter finally achieves a relevant art. I believe that Richter’s binding center was his reliance on technology, specifically photography, from which he approached all of his work and by which he intended to distance himself and us from the subject matter, both abstract and figurative, thereby equalizing it. This device, on a theoretical level, makes it impossible to ‘love’ one piece over another, for he has rendered them all the same. And as far as the Baader-Meinhoff paintings go, they are necessarily dependent on this device or conceit, set up in all the work that came before, in order to approach such volatile subject matter with cool, distant, post-modern neutrality. It’s the neutering of these volatile images that makes them interesting at all.

Now, with regard to my digital “Pixel” works, yes, they do diverge. They are another aspect that the digital technology allows me to explore, this time in Photoshop. They are tiny details taken from low-resolution digital camera shots of already completed works on paper or canvas. I zoom into the digital DNA, find a detail, play with the number of pixels per square inch then print them as limited edition archival digital photographs. These works explore literally another dimension of the simultaneous micro/macro imagery as discussed above in “Circuit” and “Home/User.” The “Pixel” prints are vast landscapes to me as well as the digital microscopy that they actually are.

Scott :

By formal, I am not making reference to Greenberg's theories. By formal I mean that a transparent intentionality, composition or craft is present. When you say that you are utilizing "formalism with awareness", I wonder if you imagine Greenbergian Formalism to have been something one approached while unaware. The expressionists of the twentieth century, all three periods, could be characterized as practicing in a sort of unawareness but I don't think of expressionism when I think of formalism.

So, while I agree with many of the ways you relate to the artists you have cited, I would say that you differ in your level of transparency. And this is where style, a much more contentious word than formalism, comes in to play. Style is really a posture, whether I recognize a look, a context, a manner or a device. This to me is a formality, and the matter of whether you intend it to be or not is not the point. An artist that paints a monochrome canvas should have no pretensions of transparency of intent, because of course all we will see is the transparency of the device. Tuttle is a good example of someone who walks comfortably along the lines of style but usually shifts us into a "perceptual conceptualism." Peter Halley has managed to get everyone to look at his formalist paintings as some sort of schema metaphor for our recto-linear, circuit-like environments and the circuitry we move through and have become. They are now archetypes of that notion.

But I don't see this when I look at your work. I don't feel like you are driving for that content, and it's a heavy reference for work that seems playfully formal. I see more of a formal-pop that happens to be constructed out of a most banal information architecture apparatus. This tie to information architecture, the post-Halley pop aspect, is what is most salient and lucid in your work. This dumbed down information is, I think, what you mean by formalism that is aware of the meaninglessness of its device. Is that accurate?

Bradley :

Absolutely. In fact, the most recent Peter Halley show is still up at the time of this writing at Mary Boone, Chelsea. I saw it only last week. His painting installation, complete with wallpapered digital murals, has enough visual similarity to paintings and murals of my own to make it seem foolish for me to be making them at all, if it weren’t for how, and from what, I arrived at our similarity.

If not entirely accidental, it was never my original intention to mimic computer circuitry, Peter Halley, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, et al., when working with these labels; but I was delighted, nevertheless, when the labels took me there. It was always, and continues to be, my interest in the dumb banal material of labels and stickers as a way in to the work that comes first for me. So from my perspective, the maker’s perspective, it is more about a construction of dumb labels that happens to come off as formal-pop, or whatever. But of course when seen as a completed work of art, the viewer naturally sees first the ‘accidental’ visual reference of, in this case, a formal-pop, then second comes the discovery of what the work is made of. It is in this ordering of perception inherent to my work that hopefully gives it the power to both astonish and demystify.

Interestingly for me, it is the current Peter Halley show that acted as a sort of litmus to my recent work. Next to his, my work makes Halley’s “heavy references” weigh a ton. I love that. You are right, his content is not my work’s content, but my work’s default content might include deflating Halley’s. My work: playful, post-Halley, hot-air-releasing pop—as in the noun, pop-culture, as well as in the verb, pop, to puncture. Sure, I’m down with that.

P.S.—I too am certain that in Greenberg’s day and beyond, formalism was utilized consciously and with awareness. I was attempting to be facetious when I used the new-age’y, tongue-in-cheek description, “formalism with awareness,” to separate myself from the number of artists working today who may still see formalism as a viable exploration for its own sake, as an end to itself. Which is fine, but it is in this context, I think, that formalism is seen as conservative and gets a pejorative rap today—a context that was once a heavy influence, hence my hint of paranoia.

Dare I mention now the twenty or so very small paintings I just completed, twelve of which were just uploaded onto my website yesterday. I call these the ‘Actual Size’ paintings, as they are actual size portraits of the labels, mostly unaltered (a few aberrations thrown in), only one or two at a time, or as small groupings like they are grouped when purchased. They are painted with meticulous care and craft on 1/4-inch masonite panel with oil, flashe, alkyd, and/or ink. All are postcard size: 3x4 to 5x7-ish. They look like precious little minimal and formalist studies (yikes, the paranoia!). Each painting has an exact paper counterpart made of the actual label(s) on paper card stock. Together on the studio wall with the paintings they come off as an installation, which I very much like at the moment. There is this interesting play between the real of the paper label and the trompe-l’oeil effect of the paintings, between the worthless paper label and its serious-looking painted counterpart of supposed greater value. Formally, they look almost excruciatingly worked out as they are specifically formatted to the small rectangle, yet I painted them because this is how they often present themselves to me on my work table, or in their package, mixed with, on top of, or half hidden under other paper on my table. In this case I set out to paint their banality, though I can’t hide the fact that I have always seen them as beautiful.

Scott:

Their variety of approach, the new small works, make me wonder about another aspect of your work. Regardless of how you choose to make your work, it seems like you represent the dumb info-apparatus as it is and then sometimes you let the different structures clash and mix in a palimpsest where the structure of one becomes the content of the other. This mix interests me. It's the inevitable maximalist track that Stella took. Do you agree that it's a sort of vortex, sort of an inevitable track or direction in your work? You posit a sort of cool conceptualism couched in nostalgia, which may be a part of your future direction but I also sense this gravitation towards the black-hole of maximalism.

Bradley :

Well, there certainly are mysterious vortex-like forces at work here, and not in my control. I only understand them, to some degree, after the work has led me there. It is a unique and long history that led me to use labels in the first place, but it is their ‘dumb’ or simple “information architecture apparatus,” as you put it, that is, in retrospect, a big part of their attraction. It was a particular thrill when they began to mimic computer circuitry because in the early nineties I was making paintings that I thought of as future-primitive computer chips. They were made out of bole, the refined clay mixed with rabbit-skin glue that gilders use under gold leaf. I was painting the clay onto birch panels in thin dyed layers, sanding into them, then polishing them with agate and horsehair cloth. Sometimes beeswax and gold dust was also used—process painting with very elegant and minimalist results. In my imagination these were images of worship from a future-primitive, post-apocalyptic time. I was doing some scientific reading then about clay, how scientists really believe it to be the primordial sludge from which all life sprang, how some clays are known to replicate themselves, how the molecular structure of clay resembles primitive DNA. Clay crystals, like modern ceramic semi-conductors or silicon computer chips, can even store information. I had this poetic-conceptual narrative in my head about future-primitive civilizations based around huge clay pits. The Brahmans of this society were able to, with the help of some left-over high-tech condensers and such, ‘read’ the clay or activate it into a great primordial universal computer, enabling them to see both the past and future. If all life sprang from clay, then the components of all information and all future-past possibilities are encoded in it. (So it’s especially fascinating to read about the controversial but brilliant Dr. Stephen Wolfram, so often in the press of late—former teenage particle physicist and youngest recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award, his ideas about simple systems mimicking complex processes suggest that nature acts like a computer! His new book, “A New Kind of Science,” challenges science itself and our understanding of the world, as we know it.)

Anyway, the point is that even then there was this intention in my work to demystify the complex, or re-mystify it, as the case may be, and to set up a micro/macro, past/future kind of spatial and conceptual tension—to have two seemingly opposing ideas happen at once. With the current work, these kinds of tensions are thankfully more obvious and not just in my head. Not only are the labels mere labels but they mimic more complex information architectures like computers, and they mimic other artists’ work, other art periods, even eastern religious imagery—creating a rude aesthetic democracy. Less obvious, and to finally address your question, may be another opposing tension, that of working minimally and maximally on different pieces, at the same time. It is a working tension that I find conducive to discovery.

Same goes for my practice of working several methodologies at once—paper work, paintings, digital paintings, digital prints and murals, lamination pieces, and others. Any one of these individual pieces from any one methodology may be rendered minimally or maximally with equal intent. Any one of these individual pieces whether minimal or maximal, whether painting or drawing, can then possess, within it, one or more of the simultaneous opposition tensions, such as: simple/complex, micro/macro, past/future, representational/abstract*.

Imagine a radial center that is my source material of labels. My various methodologies are the radii from that center. If at any point in time you take the last work from any one radius and compare it to the last work from an entirely different radius, the two works might seem visually unrelated enough to make most artists (and dealers!) uncomfortable, in spite of their common source. My way of working is not the more common linear approach. It is my intention, however, to pull off a body of work that, in spite of disparate outcomes, holds together by the force of its gravitational center. So if I gravitate toward the maximal at all, it is in my commitment to adding ever more radii, or differences, to my label center—the great Staples in the sky!

*A connection: My work, in all its layers, may not be as conceptually distilled as Gerhard Richter’s, but like Richter, I’m interested in the democratization of both subject matter and style. It occurred to me, above, that we share a common duality in our use of abstraction and representation. When I paint a label as it is, my work is representational. When I use them in a dense or maximal way they become completely abstract.

Scott:

I realize that self-similarity and complexity are two characteristics of chaos and understand that justification. I guess what I am grappling with is this: despite the fact that the work is couching itself on the attraction of a coveted kitsch commerce/info-object that holds a certain "zeitgeist" or aesthetic gravity for you/us, you aspire to this threshold of complexity or "rude democracy" among your end objects. The first states a choice charismatically; the second makes all choices equal. I am captivated by the choices and the array. But the mix of a very linear aesthetic toying and the "it's all good" trajectory makes me wonder how to relate to the whole body of work, which, despite the center-to-radius workflow, could send some mixed aesthetic messages. Is this any clearer?

Bradley :

Thanks, in part, to the clarity I have gained as a direct result of this interview process, I don’t feel there is any conflict whatsoever in my work sending mixed, I prefer—different, aesthetic messages. It is, to some extent, the point. As I said, working the way I do allows for disparate outcomes. I’m all for it. Looking at my pieces individually as end products and then comparing them to one another might cause consternation more, I propose, because of the way we have been trained to look at artwork, and less because my work is confusing in some way. Where and when was it written that we should work within the confines of comfortably decipherable and compatible, aesthetic paths of working? No doubt it was written sometime before the so-called “end of art,” as the critic Arthur C. Danto provocatively describes the point at which our new post modern era (and beyond) begins—a period of art that leaves behind the historical art narrative, a time when “no art is any longer historically mandated as against any other art,” and when art is no longer distinguished by what it looks like, but how it’s thought about—from sense experience to philosophy. If aesthetics are involved at all, they are enlisted to serve that philosophy, not as an end to itself.

Perhaps in my case the individual pieces ‘sample’ aesthetics in much the same way ‘sampling’ is understood in the contemporary music scene. More and more I don’t feel that it’s the individual pieces that are my objective anyway; they are instead markers that draw the shape of my entire body of work, the one-work—a larger, changing, more compelling idea to consider. This outlook may or may not make it more difficult for the viewer. I have considered, however, the importance of how this work can be presented. Taken out of context, individual pieces may risk being misread, risk “mixed aesthetic messages.” Is this a problem or an advantage?

Even my use of digital technology, to bring us back to the subject that brought us together in the first place, is ‘sampled’ in a way, and certainly contributes to a varied aesthetic. Digital is clearly not how I would describe myself as an artist. In fact, as I intimated at the opening of this interview, I am cautious of, even suspicious of so-called “digital art.” I’ve had, and still have for much of it, a negative reaction to ‘digital art,’ which all too often implies digital for digital’s sake—a recipe for built-in obsolescence, since, after all, the technology changes faster than we can keep track of it. On the other hand, art that employs digital technology as a tool interests me and has staying power. My work employs digital technology in this way.

Finally, thank you Scott for your interest in the ideas of my work, and for this opportunity to think and write about them. I’ve learned a great deal. But so much of what I think I know about the work is taught to me by the work itself, and in retrospect. Fortunately, the process of making art is elusive, mysterious, and powerful enough to soon enough again render me clueless. Maybe then we can do this all over.

   
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