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Meet the artist: Chuck Elliott

We learn about Chuck Elliott’s understanding of what it is to be an artist and how his practice has evolved with the digital age…

Chuck Elliott has been working as a digital artist full-time since 1992, after graduating from the old Hornsey School of Art in London. It continues to be an interesting journey as he explores the potential for his limited edition prints, driven by his fascination with lines, solids, colour and light, to be commissioned directly to make bespoke works. These are special works that must both resonate with him in the moment of making and go on to create their own narrative once in the possession of their final owner...

Describe your art practice in five words

Relentless, ephemeral, progressive, exploratory, inquisitive  

What is your first ‘art’ memory?

I remember waiting for hour after hour in the queue at the British Museum to see the absolutely extraordinary Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972. I was five at the time, and it was completely mind-blowing, of course. Amazing sculptural objects, drama, colour, death, it had absolutely everything a great show should have…

How did you become an artist / where did you start your artistic training? 

No idea! How does anyone ‘become an artist’. I think we can all be artists at different points in our lives, if and when we choose to be. 

I guess I’ve only just recently begun to feel that I am an artist, previously I used to think of myself as a maker, or someone who creates artwork, which is an equally interesting proposition of course, but with subtly different goals. An artist is a whole way of being, more exploratory, less focused on the finished object. It involves creating your own visual language and learning to speak it, fluently, whilst building a body of work that somehow progresses that language, hopefully in new and distinct directions. 

I started my training, in a formal sense, at the City of Bath College, where I studied a two year BTEC course in technical drawing and graphic art. After a gap year,  I then followed that up with a far looser, more fascinating foundation year at Filton, here in Bristol, which was the course that really sparked my career choice to work as an artist full-time, which I’ve done ever since. Initially as a commercial artist making highly technical images for a diverse set of clients from studios in and around Soho, and since 2005 making work solely for my own interest, and to my own intention, here in Bristol.

What is the main inspiration for your work? Are there any artists in particular that influence you?

I’ve been drawn into the world of high tech digital drawing, from the very earliest moment. I saw a demo of the Quantel paintbox in 1984 and had an opportunity to use the first Apple Macintosh imported to the UK that same year. These tools struck me as being the future, and I continue to love the way one can manipulate visual material using the tools they offer. 

I tend to think the arc of the work I’m making has at least as much in common with contemporary music as it does with contemporary art practice, and I remain surprised at how few people are using digital tools to create contemporary work. 

The acid house/rave/techno culture of the late eighties bought in an incredible, permissive, world of electronica, light, art, audiovisual experiences and sound experimentation, the like of which we, as a society, had never seen before. The digital tools introduced in the second summer of love in 1987 for editing, mixing and creating new experiences, alongside digital manipulation of film and photography, and all the rest of the endless cornucopia that the internet has thrown open, continues to shake the foundations of our understanding of how the world is structured, and is being restructured.

Visually and intellectually, it would be impossible not to be influenced by American art from the fifties onwards; Modernism in all its forms; postmodernism; the architecture of Calatrava and or the Foster / Rogers partnership; the glass studios of Dale Chihuly or Lino Tagliapietra; Mondrian and Sonya Delaunay; Philip Glass and Steve Reich; Chuck Close; the St Ives school; Renzo Piano and Nick Knight; Underworld and their design project Tomato; American Metalflake and custom chop shops; Fred Tomaselli…

The list could go on and on, but must surely end with Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, essential reading. Along with his Massive Change book, which explores some of the fascinating changes digital systems have wrought on the world. 

How has your work changed over the years?

The machines I’m able to afford have gotten a lot faster. Datasets can be bigger and more complex. Photographic techniques now allow for single prints many metres in length. The ability to explore more options faster, has at least in theory, led to more honed, more considered, and more sharpened studies. 

I like the idea of trying to be faster and looser. Exploring the haptic business of mark-making, as filtered through a digital system, and understanding how to subvert the systems in order to create unexpected, loosened, less constrained results. Enjoying the happenstance that the project throws up and following the path of each study, wherever it may lead, rather than working in a goal-oriented way in which the final destination is visible from the outset, a process that holds no interest for me at all. 

The direction of travel for the foreseeable future is to work with the idea of pre-preparing assets, that can then be used as components in fast-moving editing sessions, in which the spontaneity of performance is bought back into the process, to create iterations, variations, and edits of the original source materials. 

How would you like people to interpret your work? What does your work say about you?

From my own knowledge of the objects I own, over the longer term, I’m confident that the work will take on its own meaning with its owners, and hopefully produce unexpected moments over many years. 

There is a huge difference between the experience of making a series of works over years, and owning a single piece produced by an active studio from a singular moment in time. Both are enjoyable concepts, but there is a world of difference between the two states. The collector cherrypicks particular works from a particular time, that then become markers in his or her own life. Works I have by other people on the walls here continue to fascinate me, as I do think that visual art can engage consciously and subconsciously over a really long period, maybe a whole life, and becomes one of many anchors that tether you to a space, a group of people, and may even act as a rudder, directing the way you experience a space and a time in your life. 

Explain your process, from concept to finished piece

I have a huge backlog of ideas, that seems to be growing maybe ten times faster than I can actually produce each piece, so there’s a life’s work already in process, to some extent. Each study will coalesce a series of ideas, mostly taken magpie-like from something that has visually or sculpturally caught my eye, or more likely three or four things that I feel can somehow be bought together and used as a jumping off point for a new study. 

That will then lead to a number of sketches, both on paper and on system, that will lead to an often complex series of new geometries. These are built as 3d drawings, a kind of hybrid drawing/sculpture process, that will ultimately deliver a series of volumes, lines and shapes that I feel may be able to deliver an interesting new work. 

These bare bones are fleshed out with light and colour, and occasionally time and motion too, to create a series of colour and monochromatic stills, that are either locked down into a singular perspective, or may involve multiple viewpoints that will be composited into a single image. 

Lighting is worked on to achieve a high dynamic range, which can be expanded or compressed in the compositing processes, and colour tends to be added as a separate study, after the monochromatic geometry proves successful. Colour is a whole discussion all by itself of course, and exploring new colour theories, and how hues may be used to entirely change the dynamic of a particular composition is endlessly fascinating. In terms of symmetry, I tend to steer away from simple symmetrical mark making, as I’m sure that the human eye enjoys near-symmetry far more than perfect symmetry so a lot of time is spent making sure that elements in the final compositions are actually not repeated, not symmetrical. 

These are the things that really inform the building blocks of the work. I’ll often then create maybe several hundred edits of the material I’ve drawn, and recomposite these in multilayered studies that hopefully bring together all the most successful parts of each study, into one or two final compositions, that may in fact be made up from dozens, or even hundreds, of individual parts.

Please describe your typical working day…

In the summer, as now, I would loosen up physically with a couple of hours outside working in the garden, thinking about how plants can occupy a space and create form and colour through their growth, before starting in the studio at maybe 10am, coffee in hand, decaf these days, as I age I find stimulants less and less welcome in my life, and then settle into working on the latest piece. That combination of nature and the human hand is surely what we all love, chaos manipulated and in some way formalised. 

Typically I’ll work on an image for maybe 4 to 6 weeks, rarely working on more than one at a time, as I like to really get under the skin of the thing, and see if I can really push into some new thinking. Lunch is at one, maybe with a little distraction from some BBC4 arts programming, and then I tend to do a longer afternoon shift until 6pm or 7pm. 

As the week progresses so the music emanating from the studio gets louder. Friday is almost always a blast. There’s something about the way the week builds up, that allows you to really get into something as the days progress, before stopping for the weekend again.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us...

I used to ride custom Italian scooters in my teens, which may well be where my love for design, form and colour comes from, or more likely that desire to drive brightly coloured, beautifully designed machines may simply have been an early symptom of an ongoing condition. 

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