In an age of 3D printing this, digital design that, rapid prototyping the other, a wave of artists and illustrators are choosing to make work in distinctly analog ways. Now the new book Artless:Art & Illustration by Simpler Means examines this slew of fresh creatives, authored by Marc Valli, art critic and founder of Elephant magazine, and Amandas Ong, a self-describe “social anthropologist and occasional art writer.” It highlights an interesting trend that we’ve perhaps overlooked in favor of big, shiny, tech advancements in recent years: that gorgeous, scratchy, DIY-esque vibe.
The choices over the 370 images in the book have been wise, eschewing cutesy fluff for the most part and focusing on artists who are highly skilled in their process, making the naiveté and lo-fi look into something very artful indeed. That’s the only way they could get away with such a title; the skill shown by practitioners like Nathalie du Pasquier (of the Memphis group) and others, including Anna Kövecses, Sofia Clausse, Marion Deuchars, belies the apparent simplicity of their pencil and crayon-based methods. We spoke with Valli about why we’re seeing this trend towards simplicity and the analog world.
Artless is quite a provocative title – why did you choose it?
I suppose the nature of that work in the book is provocative too: a finger in the well-meaning eye of slickly rendered, hyperreal images. And choosing a title for a book can often be rather diabolic. I often wonder whether coming up with a good book title is not in fact harder than coming up with the book itself…I thought the title Artless had a nice quirky flow, not so dissimilar from the work we are showcasing in the book.
How did the idea for the book come about? Why is it an important topic to explore right now?
I couldn’t help but be puzzled by the transformation I had noticed in contemporary illustration. How suddenly illustration stopped being all about representing things accurately, and suddenly became the opposite. Of course, that transformation had a lot to do with the digital revolution and how all these new image-making tools suddenly became available. It suddenly became technically very easy for anyone to create a clean-looking illustration. It is a bit of a miniature version of what happened with fine art painting after the advent of photography: suddenly it became pointless to just faithfully reproduce reality, and the role of the artist evolved towards creating distinct images, or representations.
From a situation in which you could tell a professional artist as someone who could create a faithful pictorial representation, we moved into a situation in which you could tell a professional artist as someone who did exactly the opposite, stubbornly refuting representation. Today, something similar has happened with illustration. You can distinguish a good, professional illustrator as someone who can refute the conventions of traditional illustration and still create work that communicates content.
What do you class as “simple means”?
Well, it is a very loose definition. My co-author, Amandas Ong, and I meant anything that felt like going back to basics, from crayons and pencils and biros, to chalk marks and even pebbles or stained cloth. I suppose a lack of studio space may also have something to do with artists turning to these mediums. Nowadays most artists will work from a desk (or café table) rather than out of a traditional artist studi
Tell me more about the process of how you decided which artists and illustrators and which works to include in the book.
When doing a book like Artless you start by jotting down a few names into your notebook, then a few more. Then you try to create a proper list on your computer and then you can’t remember where you saved that list, so you start another list. You start talking to people about it, and realize your new list doesn’t make sense, so you start again. Then you start to do more serious thinking about what brings these people together, only to realize that you don’t really have a pre-made criteria, so you try to lock one down by creating lots of new criteria (stylistic, technical, chronological, etc.) then you realize that this is boring and decide to go back to your first instinct.
In this case, there was two of us working on the selection and so there were at least two different points of view. For example, Amanda’s was coming from more of a fine art background and I was coming more from a background in illustration. She is about 20 years younger, a different generation, and that inevitably has an impact on how we see things—actually, the difference in age gave a very healthy, positive, and fun element of discussion to the creation of the book (I hope for both of us). As you can imagine, a lot of arguing and heartbreak is involved in this kind of process; you always have to drop someone you like in the end.
How far do see this resurgence in analogue media as part of a wider trend in the art and design world?
I suppose these are different worlds: art and design. In art proper, the digital never really made such commercial inroads. Painting is still the big ticket and when that is not for sale, more often than not, you end up having actual objects for sale in galleries. There are galleries specializing in ”new media” (a few very good ones too), but even the term “new media” never really conquered the “hearts and minds” of the art world. And when it comes to the “artless” type of work referenced in our book, then you just have to think of Martin Creed’s ball of paper or blue tack sculptures to realize that the art world has always had a natural relationship with that kind of work.
Not so in design. In the early years of the new millennium we were being bombarded with all sorts of digitalized imagery, from mutant typefaces in fluro-neon colors, to all kinds of 3D aliens and robots, and I suppose that after a decade of that kind of imagery, viewers started to become naturally tired and weary of this style, and craved something that they could actually and physically relate to… Suddenly a watercolor sketch had more impact that a Manga-inspired monster.
Why do you think so many practitioners are looking to simpler media to make their work at the moment?
I’m not going to surprise anyone by saying that we live in a highly digitized world, surrounded by screens and all manner of content flying through the air. I suppose we all long for “matter.” There is something atavistic about creating traces, applying chalk to a wall, dyes to material, etc. This is happening at all levels, from middle-aged women spending evenings with coloring books to young designers working with old printing presses… And all the way down to galleries and art fairs.
What sort of commissions do you think these processes work best for? What situations might digital be better suited to?
Very basic (again, almost primitive or atavistic) work will appeal to basic emotions. It is supposed to express spontaneity and directness, the opposite of manipulation. We still tend to block “slick“ these days, associate it with “commercial,” and a common strategy it to try to disarm the consumer with spontaneity. So we end up with the paradox of faux-sincere styles. I personally find that a lot of children’s illustration falls into that category. We tried to stay away from that in the book, and I hope that the work we feature really does have something special about it.