Posted by: Necci – Apr 30, 2012
In an era when everyone from your 10 year old cousin to your 92 year old granddad has their own personal cellphone, the amount of time spent on those devices consumes a significant amount of time every day. The cellphone has now become a source of personal entertainment; with numerous games and apps for the devices, you can keep up with your internet social life while blasting pigs with birds and chopping fruit. Meanwhile, veteran Richmond artist Todd Hale has discovered that the iPhone and iPad can be used as a digital medium for creating art. A small canvas with an endless color palette allows Todd to create at all times of the day with the swipe of his finger. From concepts that start on an actual canvas migrating to his iPad, to other concepts progressing from the iPhone screen to a physical painting, Hale is pushing the fine line between computer-facilitated doodling and what some would consider fine art. His large and growing body of vivid imagery will change the way people look at their cellphones, as well as adding to the list of its uses that of a tool for digital creation.
Who were your early influences--people that got you started in art in the first place? Were there family members?
My grandmother was a big sewing/needlepoint/knitter, so she was always doing something with her hands. I think seeing that was pretty inspirational. Artist-wise, Francis Bacon [was] a big one. Surrealist, dada stuff. Really, movies more than art. The Wizard of Oz is a big, huge one, Willy Wonka [And The Chocolate Factory]--all that creepy, trippy stuff. My dad took me to see Star Wars, Clash of the Titans, and somewhere along the line I saw Eraserhead when I was pretty young. That made a pretty strong impression on me, just the weirdness of that. David Lynch might be my favorite artist--[he’s a] crazy painter, also. I think experience-wise, just hanging outside--which still comes out in my work, [a fascination with] natural phenomenon.
I see a lot of animal characteristics. I noticed a lot of sea creatures. Are you from North Carolina?
I live there in the summer. I go down to the beach every summer and stay May through September, that's where I'd make most of my money, as a photographer. So I've been going there for fifteen years. Underwater experiences I've had [there and elsewhere] made a strong impression on me.
I noticed you collect a lot of horseshoe crabs, a lot of different stuff out of the sea. Not only do you build collage or sculpture pieces with those, I can also see those translate to the digital work as well.
Something about a crab or insect--the aesthetic of the structure clicks for me. None of my work is really about what it is; it’s a pretty highly visual aesthetic. Sea life relates to themes I also explore with the masks and faces and how we relate to bilateral symmetry.
How does it affect your work, transitioning from the beach influence to the city life?
When I'm down at the beach I keep a lot of sketchbooks. [I do] a lot of planning for the work. I don't do a lot of production down there. I'm not as inspired. They complement each other. Something about Richmond, the city and the crazy people in the city, does it for me. The beach sort of erases my brain. Something about coming up here and [seeing] people talking to themselves [fascinates me]. I need that kind of juxtaposition, I need a lot of stuff going on outside of me that I can escape from. I like to know it's happening outside my door, but I like to know that I can shut my door and be in a bubble.
Would you say that different personalities or characteristics that you run into help mold the characters you create? If you see someone crazy on the street, do you find yourself trying to create that person?
Yeah, definitely. I've always been drawn to the grotesque or bizarre--people, things, ideas. It's not so much that I'm hung up on ugliness; grotesque doesn't have to be ugly. I think it’s more what it does to your brain, the trigger [of] seeing an unusual thing or person, chemically changes your brain in a way that feels good. I think a lot of the stuff I'm drawn to encourages a sense of novelty. Being young, on Halloween, seeing my dad and other people with masks on--I would know who they were, [but] five seconds later they'd have a mask on, and be something completely different. That really freaked the shit out of me, but I also loved that adrenaline, that transformation with just a mask. I looked forward to it. I still do. I was really into horror movies, I read Fangora Magazine all the time. That weirdness is definitely something I'm attracted to, because some way that it catalyzes [a shift] in your [consciousness and] sends you [somewhere else]. I guess you get the fight or flight [instinct].
Let's go back to the repetition and the symmetry. It's really apparent in a lot of your work. Do you find that an important part of your process? Does it symbolize anything other than repetition?
Part of what I'm trying to do--or maybe inherently doing, is trying to get myself and the viewer into some kind of trance, or altered state. What I'm trying to [summon] is that drone, to kind of get you in a [revelatory] state. It's pleasing to look at because it's a pattern. We're always looking for patterns, and trying to make patterns out of everything, and the symmetrical stuff is a part of that. It's all body related. I like introducing the idea that you are looking at a body. You try to make a face out of something that's symmetrical, because that's what you know.
I noticed that anatomy has popped up in your work. The “6001 Paces” piece, to me, looked like the nervous system. There was a top hat, some eye balls, and this nervous system going crazy. What it said to me was that it was a portrait of a nervous wreck. I guess the anatomy goes back to the human form, the symmetry?
For a while, before I got into art school, and was a painting major, I really wanted to be in medical illustration. I thought that was a good compromise [because] I was always interested in the body. It goes back to the grotesque stuff, but to me it’s beautiful. There’s something kind of [tragically gorgeous and] un-english-able about looking at a body, even a dead body. I took some drawing classes at VCU and we went down to the morgue at MCV and did some cadaver work. It was just amazing--for weeks, drawing the same guy. But medical illustration is too limiting, I'm always trying to find a way to be free-er. Art to me is the ultimate excuse to study everything and not have to pick one specific area. This week it might be checking out pictures of flowers and bodies, and next week it’s something totally different. But its allowed. That's my job as an artist.
Getting back to “6001 Paces,” I'm trying to allude to a cartoon [scenario], and marrying that with some kind of serious anatomical drawing has always been a challenge. I'm trying to figure out how to juxtapose all this heavy cartoon stuff with more naturalistic stuff. When I look at other people’s work, I'm really drawn to that, when they can pull that off. “6001 Paces,” to me, was the closest I've come. I was thinking about some kind of Hunter S. Thompson scene in the desert, maybe a breakdown--
A kind of drug induced freakout?
Yeah. Euphoric disaster.
How did the iPhone and iPad drawings start? Was that something you intended to start using as a tool to create art, or was that something you started for fun?
There was no grand scheme, and with the way I work, that’s when the good stuff happens. Hopefully, what I'm doing is like trying to fly to Paris on a plane, and getting out and it’s Hawaii. The iPhone was a way to waste time sitting in line at the post office. The more I got into it, the more I realized that it was a whole tool unto itself. I thought it would be a good way to plan for paintings, but these were just going to be unseen sketches, and they took on a life of their own. I stopped trying to make excuses for them. People still aren't really sure that it’s a legitimate thing. Because it's done on a phone. Especially a lot of older people will say, “How did you make these?” And I'll say, “I did it on my phone.” And that doesn't even make sense to them.
Well, to an older generation. I’ll bet to a new generation and to the new generations that are coming up, it’s perfectly acceptable. Every kid has a cell phone now.
It’s a big theme in the art world--trying to [compare] computer imagery to real media, like painting and drawing. I think it’s cool, because it opens a dialogue about what is a legitimate medium. I think because it's deceptively easy to do electronic stuff, it’s second-guessed a lot. I think it’s just as legitimate. It's just a tool. I try constantly not to de-legitimize it in my own mind. The iPhone and iPad stuff--I'm trying to figure out how to take these into a [traditional] painting. But why does it have to live anywhere but digitally? A lot more people are seeing it [that way]. If I send something out to Facebook that I made on an iPad, and someone sees it on an iPad, what better venue to see it?
More and more people are getting the iPhones and the iPads, it is just a great technology. It is a phone, but it’s all about what you can do with it now.
What I like about painting and two-dimensional art is that the format is consistent. I've been doing the same size [paintings] for ten years now. The content changes, but you have this consistent format. You can do all kinds of stuff [on an iPhone] but it is that same format that you can relate back to. And really, to draw with your finger is amazing. It's [taken away] that disconnectedness when you are sitting at a monitor with some kind of interface tool--which I [use] also, but to be able to just touch something with your finger and have pixels squirt out of it is far out, like science fiction. Very Tron. And its back to that centralized format. The tool is the same. I don't have to worry about brushes; picking up this, picking up that. There is no excuse to not make something. It's all right there. The unending palette is there.
Do you feel pressure? To me those are complete pieces on the iPhone and iPad, but I think a very interesting aspect of your work is that it's not stopping there, even though you could. Some people would, but you just push it further for the sake of your personal creative quest.
If I'm really doing it right in my own mind, I'm stepping up a ladder, and I'm thinking, “I can't go any higher, this is crazy.” And I [try to] jump on one more cloud to get even higher. When I step completely out of myself, that's when the good stuff comes. I'm just as much a spectator as the viewer is, when it works right. I know it's kind of cliche, but I feel like it’s a channeling thing. The images are there. I'm just excavating them, or bringing them out. That's really when it works--it should be just a step in the process. I've stopped worrying about [it]. Initially, I was like, “I've got the iPhone and iPad drawings, but how do I replicate them?” Which kills all of the joy of it--making it and seeing something new come out [is the goal]. When I’m done with it, I don't want to then spend 50 hours trying to copy it to a canvas. That, I think, would be a dead product anyways. But [the iPhone work] has definitely changed how I paint, at least the direction I'm going in now. I'm thinking of it as the same [in terms] of composition, the starting point where I've got that unlimited palette. But I'm running into the limitations of the [physical] materials. I can't just pull up the coolest purple I've ever seen, I've got to mix it. But it’s working to my benefit now.
The iPad/iPhone images themselves are powerful, but I think the paintings are more powerful.
It changes the viewing--the length, the physical distance, that you need to be with it. The iPhone size is really intimate. It's how I make it, and that might be the way it should be viewed. When I was younger I did a lot of graphic pen and ink drawing. That's what this has brought back, that kind of intimacy. You are supposed to read it like a book, in that kind of setting. To make stuff sitting down [is refreshing]--I haven't drawn or painted sitting down for a long time. I thought I had to be up, like Jackson Pollock, slinging paint. But to be in bed at two in the morning with just the light [of the screen] is a total different experience than being in the studio.
And it allows you to create at all times, which is something that's important. If you have an idea, you can go with it. You don't have to go home or get to your studio.
It really is the widest filter I've ever worked through. There aren't a lot of mediums or intermediate people in between. Also, I've taken the studio everywhere, like you said. It's not dependent on this place. Some of the best ones I’ve done were on planes.
In future works, do you continue pushing this? Or are there other things that you want to accomplish?
I am trying to keep a lot of things going in hopes that something good bubbles up. Part of my work ethic [is that] you can't really wait for that big inspiration. You just have to be working, in the hopes that when it happens, you are ready for it. Robert Henri wrote a book called The Art Spirit. He talked a lot about that--not waiting for the big moment, always working, so when it happens, you've got your tools and brushes, you are ready to roll.
I really want to get back into [working with] video. I have a lot of [ideas] that I would like to do. I started getting into making music, which is weird. I can find my way around the guitar a bit, but I don't consider myself a musician at all, so it is completely out of my comfort zone. There's no expectation, but I'm thinking about it in the same way as a collage.
I have a question about the musician Gull. He wears a mask when he performs, and I thought there was a cool similarity in your masks. I was wondering if you guys collaborated somehow.
I've had a lot of bands up here for First Fridays, and he played up here once. It was probably one of the best shows I've ever seen here, or in general. I really like what he does. He's one of the reasons that I'm proud to be from Richmond. People like him, this huge long history of other people. But I think it's a uniquely Richmond outlook he's got going. Super positive, but scary, which I also appreciate. He's a shaman. It’s definitely one of my interests, that kind of medicine man character. I think in a way that's what I try and do--go out there and report back. But yeah, I would love to do some kind of collaboration [with Gull]. I'd love to see where he goes. I think it could get a lot crazier, and I'm sure it will.
Is there anything else you would like to tell the people?
Yeah, I think there's a good thing going on in Richmond. A lot of older people who have been in the Richmond scene for a long time say that also--that something is brewing. Something different. There's a lot to see and do that's really unique and not generic. In Richmond there is a lot of real authentic stuff going on.
By Bryan Woodland