Artist Feature ://
Posted January 2019
After completing a degree from St Martins College of Art and Design, Kevin Howbrook proceeded to work as a practising artist in London focusing primarily on performance and painting. During the last ten years, Howbrooks practice has evolved into an exploration into medium and concept through the parallelled use of traditional art practices alongside new technologies. Some works exist as algorithms, autonomously generating artworks whilst others sit as single expressive paintings conveying the direct touch and movement of the artist.
Although the contrast in appearance between the works is stark, the concepts are constant. With what appears to be a playful aesthetic, Howbrook delivers a reoccurring theme of exposing information that is ignored or cannot be seen. This often lands as a one-liner but challenges the viewer to question their own role with the works and the intentional focus. This is most evident in ‘Missing people 2018’, an algorithm which re-arranges the pixels in portraits of missing people to create new portraits. Here, Howbrook is exploring the idea of something lost from the past becoming something new and almost sci-fi in appearance, whilst still presenting the viewer with the harsh reality of the never-ending loss of our loved ones.
‘Portrait 1, missing people’, Kevin Howbrook. Algorithm generated print resized
‘Portrait 2, missing people’, Kevin Howbrook. Algorithm generated print resized
‘Portrait 3, missing people’, Kevin Howbrook. Algorithm generated print resized
Q. I cannot help notice your work symbolises reduction whilst also overwhelming the viewer with geometry and colour. How do you balance these two things and is it intentional?
Reduction seems to be a natural response I have to source material or research. I’m interested in the transformation of something concrete to being abstract so a detailed piece of research or data can sit looser and become more conceptual.
It is somewhat intentional. Different projects will take on a different visual language, more often it’s about combining data research or digital practices with an analogue form I’m into at the time, like collage. Trying to find which ‘traditional’ art form a non-traditional concept can fit to and feel right is the key part.
I’m very cautious of letting the code or digital side have too much of a say. The intention is key. I see little point in just making an algorithm to generate pictures, shapes or colours derived from meaningless data, it has to mean something and that won’t come from the code, it will come from the artist's intention. Algorithmically generated images have there place aesthetically, but for me, it’s not interesting enough, there has to be some sort of conceptual punchline to it.
Q. For those less knowledgeable about creating work using algorithms, could you explain your processes when making work?
The algorithms I write that generate pieces are basically like recipes for something you might cook. The crucial part is finding good ingredients and adding just the right amount of artistic direction. The starting point is usually discovering a body of data or a subject I can work with that’s interesting to me either in its banality or uniqueness. From there it’s a process of responding visually to questions that arise, generally, I’ll work to a point where a new representation is starting to take shape. This process is all done by writing out Python code and generally sketching out in code what needs to happen. Lot’s of testing, playing, re-working.
‘Farrow and ball collage’, Kevin Howbrook. Algorithm generated print, 2018 resized
‘Farrow and ball collage 2’, Kevin Howbrook. Algorithm generated print, 2018 resized
Q. What is your relationship between physical and digital painting? Is there still a place for the former?
For me the two go hand in hand, most of the visual language for my digital work is informed by continuous practice of physical painting or collage experimentation. The use of the word physical here is really important too; I started my practice as a performance artist. Physical movement and audience reaction always interested me and the paintings I make today act as evidence of movements and decision.
I don’t think it would be possible to solely concentrate on digital and not have a more “traditional”, perhaps even complimentary, art practice. It would be like being a writer without ever reading. There is different feedback at play when I’m painting, it’s about movement and somewhat playful experimentation of artistic expression and decision. It’s perfectly acceptable for mistakes to become your favourite pieces when working that way and bringing that element of experimentation to digital work is very hard but can be practised, it’s key to creating engaging works.
Q. If you could take an artist (dead or alive) to an exhibition (past, present, future or fiction) who would it be, what exhibition would it be and why?I’d take Duchamp to a Sherrie Levine exhibition. Levine's work is probably some of the most audaciously subtle work around. It’s incredible how her work questions the notions of originality and as the master of the ‘readymade’ I would love to hear Duchamp's view on it. For me, Levine's work has a kind of sarcastic melodrama to it, she somehow manages to capture both how incredible and how stupid something is at the same time.
‘Star wars empire strikes back’, Kevin Howbrook. Algorithm generated print 2017-resized
‘Thank u next by Ariana Grande squares-bot’, Kevin Howbrook. Algorithm generated print resized
Q. What advice would you have for a creative wanting to experiment with a more digital process?
You are the artist, not the computer. There has to be intent and a concept behind what you are doing. Generally, anyone with a bit of time and patience to learn some code can create generative art, the internet is littered with nonsense abstract shapes clinging to Instagram. Computers can already make art that looks like a computer made it; don’t help them. Code can be treated like paint if you are thoughtful enough.
Practically though, Start simple and learn the basics of what you are trying to do. There are hundreds of image processing techniques and libraries at your disposal on GitHub for you to play with. It can get complex very quickly but don’t let that deter you, it’s a never-ending journey and new technology is made every day in this sector.
Q. Why do you do what you do?
I don’t think what I do is just down to creative expression, art is the way I make sense of the world around me and my works are like milestones of understanding. More generally, it’s about creating a feeling within myself when I look back at my work. I was exposed to minimalism at a young age and I’ll never forget the feeling I got when I stood over a towering Donald Judd piece. I felt like all I could think was “What is this?.” but around the edges, the work was also asking me what I was... and I’ve been chasing that ever since.
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