Painter Andrew Fish attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City and worked as an art handler at various alternative and commercial art galleries in the 1990s. He's also worked at the Jim Henson Company in New York and the Governor's Institute on the Arts in Vermont, and has built and paraded puppets with the Boston Puppeteers Cooperative for two decades.
In this interview with editor Catalina Piedrahita, he talks about the visual languages of digital and analog imagery, about painting and about puppetry.
Catalina Piedrahita: It is very interesting to see how your art is inspired by some of the latest technology in digital imagery when this technology keeps trying to imitate analog techniques. How did you come to the realization that this was something you wanted to pursue? How was the process of deciding you wanted to create analog work that reflected a digital aesthetic?
Andrew Fish: My interest in art has always been rooted in painting. I love the materials, alchemy, and effects of the medium, so my natural inclination is to use painting to examine technology and digital image creation. I feel a sense of responsibility to use painting as a way to document the world I live in.
I’m not actually going for a digital aesthetic, per se, but rather a painterly aesthetic that references the characteristics of digital imagery. I’m curious about the role of painting in todays image-saturated world, and how an analog, or even antiquated, medium can respond to the universal appeal and application of digital imagery.
I started getting interested in digital imagery while working in a design studio in the mid-1990’s. I watched as it got more and more sophisticated and I was fascinated by the tools and applications that were being developed. As computers and digital cameras became smaller, better and cheaper, I marveled at the fearless creativity people applied to their use. It didn’t take long before the Internet was flooded with digital imagery and cameras became a ubiquitous accessory in everyone’s pocket. I think this is a major characteristic of the time we live in and will come to define the art of the early 21st century.
I worked in technology for several years, fixing computers and working in IT departments in schools. My involvement in technology reached its zenith when I ended up at MassArt College, working at the intersection of art and technology.
CP: Can you elaborate on your thought of digital vs. analog? Do you appreciate one more than the other?
AF: I appreciate both and really enjoy the unique visual languages they both have to offer. However, my relationship with digital imagery is mostly as a consumer whereas my involvement in analog imagery is as a creator. Other people make much better digital images than I can. That’s not to say I don’t make digital images - I take as many digital pictures as anyone else, and I even make drawings on my iPad - but I rarely see my own digital output as art. Instead, I use the static nature of a snapshot to define a paintings composition. I also use specific line work to accentuate that information. I suppose my use of the square format is homage to Instagram. It’s neither landscape nor portrait and feels very contemporary.
CP: How has digital technology changed how you perceive art and the way you approach your creative process when it comes to working on a new painting or drawing?
AF: Digital technology has opened up a world of image exploration like no other time in history. Sitting in front of your computer you can look at masterpieces from all around the world as well as discover new images created by some brilliant kid in a rural town. It’s a huge and wonderful world of images. Just yesterday I went from looking at Cellini sculptures from the 16th century to Sharknado mock-ups. Then I went to look at Derain paintings and ended up watching some cat videos. What does this do to my brain? What is this doing to ALL of our brains?
In regards to my creative process and starting a new painting, I mostly rely on my own digital images as a place to start. Lately I’ve been really interested in any picture I have of a figure and their shadow. At first I started looking for them in my photo albums but now I’m deliberately taking them when I’m out walking around. I allow these images to act as a drawing for a painting. This way, I somewhat remove my hand from the composition and focus on how the paint can best describe the image. For me, a digital picture is the beginning, not the end.
I also think that certain aspects of digital imagery are really beautiful. I love the backlit saturation of color on an LCD screen and the strange degradation of a print from a thirsty inkjet printer. Digital distortion and pixelation are still relatively new to the world's eyes and are unique to the visual language of digital media.
CP: The next question might be sort of out of topic, but I think puppetry is an art form that is rarely talked about, and I find it very interesting and relevant. So I’m going to take advantage and pick your brain a bit. Can you tell us about Boston Puppeteers Cooperative? How and why did you get involved with this project? This art form seems to be disappearing, and its extinction might have something to do with technology and the digital age. What do you think?
AF: I got involved with the Boston Puppeteers Cooperative when I met Sara Peattie at the Governor’s Institute on the Arts in VT. She was one of the original puppet builders for Bread and Puppet and branched out to create her own company. She’s a phenomenal artist and performer and has inspired a lot of people, young and old, to work with puppets. We perform what is sometimes called “Pageant Puppetry” because of its use in outdoor theater and involvement with the community. Like Bread and Puppet, there’s usually something socio-political and a bit subversive about the shows we put on. But they’re really engaging and a pure joy to watch. BPC also loves to stage reinterpretations of literary classics and finds new and totally bizarre ways to retell Shakespeare. I highly recommend getting involved with them. Even a visit to the Puppet Lending Library should be on everyone’s Boston To-Do list.
When I worked for the Jim Henson Company I really loved seeing the way people responded to the Muppets. Those puppets are mostly hand-and-rod puppets so they have to stay behind a barrier, which makes them perfect for television and video. Pageantry puppets are more theatrical. So in a way, if you think that technology is bringing us further away from theater and closer to video (online) than yes, technology is contributing to that shift. But I’m an optimist so I look at pageantry puppets, and puppeteering in general, like craft beer and Farm-to-Table restaurants; boutique and personal with higher social value. There seems to be growing interest in these kinds of things. Letterpress printing, knitted mittens, CSA’s, and many other fine quality things are gaining new and growing popularity. Maybe this is how our society is coping with the ever-expanding pervasiveness of the Information Age.
CP: Do you have any advice or suggestions for young artists living and working in this digital age? How can they get the most of both worlds – the digital and the analog-?
AF: I say make what moves you. If you’re a young artist who has always had a relationship with digital media, and you feel like this is a medium that helps you express whatever it is you want to express, than explore it fully. Find what works for you. This may take the form of rejection or embrace, contradiction or compliment. Maybe even a little of both. Whatever it is, it’s worth looking into.