Drawing with His Eyes - Graham Fink in an Interview

March 3, 2017

Sitting in a dark room, watching a white screen on which delicate lines slowly appear, contort, and intersect until a resemblance of a face can be discerned, is the experience offered to the visitors of Graham Fink’s live-drawing exhibition in London. Art created with eyes only – could be a tagline that best describes this recent artistic practice of Graham Fink, which is provocative and border-shifting on many levels. What we understand as art, how art and technology are linked, and how we define an artist, are all questions that arise from Fink’s approach to creation. He is a dexterous artist, but for the occasion of live-drawing exhibition, his eyes sufficed. He also substituted the more concrete and palpable artistic materials for a software, and finally, his art was as much a product of his mind and eyes, as is of the technology that facilitated it.

However, this experimentation with art creation is just a fraction of what this prolific and highly awarded artist and creative mind has to offer. Experimenting further along the lines of how artists see, he opened the exhibition Stone Souls at Riflemaker Gallery in February, showcasing a series of photographs of ‘faces’ he sees and detects in details all around us. Concerned with the subconscious and creativity, Fink does not limit himself to one technique or media, but creates works spanning video, installation, photography and painting. We talked with Fink recently about his past projects, inspiration, his collaboration with programmers, British art scene, and future plans.

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Graham Fink - Eye Draw 2. Image courtesy of the artist.

Always Searching

Widewalls: To start, can you tell us more about your background? How your interest in art came about, and do you have formal education in the field?

Graham Fink: I had a very interesting childhood as my father was a butler ( still is) and I was immersed in a kind of dual life. I was acutely aware of the lifestyle of the very rich (and occasionally famous) people he worked for and our own lifestyle.

Living in the smaller part of the grand mansion or the little cottage opposite, I vividly remember that all of these big houses had oil paintings in them. Mainly portraits of the family going back many generations. I used to sit for hours looking at them and marvelling at how someone could paint in such detail and skill. Velvet coats, silk dresses and of course those magnificent ruffs. One day at school I happened to see one of these paintings in the history book we were studying. I told the teacher it was hanging up in our house. He didn’t believe me.

My dad always had an interest in painting and so did my grandfather, who used to go and watch Sir Alfred Munnings paint horses. He knew him quite well apparently. So at an early age I was encouraged to paint. Watercolours were what I enjoyed most. Sitting for hours in my grandad’s greenhouse painting cacti of all things. He had hundreds of them. I wasn’t that good at school, but always came top in my Art and Music exams. I learnt to play classical guitar and was torn as to whether I should go to music or art college when I was 16.

Eventually I chose art and did a Foundation course at Banbury. I loved it as it was the first time I had tried pottery, sculpture, film-making, animation, graphic design, photography and printmaking. There were painting and drawing classes of course, but I wanted to do everything. So again I had a hard job deciding which to specialise in for my next college. I think it was that foundation year that affected me the most and since then I have always worked in many mediums.

Widewalls: How would you describe your practice? Where would you situate it in contemporary art discourse?

GF: For me everything starts with the concept. Ideas are omnipotent. The interesting thing is finding what the best medium is to convey these ideas. It might start as a drawing, but then turn into a piece of film or a series of photographs. In my work spontaneity really matters, Sometimes I see something and there can be a burst of creative recognition. No thinking involved at this point. Just a flash of inspiration. From that moment the journey starts.

I have never been entirely happy with the status quo and I am constantly questioning myself and what is out there. So much has been done already, but there are always ways to build on what’s been done before or challenge people’s beliefs.

Widewalls: What about inspiration? Can you talk more about what/who inspires you, and where do you turn to for inspiration?

GF: When I was about 14, I built my own telescope, and looked upwards. I was obsessed with the night sky and all its mysteries. The fact that light could leave the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away and was reaching my eye at that exact same second I was looking at it, blew my mind. I saw many shapes/faces/animals in the sky and would spend hours studying them all. From this came a desire to find out where I came from, who I really am and why. I think this is reflected in some of my work. The mysterious side. Always searching.

One of the artist’s that has inspired me a lot is Frank Auerbach. I liked his work even before i went to art school. I found out later of course about his total obsession with painting. The fact he can spend years struggling with one portrait, kept scraping it off and starting again. This constant searching to find what you’re looking for is something I can easily relate to.

Visiting lots of galleries and looking at art is always inspiring, but I am lucky that I live in China now, and in Beijing especially there is an abundance of art areas with literally hundreds of galleries all built next to each other. There is a tremendous energy you get from being in these places and seeing all sorts of weird and wonderful things. Some are almost impossible to describe. There is so much to see that inspires and gives me ideas. But when i get really stuck I consult the pavement.

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Graham Fink Eye drawings. Image courtesy of the artist.

Creating with Eyes Only

Widewalls: For one of your recent projects you worked with a programmer to develop an eye-tracker software. Can you tell us more about this collaboration? How long it took? What obstacles you had to overcome?

GF: This was for the ‘Drawing with my eyes’ project. Going back to what I said earlier about finding new ways to do something, I have always wondered about drawing portraits in a new way. But at the same time trying to draw them in a purer way.

I’m fascinated with technology and knew that in the late 50’s there was a way they could track consumers’ eyes when they looked at advertisements. I wondered if it would be possible to draw portraits using a similar gizmo. I contacted a company in Sweden called Tobii who are the world leaders in eye trackers and it worked out; they actually had a base in Shanghai.

They sent me a coder and together we designed a piece of software to allow me to do what i wanted. It was very difficult because he only spoke Chinese and everything was done through a translator. There were lots of hilarious ‘lost in translation’ moments too, but after about 3 months we had something to work with. However it took me another few months to learn how to control my eyes and the line.

Widewalls: Can you explain to us how this software works?

GF: It’s actually quite simple. I have an eye tracker with two infra-red lights in it that reflect into my eyes. The reflections are recorded by a camera through multi-algorithms and filters that allow my eye movement to be translated onto the screen. I can manually alter the thickness of the line and even change colour. I always have an assistant that presses the Stop and Start key, because I never actually touch the work physically. It is then stamped with my signature.

Live-drawing with Eyes

Dreams Come First for Graham Fink

Widewalls: You make portraits without using your hands. With only depending on your eyes, how difficult it is to focus on creation, and how much self-control it requires?

GF: When I first started it was incredibly difficult, but over time I got better. The concentration is very intense and you simply cannot switch off for even a nano second as the line will fly right across the screen. What I tend to do is some meditation before I draw and try to settle the mind.

Widewalls: From a short video in which we were able to see you working with the software, it seems that you create these portraits from your imagination. Do you have particular persons in mind when you start them, or do you let the dynamic of lines you created bring about some imaginary faces?

GF: In fact I just draw a line and wait until I can see the beginnings of a face. I then work on that bringing out some of the details. In a way it’s very similar to my work with Pareidolia.

Seeing faces in walls, flaking paint or mud splattered cars. However, about a year ago I found a new way to do the eye drawings, and I can now look directly at a person or an event and draw it.

Widewalls: Where do you see the present uses of technology in art can lead us into? How technology influences art and vice versa?

GF: It’s an exciting area and I believe we are on the threshold of technology challenging the conventional wisdom of what art is. It’s already starting to happen. The further we go the faster changes will happen, to the point that in around 25 years’ time we will be developing what has in the past taken hundreds of years, in hours, then minutes then seconds. The futurist Ray Kurzweil calls this the Law of Accelerating Returns. Who can possibly predict what art may look like then and what ‘rules’ we will have to judge it by. In fact it may not even be human’s having a say in what is or is not good art.

As for art influencing tech, well haven’t we always dreamt of a huge metropolis where robots rule and giant machines control everything? I often draw my dreams and Shanghai ( where I now live ) looks like the city of the future you drew as a kid, then somebody took the drawing away and built it. Dreams come first, technology second.

Graham Fink - Old Face, detail. Image courtesy of the artist.
Graham Fink - Old Face, detail. Image courtesy of the artist.

All Experience is Transitory yet Connected

Widewalls: Your most resent exhibition is Stone Souls at Riflemaker Gallery. You exhibit a series of photographs that explore the way an artist ‘sees’. Can you tell us more about it? What can visitors see at the exhibition?

GF: Since I was a child I have always seen faces in things. The moon is an obvious one and embers of a fire, but as my eye tuned in over the years, I see them everywhere. They are like ghosts that follow me around. I started to photograph them around 10 years ago in a way to exorcise them, but in fact, it did the opposite. It breathed new life into them. I have thousands of these faces and I print them onto slabs of white Thassos marble. This was because I wanted some kind of juxtaposition with that which was thrown away, left behind or formed as a result of abuse, onto something which was of great value. There is also a link to classical sculpture which makes the images feel iconic and mature.

These faces are often very small and one thing that always amuses me is that passers-by see a guy taking a photograph of a tiny piece of a wall, maybe quite low down. After I move on they often go up to it and try to see what it is I was shooting.

I like that as it’s making people aware. When the work is hanging in the gallery, it’s fun to watch people pointing to parts of the image and finding other things in there.

Widewalls: From the utilization of an eye-tracker software to the Stone Souls exhibition, it seems that you have been preoccupied with creation that escapes any form of mediation. Can you share with us theoretical or conceptual ideas that influence and guide your work in this regard?

GF: The theme of connectedness seems to re-occur many times in my work. With the eye drawings, I initially started a drawing and observed what happened. Trying to let the eye move of its own accord without the mind’s influence. But when the mind starts to detect a face, conscious decisions come into play. Yet all the time I try to remain an impartial observer to the whole process and not mediate. Just simply watching the eye and mind working together.

With the pareidolian images on marble, these images are saying everything is connected, one form can instantly connect the brain to another form that is not there but is there at the same time.A past image is created by a present one where both or neither are only real in my mind. So these images say all experience is transitory yet connected. And the marble base, pure white without blemish, represents something permanent beneath the changing transitory surfaces of things.

Left Graham Fink - Red Cardinal. Right Graham Fink - Pink Mao. Images via grahamfink.com
Left: Red Cardinal. / Right: Pink Mao. Images via grahamfink.com

On Art Education, British Scene and Future Plans

Widewalls: You launched an art school in 2005. It is described as ‘Britain’s most radical art school’. What is the program of the school, and how is it organized?

GF: This was an idea I had to help nurture people’s creativity. Every month for about 3 years I would let people know that I would be in some particular place for an afternoon and if they were interested they could just turn up. It was completely free. I would talk mainly about ideas and try to inspire people by getting them to believe in themselves and what they could offer. We discussed art, design, film-making, advertising, design, and many other things.

I would bring in guest speakers to talk of their own experiences. I once got Gary Oldman to come and talk about his time working with Francis Ford Coppola. It was amazing. I made the program up each month. Something Ofsted would have a heart attack about. But many of these (mainly students) said they learnt more in an afternoon there than at a whole year in college.

Widewalls: What is your opinion on the contemporary British art scene?

GF: Britain has always produced interesting artists, and whenever I return from China to London I love catching up with all the shows that are on. But being out of the country most of the year gives me a different perspective to when I lived there. I find a lot of it the same-old, same-old, not only in art but in what people are talking about. That was until Brexit. Which resulted in a change of government. And then Trump came along of course.

I’ve been thinking for a long time that the world needs a change. Now maybe this isn’t the change most people hoped for, but as a result of what is happening, suddenly the papers are full of interesting stories again.

Many people in comfortable positions are being challenged. New creative energies are coming into play. For me Brexit is a little bit like Punk Rock. The status quo was challenged. People were thrown into disarray and made to feel uncomfortable. The BBC was banning records they didn’t like and hope that it would all go away, but it had the opposite effect. So although the next few years may be full of uncertainty, I think we will be seeing new ideas in art and a rise of a lot of up and coming artists.

Widewalls: Following the Stone Souls exhibition, what are your plans for the rest of 2017?

GF: I am already working on a new direction with the Pareidolia series. Taking it into much bigger sizes and capturing it in a different way. The Eye drawings have taken a new turn with me drawing events over long periods of time and some landscapes too. And I’m playing around with some technology that reads my mind. But that’s going to take a bit longer than i originally thought.

Left Graham Fink - Avedon Lady. Right Graham Fink - Green Rembrandt. Images courtesy of the artist.
Left: Avedon Lady. / Right: Green Rembrandt. Images courtesy of the artist.

Left Graham Fink - Bacon Face. Right Graham Fink - Golden Head. Images courtesy of the artist.
Left: Bacon Face. / Right: Golden Head. Images courtesy of the artist.

Left Graham Fink - Cuban Gangster. Right Graham Fink - Spiderman. Images courtesy of the artist.
Left: Cuban Gangster. /Right: Spiderman. Images courtesy of the artist.

Left Graham Fink - Osama Bin Laden. Right Graham Fink - Giacometti. Images courtesy of the artist.
Left: Osama Bin Laden. / Right: Giacometti. Images courtesy of the artist.

Featured image: Graham Fink drawing; Marble 2; Left: Tape Man. /Right: The Scream; Left: Tree Alien. / Right: Yellow Monk. Images courtesy of the artist. All images used for illustrative purposes only.