Cameron Gray: Pieces of art in Aspen
July 23, 2009
ASPEN – The pieces in Cameron Gray’s new series, White Lies for Dark Times, are an impressive feat of painting. The large pieces that are the centerpiece of the series are huge works, collages that are made up of many hundreds of tiny paintings. The works – which, when viewed from a proper distance, reveal discernible images of Christ, a forest, and a drunken Cameron Gray – also seem to reflect a serious devotion to the art of painting. In this era of digital reproduction, the work could well have been made far easier with a few computer keystrokes; in fact, the series includes several smaller pieces made in this fashion.
As it turns out, Gray isn’t much of a painter, nor is he particularly fascinated with the ability to paint. “For whatever reason, people respect the painter’s hand,” said the 35-year-old Gray, who is in town for Friday’s opening of his exhibition at Galerie Maximillian in Aspen (a reception starts at 6 p.m.). “I have less attachment to that.”
Gray has a closer connection to a different breed of art, one that he traces through Warhol, Damien Hirst and Jeffrey Koons. Gray is interested in being “the progenitor of the idea,” and then constructing a system whereby others can carry out the hands-on tasks that bring the idea to completion. But where Warhol worked in the pre-digital age, in a New York studio known as the Factory, Gray has taken the concept, which he sometimes refers to as “the machine,” to the digital age.
Gray says that his moment of artistic creation is not the painting (which he doesn’t do) nor the final assembling of the pieces. Rather, it is in assembling the machine, a global network of painters, web designers and assistants who participate in a bottom-up chain of artistic tasks.
“My mind always thinks in terms of process,” said Gray, a 35-year-old Los Angeles resident whose father, Paul, lives in Aspen. “The fact that it’s a mosaic, that it’s a painting, isn’t the interesting part. The creative act really was the invention of the process. Since then, it’s been being inside of this machine I’ve’ created, and keeping it moving along.”
It is a construction that might have floored even the master of artistic delegation, Warhol. The machine’s parts include Indian “web-bots,” computer-savvy designers who can find, say, the 4,000 images of cupcakes or lollipops or nudes that Gray wants for an image; and Chinese artists in the village of Dafen, who work in painting factories that specialize in reproducing images on a massive scale. There are also painters in Oregon, Virginia and New York – friends of Gray’s, or people who he found through Craigslist.
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The process begins with a computerized image; Gray’s choices include the most recognizable icons (the Mona Lisa, the American flag) and quirkier ones (the writer and filmmaker Miranda July, Gray himself, in a drunken state). He then chooses a theme for the smaller images that will make up the big picture, and there is usually a big splash of irony here. Gray’s portrait is made up of Old Masters paintings; Mona Lisa of softcore nudes and hardcore porn; a forest, of traffic, smog and violence. The web-bots find several thousand images; Gray picks those who deems appropriate and runs them through a software program that makes mosaics. Usually, he will run the program 12 to 15 times, with variations in the setting, to get a final image that suits his aesthetic sense.
That digital mosaic is then cut into smaller digital parts, to be painted at locations around the world. The paintings are shipped back to Gray in Los Angeles, and assembled into the final product.
“The idea is it would be like a human dot matrix printer. Everyone would focus on one small bit, not on the bigger picture,” said Gray, who likes to see himself as just another cog in that wheel. “I’m not the overlord brain. I like to be a part of it. I thought that was vital to the whole machine aspect.”
Probably not surprisingly, Gray came out of Hollywood. A California native, he had his first career as a claymation animator, who eventually opened his own studio. He then moved into computer-generated design on big-budget films as “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and “No Country For Old Men.” But he tired of the dialogue that dominates CG animation – “‘Does it look real?’ Who does it have to look real?” he asks – and wanted to do something where he was creating the vision, not working in service to someone else’s.
“I’m basically directing, still,” he said of his montage art. “Thank god for Hirst and Koons and Warhol, who legitimized the idea that you could eliminate the question of authorship. As long as you’re the progenitor of the idea, it’s your idea.”
Gray chalks up his method of making art to laziness: “I like the idea of sitting on a beach while my art’s being made,” he said. But he adds that there is also a drive behind his artistic vision. For instance, he wants to push beyond the idea of his works being kitschy one-liners – like a Jesus made of images of junk food.
“I’m more the obsessive managerial kind,” said Gray. And with hand-painting the works, instead of mechanical printing, he said, “The effect I wanted was, ‘Oh my god, how did someone paint all these paintings?'”