Travess Smalley, born in 1986 and currently based in New York, is a leading figure of the current wave of contemporary art concerned with the image politics of a post-internet world, in his case often by mining psychedelia and reintroducing it into new situations of abstract mediation.
Smalley’s works are visually stunning and almost fetishistically compelling, in recent years evolving into charged objects and images that misleadingly appear to transcend material manifestation and aim for a timeless, almost spiritual experience. But, appropriately enough, it is precisely this materiality that the artist has placed front and center in his approach to the production, circulation, and consumption of imagery today. This has led him into a number of attempts to single-handedly revitalize media considered long dead and forgotten: ceramics, poster design, and collage, to start with. Smalley’s take on such work – no doubt influenced by his early involvement with the second-generation surf club Loshadka (http://www.loshadka.org/) – moves beyond ironic reverence for the visual detritus collected in popular culture online and off, instead shifting to a more analytic mode that launches significant and targeted if microscopic experiments into the mediasphere.
Educated at Cooper Union and Virgina Commonwealth University, Travess Smalley has most recently exhibited at the Drawing Room in London, Preteen Gallery in Mexico City, Foxy Production in New York, and the House of Electronic Arts in Basel, as well as solo presentations at the Gloria Maria Gallery in Milan and Envoy Enterprises in New York. He has just published a book, called “Capture Physical Presence” – that showcases a series of his collages – and collaborated on the cover of “PWR Paper #5”.
Robin Peckham: Your aesthetic is immediately recognizable within the general post-internet or new digital art milieu, which tends to be based on consumerist iconography and throwaway kitsch. Where does your interest in, for lack of a better word, psychedelia come from? And how does it sit within this idea of digital translation and circulation?
Travess Smalley: My use of psychedelia is not kitsch and I’m not interested in engaging irony or kitsch. Neither factors into the making of the work for me. I don’t really think about my artwork as fitting into a kitsch aesthetic or any new digital art standards. I’m sure it does to many people, though. It’s inevitable. The psychedelic is a part of the history of the digital culture I am engaged in on a daily basis. From that perspective, my artwork and assumed aesthetic are looking back on the commercial visual culture and branding I’m looking at on a day to day basis: beveled edges, dropped shadows, these smooth web 2.0 ways of sharing information. But when I’m thinking about these tools and styles I try to abstract them. To allow new connections to be made with past historical movements in art history.
I don’t know if or how important that kitsch factor is in it. I don’t think about it that way. My relationship to the images, styles, forms I create is sincere. My interest in the psychedelic is one that is based on color and vibrancy in images. It attracts me. I am interested in mesmerizing images that transcend the visual and can act like puzzles for the viewer. Images that require a whole new vocabulary to be explained: the viewers have to develop that vocabulary as they look at the work because they’ve never experienced anything like it.
Robin Peckham: Actually, I meant to suggest that your work rather sticks out from the general digital art scene based on this aesthetic. I find it quite unique in that it diverges from a lot of this more referential work we see, so it’s interesting that you position your work as an abstraction (or perhaps analysis) of web 2.0 graphic modes, among other things. In a way I suppose this makes your work more about interface than about the content of the “flow” of digital culture. If that’s the case, and what we see in your work relates more to technologies of framing and ways of visual understanding, I’m curious how hardware and actual, physical frames play into your practice?
Travess Smalley: I don’t necessarily see my work as referential. That’s one way of viewing it but it’s only a small part. I’m more concerned with color, form, texture, and the shifting optics of physical and digital viewing. I don’t particularly see myself as working from a post-conceptual art lineage. The artists that inspire me the most come from an earlier era or are concerned with issues that have been ongoing in art since romanticism. It’s that I bring this attitude to the digital that brings me into the sphere of current internet art practices.
I think about abstracted interfaces and framing as different modes of perception. Let’s focus on the ways that people view things on a daily basis. We have the immediate perceptual viewing of just opening our eyes. Then there is the architectural framing of our rooms and the windows that allow us to differentiate the world from our private space. And then there is the interactive frame of a laptop or portable device that we quickly reach for after waking. All three of these perceptual lenses construct our reality. And all of these frames can be altered. But it is through the digital frame that fictional and unreal narratives usually play out. Our brains are quickly able to switch understanding depending on what frame it believes we are focused on. This trust we have in frames is interesting. I like to imagine the kind of bleeding that can happen if a person was not immediately able to perceive the area around their laptop screen as any different from the laptop itself.
Robin Peckham: Related to that, how important is resolution or fidelity to you? Whereas a lot of folks are thinking about poor images and ease of exchange now, there’s a sense of vast visual depth to your image-based work, that these environments can go on and on rather than being based on the aesthetics of the fragment that we tend to see.
Travess Smalley: I think the fidelity question is a good one. It’s something that I’m always dealing with in terms of what the means of producing an artwork are. I want to always produce at such a high quality that no matter what the future resolution digital things are viewed at, the viewer can still get the ideas that I’m trying to express now. One of the big ideas being a close zoom in on things – looking at the materiality and the digital aspect of things – a close inspection that reveals those little pieces, those gradients, pixelations, print tones that make an image’s provenance unclear. All of this requires a certain level of fidelity to be experienced. While I usually aim for higher quality and larger file sizes I understand that fidelity is something that can be played with. But at the end of the day I am hardly ever satisfied with a 400-pixel-wide image.
Thinking of fidelity in infinite terms is cool. I tend to think about the resolution as being an element of the worlds I’m creating. If an image is visually pixelated it easily becomes referential of a digital screen based in our reality. But if the pixel has qualities inside of it that can be dissected it can become unreal. When that pixel begins to corrode into another medium it expresses a whole new origin or creation.
And as you point out, resolution and image fidelity is a little bit of a design question too. How does the image fit on the website? How are people going to view it? What’s going to be the best for each viewer? But during my experimentation and production process I can’t concern myself too much with these issues of scale. If I tried to make everything a 100,000-pixel-wide image I would spend days waiting for it to render. Maybe someday if rendering speeds up or I’m able to have a whole room full of equipment…
The image quality for me is all about someone experiencing this works up close – experiencing these textures that hint at something unknowable. Where the viewer’s visual vocabulary just draws a blank and they can no longer distinguish the digital from the real. It’s a little mysterious on first viewing. All of this close inspection and attention to detail and observation is something I picked up when studying drawing. It’s not necessarily craftsmanship but texture and form that really can draw people to an image. Fidelity is also about a relationship to drawing and painting.
Robin Peckham: On the other hand, there’s this very low-production, craft-derived aesthetic of clay and pottery, as in the scanner pieces (interesting in that they start our as low-res objects but end up as high-production-value images) or the vase pieces. How does that relate with image production? Somehow the combination ends up feeling very West Coast, very Wired, very California ideology.
Travess Smalley: When you talk about the clay and how I use it, it’s funny because it did extend from Photoshop. When I talk about my art practice I always talk about it in terms of experimentation, where one project leads to the next and there is no necessary ending or finality. The clay and plaster experimentation came about as a physical manifestation of using the “liquify” tool in Photoshop. I have slowly brought all these techniques that I was using with digital painting to my physical studio art practice. For example, I love how colors mix together when using the “liquify” filter effect. I can do this physically really quickly by combining paint and plaster and it achieves an amazing result. I’m approaching these physical mediums from a digital tradition. I like thinking about if you were to ask a digital painter to make an oil painting for the first time. How would they respond to using physical tools when they’ve been using a mouse for so long? I’ve found there are a lot of similarities in how I use both digital and physical tools.
The West Coast thing is something that I think about a lot. What is a West Coast artist or style? I find that so many artists I admire spend a lot of time or live on the West Coast. Even contemporary artists like Dianna Molzan, Sterling Ruby, Aaron Curry, and my bud Parker Ito are there. That’s where they are working. I feel like I have an affinity with West Coast artwork, like Ed Ruscha’s drawings for example. So many of my favorite artists are in LA. It’s been a big thing for me the past year that I might move out to the West Coast and spend some time out there. I’ve been in New York for seven years and grew up in Virginia before that. It would be nice to see how a different lifestyle and art scene would affect what I’m making.
I do get that West Coast response about my work from a lot of fellow artists and viewers. What would be interesting for me to know from you is could you hint at some more specifics as to what gives you that vibe of the West Coast? The use of color, the work ethic, the general casualness of my work? Is there a casualness? I don’t know.
Robin Peckham: Psychedelia can be an obvious signifier, but that’s not what I’m thinking of here, so let’s bracket that for the moment. My comment about this West Coast element actually relates more specifically to what I see as a split in your practice, between the insistence on depth and fidelity in your images and then this very crafty feeling of some of the objects. The former category calls to mind Silicon Valley and the heady optimism of early digital painting, whereas the latter has me thinking of Pacific Northwest post-hippie punk culture like Elias Hansen’s glass work.
Travess Smalley: A lot of my physical practice is based in craft. It’s about going in to my studio and making a mess. Experimenting with materials until I construct something. Most of the work becomes exercise. I am flexing creative muscles that I later share with people during studio visits. I think that some people are put off when they come to my studio and I show them a bunch of cardboard vases or paper cut outs. They come expecting animated gifs or holographic prints or I don’t know. It’s always exciting for me. Because, on one hand, I am horrified by these quick studio creations and, on the other hand, there is something incredibly pure in their creation. My sculptural practice has been about constant development and making sure I create something new every time I am in the studio. It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be made. I follow the Zen Buddhist belief that if you focus on a blade of grass long enough the whole world will be revealed to you through that blade of grass. I keep making sculptures in hopes of revealing something new to myself.
The duality you set up between digital painting and craft is inescapable for me at the moment. I’m not sure I like being positioned there though. Maybe these are just the two areas of my practice that are most present right now? I agree that there is an optimism to my work. But my optimism does not come from my faith in our present or future reality. It comes from our ability to create entirely new worlds.
Robin Peckham: Tell me about “Poster Company”, as that’s a side of your practice I’m not as familiar with. Perhaps also, in this, context, the “JF and Son” project. These are both relatively non-standard forms of collaboration. Is this a way to push the boundaries of how art can circulate outside the more typical exhibition models at the edge of solo practice? How does it feed into what else you do?
Travess Smalley: I’m glad you ask about “Poster Company”. It’s a project I don’t get to talk about with others that much but its influence is still very much present in my practice and my continuing experimentation with Photoshop, design layout, and composition. “Poster Company” started in 2009 but it seems so much older now. It was a collaboration with Max Pitegoff, who was a classmate of mine at Cooper Union at the time, though when we actually started the project he was living in London and Berlin and I was living in New York. “Poster Company” was a project about experimenting with graphic design, thinking about layout, thinking about digital painting, thinking about collage in this collaborative way where I would work on a Photoshop file and send it to him and then he would edit it, change it, and send it back and forth, and vice versa.
The project became about creating a visual language, figuring out what’s good and what’s bad, making all the decisions we were told not to make in graphic design classes in school. We heard often from people that we were making the worst design choices possible but there was something special in this awfulness. But for us it was just about experimenting and testing out these digital tools and beginning to understand graphic language.
It was really great too because I saw as the project developed that there were all these other artists who became interested in it too. Paint FX by Jon Rafman and Parker Ito came out of “Poster Company”, and a lot of other small groups of like minded artists also had motivational responses to our project. A lot of art students in France started doing similar work and it was zeitgeist where all these young artists were thinking about how to use this photo editing program to create abstract artworks.
And then there was “Poster Company” as an idea for distribution. We thought of the project as a way to present digital images through unique posters – not as framed objects – as a kind of pedestrian object that people would tack up on their wall. This aspect of the project had various degrees of success. We had some great installations where we hung the posters on exhibition walls as if they were the posters on a teenager’s wall – up high, taped up with stickers, nailed in with tacks… What we found with Poster Company is that our digital production outpaced our physical print production drastically. For every poster that we had printed there were at least 10 that were not. We were lucky to have access to Cooper Union’s print labs where we could print off unique posters cheaply and frequently, but even then we’ve only physically produced a tenth of the work we created. Someday I hope to print the whole collection.
Robin Peckham: Obviously the social aspect of that project was very significant, and seems to emerge from a very particular collective or peer-based mindset. How do you think things are changing, both in terms of social structures and the work itself, now that this generation or group of artists is getting serious exposure in major galleries, major art press, and so on? It seems there’s a canon of artists that’s beginning to come together, and that, as with any “movement,” it’s the voices that intentionally set themselves apart somewhat that see the most attention.
Travess Smalley: I think the recent increase of exposure in all of my peers has been great in terms of just gaining exposure outside of our internet social structures. One of the bigger challenges has been how to physically present things that have digital origins. I’ve had some great conversations about current digital printmaking strategies with my peers. In fact, it is usually one of the first things I talk about with artists I meet. Everyone has tried different fabricators, framers, print companies, and print makers. And so its good to hear who is good at what. What’s working for them. I guess this is all shop talk though. But this bonding over production is telling of the new audiences we are trying to communicate with.
For me and a few my artistic peers it has been about exploring these new ways of printing, these new ways of presenting digital ideas physically. We have all of these production options that have never been available. Large format printers that will make you a billboard for US$200. There is a manufacturing firm in Germany that can get you holographic prints on stretch nylon. I think using the most recent, newest printmaking technology is important when you are talking about printing the digital, not just in terms of posterity but in terms of that translation. Using the most advanced codec, the most advanced printer, it just speaks more specifically to the time the work was created in.
Robin Peckham: I’m fascinated by how you (among others) work so fluidly between physical and virtual pieces. On a theoretical level, do you think this post-internet discourse functions at all to harm the radical properties of what was once internet art by drawing it into the commercial art system? Or is it freeing in a way? And, specifically, what does it mean to make a GIF within this milieu?
Travess Smalley: Basically I see these as different ways of presenting artwork. The physical and the digital are two different modes. They have their benefits and their disadvantages, but it’s all about putting the right project in the right environment. It’s funny, the question of the animated GIF. I feel my relationship to the animated GIF is one of video-making. These short animations that are sometimes infinite, but often just a cut section of what you’re seeing. Like a short video clip. Even like an extended photographic moment. Animated GIFs have their own history and when I present them in galleries I try to work with this idea of short video clips that reference animated GIFs.
Robin Peckham: While it seems the art world is quickly catching up with what’s going on in digital art now, it’s significant that the established new media community is often still more concerned with aging topics of interactivity, cybernetics, expanded cinema. Is there anything that should be conveyed to that corner of the art world to make them understand these recent shifts? I’m not interested in rehashing the new media versus contemporary art divide again, but is there any urgency to staking out what’s happening now?
Travess Smalley: Expanded Cinema is an especially interesting genre in relationship to the current problems of digital art in the public and commercial art context, with lessons that might help contemporary artists address how the screen functions in public, how a digital work is best viewed, and how multiple viewers can experience a digital artwork. I just saw Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome at the New Museum and it was stunning. Never have sculpture, collage, photography, and film been so tightly and beautifully combined. I think what’s special now is not necessarily the innovations in tools for creating artwork but more the combinations of ideas that are both contemporary and related to art history. In my case, thinking about the history of abstraction and its visual pervasiveness, both digitally and physically, today.