Talking Heads: Marc Brotherton and Ashley Anderson on Video Games

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Marc Brotherton and Ashley Anderson sit down to discuss their use of video games in their work at Brotheron’s exhibition, “Insert Coin to Continue,” at Day & Night Projects.

Marc Brotherton and Ashley Anderson are both contemporary artists located in Atlanta, Georgia. Brotherton’s vibrant, geometric works and Anderson’s pixelated portraits have been known to pop up throughout the city of Atlanta as well as nationally. Brotheron’s most recent exhibition, “Marc Brotherton: Insert Coin to Continue,” just ended at Day & Night Projects in Atlanta. While at the same time, Anderson returned from Hambidge’s Creative Residency Program and recently opened his “The 101 Views of Mt. Fuji” exhibition located at The Front in New Orleans. But what do these two artists have in common? They sat down to discuss the core of every artist: Where they draw inspiration. Their common themes of grids, abstraction, color, texture and humor come from a singular and unlikely source. Video games.

Marc Brotherton:  We both deal with grids in our work. It’s probably as important an invention as the wheel. I’ve tried to research its history. In my own work, I think about weaving as a grid-based technology and how grids are human, not existing in nature. I think about the grid being ancient, yet influencing modern technology. I find that very fascinating.

Ashley Anderson: For me, the grid is a necessary mechanism I use to get game imagery onto a two-dimensional surface. I’ve messed around with trying to grid by hand, or drawing the gridded image by hand without drawing the grid first. I’ve tried to figure out how to remove the grid while preserving the image. The best way I discovered was while I was working on the Marilyn show, the first painting I did, you could see the grid and I did not want that. So I did tests and figured out that I could lay the grids out and get 2H pencils and draw the imagine in with a 4B, prime over that twice, retrace that and then prime two more times, and the grid would be gone. And the primer I would be using is Utrecht Studios, which is translucent.

MB: I like the idea of painting connecting back to ancient time. Art has been around longer than written language, and I try to connect back to that in the my work. We think of technology as “of the moment,” and it is, but it didn’t start there. Hand-made tools are a form of technology.

How would you describe your use of images in your work?

AA: I tend to pull images from the backgrounds of games, but my work is more about mining this imagery with an eye toward art history and art theory. What I understand as the way the brain picks up pixelated imagery versus early modernist imagery, say George Bellows, Matisse, less Cezanne, but the way he builds up with marks. So I’ll pull something out because it’s actually from art history and someone has put it in the game, and I’m putting it back into art history. Or it can be something totally mundane and I can take it and present it in such way that the designer never would have thought of.

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One of Anderson’s works from his “101 Views of Mt. Fuji,” currently displayed at The Front in New Orleans.

MB: It brings to mind the Bauhaus. I think of Joseph Albers or Anni Albers, particularly her weaving having pre-pixelated images, but definitely based on the grid.

AA: Yeah, like Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, so beautiful.

MB: In your work, you take a recognizable image from a game. I think of the Marilyn Monroe piece you did as sort of an update. I like the idea of updating. Adding a digital quality automatically gives an image an updated status.

AA: But there’s still that struggle between the pixelated digital image and the hand. Actually, it goes back to when I saw Broadway Boogie Woogie in person for the first time. I was doing these pixelated paintings of landscapes, and they were super sharp-edged, but all by hand. I was driving myself crazy. Then I go and see these crisp Mondrian paintings, and up close the edges are not perfect. When I got back home, I printed a close-up of one that I found on Google Images, and you could see the cracks and I wrote, “Piety say relax.” Using tape wasn’t necessary.

MB: I try to exploit the edge in my work, as well. There’s something really beautiful about letting go of the idea of control but still having some recognizable control in there so you can see where it’s been left out. Control is a real slippery slope and I think edge can help define or subvert it. I like to play around with different materials and the way that we view analog versus digital. I don’t think of my work as being strictly about video games, but I do like the idea that people can read them as a screen, which can also reference computers. There is the idea play, which is very important in my work. I think of my body movements, arm movements, as a form of play. I think of my work as a record of my ‘play.’ I set up rules for myself and then I play on the canvas.

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MB: Years ago, I used to teach young children in New York City and Brooklyn, and we’d do a lot of spontaneous painting and spontaneous play. I remember that the best way for the kids to process the current lesson was to learn it and then go outside and physically play. It’s more than entertainment, it’s a mental exercise. How do you feel about play?

AA: You mentioned working with kids, which reminds me of the postwar Gutai Group in Japan. I had never seen their work until 2013 in New York. A buddy of mine was working at the Guggenheim when they had a Gutai retrospective. They worked with a variety of media and  playfulness was central to the movement. They worked a lot with children and borrowed from their logic and imaginativeness. There’s a drawing that Akira Kanayama did by tying a ballpoint pen to a toy RC [radio controlled] car. Or Kazuo Shiraga would push paint around with his feet while swinging from a rope. Those paintings are wild.

Having seen that show and their use ot toys gave me the confidence to use game imagery. I’d thought of it along these lines but maybe not with an historical or theoretical point of reference. Game imagery is probably the last thing people expect when they walk into a gallery. It’s a great way to mess with them. It’s kind of funny to pull from video games to discuss things outside of the games.  

MB: I see a lot of humor in your work.


AA: Good!

MB: Humor is important. I wanted to talk about the expectation from the viewer of the painting referencing a screen or game. I think of mine as screen. Would you say yours is more game?

AA: I like of thinking of the painting as an object.

MB: The object/window debate is a slippery slope. It can be both. People love their screens. They can’t put them down. There are people who love art.  There are people who don’t know about art, and then there are some that are somewhere in between, they like looking at painting, but don’t much about it. I love subverting viewers’ understanding of what a screen is.

I love painting, and my work is about painting. And I wanted the paint to have a recognizable effect on the viewer. It’s not a screen but I use its language. People will look at my work and see a screen, and then they see the paint and the texture and materials, and then they think “how do all these ideas go together?” That question is very interesting to me. It’s also a kind of game that the viewer can play. I’m a firm believer that the viewer should be included in the work. I want them to have their own experience.

AA: I like the idea of the painting as a window versus a painted object. In terms of the illusion of a painting, mechanically, I’m interested in playing with the pixelation. The video game imagery has the capacity to either directly represent something or to distill it into a mere abstraction. It can toe that line between a fairly faithful likeness and something that you can see yourself seeing because of how it breaks down into individual areas and actual blocks of color. You can find a part in any Ingres painting, even as slick and photographic as it is, where you can say, “oh, that is obviously a blob of paint.” With pixelation, you’re taking that mechanical feature and drawing it out to almost comical caricature. Particularly borrowing from E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. I read it in an aesthetics class in college. It made a big impression. He wrote it when Abstract Expressionism was a big thing and it was troubling for the the public, so he tried to tackle it in his writing. He talks about the idea of projection and how when we look at a representational painting, we are looking at arbitrarily, or intentionally, placed shapes and color but their arrangement forms a likeness that we recognize because of our visual memory and the brain’s predilection to find faces and bodies. But with abstraction — think Pollock — there is no thing to grab onto that references the body. So, trying to understand what in the world I like about game imagery … because I’m not interested in 8-bit nostalgia shows. I don’t want to be part of that. I want to be in the same company as the painters I admire.

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MB: It’s the abstraction I’m interested in. I want there to be something recognizable. Our culture is going digital, toward the virtual and singularity. So I think there’s some room for critique. My Kill Screen paintings infer two things our culture really well: We make screens and anything that runs on them, and we kill. That has nothing to do with the original use of the term kill screen, but that’s what’s so great about painting — it can become so many more things.

AA: [looking at a painting] These ziggurat shapes and these floating objects, because I read video game imagery, I know that these are circles, but they are essentially four rectangles joined at the corners.

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MB: There’s the conversation around the difference between analog and digital, as if they have to be separate. I like to think of my work as a combination of both, as a place where analog can be digital and vice versa, because my paintings are all analog but they reference digital language. Most people start or stop there. One of the most powerful things that painting can do is have an emotional quality to it. I can’t dictate what that quality is, but there are things I can do to help push that along, like using terry cloth, for example. Towels are made of terry cloth, so it makes you think of drying a wet body. It reminds one of a soft, warming sensation. Screens are thought of as kind of cold, but people psychologically know that terry is a soft material. And when you put paint on the fabric on it, it changes, it becomes like stucco, which has a different tactile and emotional quality. I like to play with those associations.

You tend to have an even paint application. How do you think about things like texture?

AA: Are you familiar with Liquithick? When I was in MINT’s Leap Year Program, Jiha Moon was one of my mentors. During a critique, she suggested  playing with thicker and thinner applications of paint to create depth cues, ike old master paintings where the foreground objects use thicker paint than the background. It’s made by LiquiTex [acrylic paint maker]. You can only add it at a quarter of the volume of the total paint mixture or it will never dry. But it is crazy, as soon as you add it to your paint, it thickens to the texture of oil paint. It doesn’t alter the opacity, it doesn’t alter the color, it slows the drying time down so you can work it more. It’s black magic shit.

MB: What turned you on to painting?

AA: I grew up in Sandersville, a small mining town, and went to school at Georgia Southern, where I got a BFA in painting and a minor in philosophy. I worked as a teacher my first year out of school, then I moved to Savannah and worked a bunch of crazy jobs. I was a sailor! I worked on a gambling boat.  I moved to Atlanta in 2007 to work at a frame shop but then got fired and that’s when I started working at Fellini’s. Pizza is life! [laughs]

MB: Some early influences were, I remember when i was about 10 or 12, we got new computers at our grade school in the early 1980s. They asked if anyone was interested in making images to display on the screen. It was a challenge because at that time there was no graphic user interface. Also, my stepfather was a stained glass artist, and I remember thinking, one could be an artist as an actual profession.

My family moved to Dallas my freshman year of high school. I went to an arts magnet high school. I got to meet Rauschenberg. I was about 16 or 17 years old. He came our school to give an artist talk and told a story that I remember well, it was about how when he was younger, his family never discussed art, it was never mentioned. So he didn’t know that art was a real ‘thing’ until later in life. He made the discovery accidentally while on leave while serving in the military in Europe, he went to a museum in Paris and saw art for the first time! He made up his mind on the spot to be an artist. I thought to myself that anyone can make art if one sets one’s mind to it! It was his story that gave me permission to be an artist.

MB: When did you start using game images in your work?

AA: It was the summer after my junior year. I was doing Maymester. I had had a roommate previously who introduced me to emulators (programs you can download and use to play any game). Having grown up in a small town, Walmart was where we went to buy video games, or we’d rent games, so we had a limited selection and not much access. When I discovered that I could go on the Internet and just download games I didn’t get to play as a kid — any Nintendo or Sega Genesis — I was just tearing up all these games that lusted after as a kid. At the time, I had just taken philosophy of religion, and we studied Joseph Campbell. I started to think about his narrative of the hero with a thousand faces and similar stories, and I started realizing that those same stories were in video games. I’d started to see paintings on the Internet of people painting things from video games. The first painting I did was very likely of Super Mario. I did an image of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on a wide canvas, but I didn’t plan it properly so it was too short, so I called it Postponing the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Once I got out of school and kept painting, my work went from depicting images from myth and religion to art historical references creeping in. That was about 2004. Then I read an article by Shigeru Miyamoto, the guy who created Super Mario and Zelda. And he talked about why people play video games again and again. He compared it to a playground, like a swingset or a slide that you really like. You don’t just do it once, you do it over and over again. So it’s like I had all these new playgrounds in the video games, at the same time I was on an academic playground and I could test new ideas and bodies of knowledge. At the time, there weren’t many people doing it the way I was. Cory Arcangel’s clouds were a big thing. That was right when I got out of school, and he was in the Whitney Biennial. That was a big deal. I thought, “If this shit can get into the Biennial, this is a perfectly valid way to go.”

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MB: That also speaks to the power of painting. It can absorb and respond to anything you throw at it.

AA: Because you never step in the same river twice.

MB: Do you play games today?

AA: Not really. The first night I was at Hambidge last year — you usually have a few hours before bedtime — so I’d been wanting to play Kirby’s Adventure on Nintendo so I busted out my emulator and started playing. After a few stages, I was like, this is so empty. I started watching the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back instead. I love arcades, but when I’m at home, there are things I’d much rather do than play video games. I don’t get anything from playing a game at home. If I’m looking for an image, then yeah. But man, I miss arcades so much. It’s like going to a movie theater, or an art gallery. You’re going there for a specific thing.

MB: They do set a limit, whereas at home you can go all day and night.

AA: The scarcity makes it much more valuable. When I go to a mall now, I mourn the loss of Aladdin’s Castle, Tilt. Namco World at the Macon Mall was my shit back in high school, Point Blank and Time Crisis. Have you ever played Time Crisis?

MB: No

AA: Great shooting games.

MB: I’ve played a few shooting games but I don’t remember the names of them. Deer Hunter, I remember that one.

AA: I have a thing against those games. It’s weird. Those games are tending more towards realism whereas Time Crisis and Point Blank, or Zombie Raid and House of the Dead venture into the more fantastic. It’s the problem I have with Counter-Strike versus Quake or Doom, where one shot will kill you. Well, of course it will, because that’s real life. But you know what, video games aren’t real life. I want someone to have to shoot me nine times before I die, while I have a lightning gun in my hand. That’s what video games are for. I don’t care about the simulation of realistic experience. I want bizarre fantasy. Movie theaters are about the only place I can find games anymore.

MB: That’s because they’re making so many movies about video games now. Like “Ready Player One.”

AA: That Rampage movie looks like shit. That’s going to fail. I was so glad Pixels failed. I could go on about Pixels. Those are voxels, those are volumetric pixels. They look like crap. They’re not two-dimensional. It’s like a square peg in a round hole.

MB: If I were to play a game now it’d be pinball. I love pinball! Also, Dig Dug is one of my all-time favorites. I really liked the colors and shapes you can make. I’d always die early because I’d try to make cool shapes.

AA: I discovered Dig Dug at a bowling alley in Milledgeville when I was in high school. I went to the arcade side because I was trying to bowl and I put so much force behind the ball that I threw it into someone else’s alley. I was so embarrassed I almost cried. So I bolted. I saw Dig Dug and started playing it. It’s so simple but so entertaining. Like Galaga.

MB: I used to play those as a kid. My buddy had an Atari and we’d play Pong and Tanks and Missile Command.

AA: Oh, Missile Command.

MB: Those are the most abstract games you’ll ever play, by Intellivision.

AA: Yeah, exactly! There’s a great website if you ever want to look at some of those games, and also some more obscure games from others with similar graphics, like Acorn Archimedes. I never knew that existed until I found it on this website. There’s a football game on there and the whole screen is bright green. The field is ¾ perspective, so it’s parallel lines on a field, diagonally oriented.

MB: I remember the handheld ones at the time. The linemen were just dashes. You had to maneuver your way between the dashes. People love their screens.

AA: I have a question about this painting. It reminds me of Berzerker. Did you ever play that?

MB: Not directly. I try to be nonreferential, but it’s like a Rorschach image. You can’t make something without it looking like something else. I’ve been thinking more about labyrinths and mazes these days. There are cultures that use them to clear their minds or meditate. Painting can be a mental activity.

AA: The borders that contain the image field makes me think of the first generation of arcade games. One of the main characteristics of those was that there was no scrolling. What you saw in that screen was the entire world of that game.

MB: For me, the border does a number of things. It references the screen, but it also clues the viewer in that this is not an actual screen — it is a canvas. It helps with texture and layering, and showing how the painting was made. I like to play with the edge, too. I do use a lot of tape in the process, but I feel like the tape becomes more like drawing. Some people may think that it’s a way to be precise, but if you look at the paintings closely, they’re really not that precise. There’s some wonkiness. I like that tension.

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AA: When I was at Hambidge, I watched a BBC documentary series called “Arena,” and they did one about Brian Eno. One of the last bits was just him sitting at home, working on some music, and talking to himself. He says, “I need something wobbly in here. What do I have in the wobbly department?” I thought about that, because I agree that the tension between this strict visual and the unavoidable error of the hand, and forcing them to live together, is interesting. I think I’m going to summarize that from now on as “the wobbly department.”

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