An Old Dog Can Learn New Tricks: An Interview With Antony Cecil-Wright:
Antony Cecil-Wright is a photographer and digital media artist located in Hampshire, England. In the 1990’s he would study at the Winchester School of Art, taking an MA in Contemporary Art & Theory. Over the years his practice has evolved from abstract painting with acrylics on perspex to manipulating digital photographs. Antony’s influences for his artwork range from his Childhood, The Collective Unconscious, LSD, Labyrinths, Buddhism, and Waves & Particles.
From 21st of January-29th February he would exhibit a wide range of his current work at the Turner Sims Gallery, Southampton.
Would you mind introducing yourself to our viewers? Who are you? What have you been up to these past 30 years?
I have never had a clear career path. Rather fallen into a wide variety of jobs as opportunities and circumstances dictated. While these have provided a living and diverse experiences, art has been something of a refuge. I’m a firm believer in life-long learning. Nothing stays the same. ‘impermanence is the footprint of the absolute in the relative’ according to Madhyamaka philosophy. Feeling stuck is a useless state to languish in. I’ve been lucky I guess.
You studied at the Winchester School of Art and then later took an MA in Contemporary Art & Theory in the 1990’s. How did these experiences affect your art practice?
I was exposed to and influenced by a wide range of post modern philosophy and social theory. Deconstruction and feminism in particular, provoked many questions. In terms of art practice, I became interested in the representation of art as an experimental process.
Your practice has evolved over time. Originally you were working with acrylics on Perspex to create abstract paintings, while today the majority of your current work is focused on the manipulation of digital photographs. As Turner Sims, Southampton Art Gallery has stated: ‘The Camera is his sketch pad and the laptop is his studio’. What made you shift into these new mediums and what are they able to achieve that classical abstract methods cannot?
Lack of space and practicality was a factor. It was a lot more convenient to produce art digitally. I admire the skill of artists working in more classical methods but have not ventured into those areas much myself. I am also interested in art as driven by technology. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, was an influence. There is a sense that art, confined to the unique physical object, as the exclusive to museums or wealthy investors, can be liberated. Robert Smithson’s land art comes to mind.
Could you explain your artistic process to us? How do you go about making your works from the photograph, to computer, to print?
I am less interested in discrete objects than their interconnected relationships. Initially I am looking for, or maybe just see, an instance that is apparently random and/or transient. This becomes the photographic composition. I don’t see a clear distinction between realism and abstraction. It’s more a matter of filtering perception, or perception as a process of applying filters. In life this is mostly unconscious. In art it is a conscious choice.
Having transferred the digital image from camera to laptop, the work begins. I’ve been fascinated by fractal geometry for a long time and have downloaded a number of programs for generating images. I’ve got several hundred images on file.
For layering and filtering, mostly I use the General Image Manipulation (GIMP) The finished product is anywhere from 10 to 40MB.
I’m not too keen on frames for prints. They can seem bit as though the art is imprisoned. Forex, being lightweight and self supporting, doesn’t require a frame. The Print Centre at the University of Southampton do an excellent job. Images are usually of A1 or A2 size depending on the hanging space.
You have stated that some of the influences for your artwork have included your ‘Childhood’, ‘The Collective Unconscious’, ‘LSD’, ‘Labyrinths’, ‘Buddhism’, and ‘Waves & Particles’. These different factors are all seemingly connected by a single overarching motif – the mind and how we perceive the world around us. Do you think you could explain your interest in these different aspects and how you attempt to include them within your work?
This question goes to the heart of the matter. As a very small child I was given a Kaleidopscope and was fascinated by the changing, swirling patterns. I was about seven I think, when I realized that the future would be a veil drawn over the present. Of course, this was an insight that I would have been unable to articulate at the time. The incipient ‘I’, becoming the demon ego of later years: a ruthless driver. ‘You’ must acquire and consolidate an identity, with the fictional certainty of selfhood.
The overarching theme is of diverse attempts to represent/uncover the filters that govern ‘my’ perceptions. This body, this personal story and this culture are all filters. There can be creativity in whatever one does, whenever the autopilot is not overriding consciousness. Once upon a time, sitting in a cinema and watching a movie: delighting in the characters portrayal, the visual constructions, the unfolding plot, the anticipation of resolution, while not forgetting the silent critic. But where would any of this be without the light from the projector? This contemporary (pre Covid) analogy came from a Tibetan Buddhist master.
Your use of colour is one of the first things that stands out upon inspecting your work – bright blues, oranges, pinks, and greens immediately catch the viewers attention. Aside, from the standout nature of this palette, is there a particular reason you have decided to work with such an extreme range of colours within your work?
This is a matter of emphasis. The process is largely intuitive, posing the visual question: in what sense is this real? Extreme, contrasting colours can play a part in transforming the mundane but it’s not always a primary concern.
Patterns, Geometry, and other forms of imagery found in nature are often incorporated within your artwork. This is interesting, particularly when one considers the artificial methods by which you create these works. Do you think that photography and the computer have allowed us to understand and portray the world around us more accurately than ever before, especially within the confines of art?
I am often inspired by observing in nature, the principle of fractal ‘self similarity’, a term that was coined in the nineteen sixties by Benoit Mandelbrot. I’m no mathematician but what this means, in simple terms, is that at any magnification there is a smaller piece of the object that is similar to the whole. Check out a fern or a romanesco broccoli, next time you see one in the supermarket.
Equally, quantum physics has demonstrated that matter is not just the solid stuff available to our senses. David Bohm stated that: ‘all matter is a condensation of light into patterns…’ Digital technology enables an aesthetic investigation of these ideas. That’s what I’m aiming for. There are parallels in the Buddhist philosophy that I’ve studied too.
You’ve featured within several art galleries local to yourself (including Turner Sims), would you mind discussing some of these and your experiences with exhibiting your work? Have you got any exhibitions planned within the next 6-12 months?
Even before the lockdown and the current, ever changing, restrictions; exhibitions spaces had waiting lists of around two years. The Phorum photographic group that I joined had an exhibition in Southampton City gallery opening at the end of March through to early June this year. That has been put back to January next year. It’s a very challenging time, as we all know. Generally, I’ve found it best to visit galleries and talk to the person responsible. They’ll need to see some of your work of course and get some background. This is as much about social confidence, which can take time to develop.
While you must be computer-savvy to create these forms of artworks, we have previously discussed how you have found difficulty in promoting your work to the public with the rise of social media. While these platforms have certainly provided more artists with the tools to advertise their practice than ever before, do you feel that this experience can be overwhelming both for the creator (who may not have the skills or time to take part in these platforms) and/or the viewer (who is ultimately bombarded with artworks from a range of sources that they would otherwise not have access to)?
Yes, navigating social media is a skill that I’ve never taken the trouble to learn. Equally, the arena is super saturated from the viewer’s side.
So much social/antisocial media seem to be about ‘look at me’! Meanwhile, the owners of the platforms are purloining our data and selling to whatever, commercial or political franchise will pay for advertising. I guess it’s in part a reaction to growing up in the pre-digital era before self-branding was the (distasteful) norm. When Twitter became the haven of far-right trolls, I cancelled my account.
Shooting…foot…baby… bathwater…Yes most probably. I still have a toe in the door with Facebook though, despite Cambridge Analytica and ongoing distrust. Public discourse seems populated by unscrupulous chancers and misinformation. Democracy is looking very fragile, in a world of ‘alternative facts’ – that linguistic turd, as Jonathan Meades remarked.
That little rant aside, honest endeavour should find a platform. It’s certainly needed.
As someone with decades of artistic experience – practically, academically, and commercially – could you provide our younger audience with some advice on what you think they could do to further their artistic careers?
I cannot speak with any authority. If you train in a specific field there may be clearer career opportunities. My own experience is of art as a solitary pursuit. Of course, it’s necessary to engage with others and dialogue. Once the art object is complete, it’s no longer the artists’ responsibility. They cannot determine how it will be interpreted, accepted, or rejected. Each person’s experience is unique. Just keep going is all I can say.
If you enjoyed reading about Antony Cecil-Wright’s work you can find out more by heading to his website: Illusions.