Ad Mag

AD Mag Interview: Chris Ashley

In Uncategorized on January 30, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Chester, 20090123, HTML, 450 x 450 pixels

Chris Ashley: Chester, 20090123, HTML, 450 x 450 pixels

Look, See


Recently, Chris Ashley and I had a chance to chat; a dialog that turned out to be quite engaging.  But first, before we launch into that conversation, AD Mag presents a mini-gallery of Chris’ images, which have been “hung” in a similar curatorial style that he uses when exhibiting his own work.  That presentation style being that his work is often shown in a rather methodical, sequenced way.  In this instance — here — the work(s) below represent the 12-month calender cycle for last year — 2008; each piece representing a different month.


cashley-200812051 cashley-200811051

cashley-200810191 cashley-200809161

cashley-200808291 cashley-200807011

cashley-200806081 cashley-200805121

cashley-200804281 cashley-200803181

cashley-200802151 cashley-200801021


AD Mag Interview:  Chris Ashley

by Max Eternity


Everyday, for the last several years, Chris Ashley has created a new piece of digital artwork. And unlike almost all other artist working in the digital media realm, where some sort of patented software is used as a virtual pallet, Chris Ashley is quite different. He paints with HTML code; a process that is better known for creating text &not artwork. Primarily, this being because of the inherent HTML markup limitations.

What follows below is an online interview that took place in January 2009.


Max: I’d like to start by getting some background information. How long have you been an artist?

Chris: Typical story: drew all the time as a kid; was praised in school for talent and interest; in high school I gravitated towards art classes; a few key people encouraged me. Starting college I thought I’d go in the direction of journalism, but that only lasted one quarter. I started painting in high school, have always drawn, have always looked at art, have always had what I think of as an artist’s attitude and outlook. There have been periods of my life when production increased and decreased, or when my participation as an artist in an art world, or the art world, or an arts community, has risen or fallen. My core identity as an artist, I now know looking back, has been with me since I first recognized the pleasure that stacking blocks, organizing objects, pencil on paper, color, light and seeing can bring.

You and I are going to talk here about my HTML work, but I also make paintings and drawings. Although they initially look different there is a single sensibility at work. Work in various media all carry the same weight for me, and are part of my larger body of work.

Max: How do you define art?

Chris: There are a lot of people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than me who have worked this topic over quite a bit and I don’t think I’ve ever read a good definition, so there’s a part of me that wants to ditch this question. And I think this topic requires a much longer conversation than we can go into here; the same way that the back-and-forth of a conversation might help exploration of the subject may be similar to how one engages with an artwork, so I’m not that interested in, or even qualified to, lay down some definition. But I think the “art” in an art work has to do with a physical, emotional, cognitive, intellectual, and sometimes social response via a visual and physical engagement with an object and its materials. There must be a conceptual basis that provides a foundation, context, or framework for how to understand the object’s imagery, tactile qualities, scale and size, and the way it’s displayed. This conceptual basis must be evidenced in the artwork and sought and recognized by the viewer. I think the art object should show an awareness of history, and I think the art must be found with a minimum of explanation, though the art may demand that the viewer come to the work informed. An informed viewer is a responsible member of the art community; it is not the art object’s responsibility to be accessible to the viewer, though it does have the responsibility of not being inaccessible. I don’t think art is literature, sociology, psychology, politics, journalism, cultural critique, advocacy, or research; though art may employ any of these fields. Art is not simply an idea, a process, a relationship, an interaction, or documentation. Without being powerfully visual I don’t think anything that is called an art work qualifies as the kind of art we’re talking about: fine art, visual art. The word beauty and taste should come in here somewhere, but I’ve found discussions like that to be quagmires. So, not much help from me. What is art? Classic answer: I know it when I see it, I guess. I’m not being much help here. Maybe I don’t know how to talk about it.

Max: Philosophically and/or metaphysically speaking, what role do you think art plays for individuals/communities?

Chris: Again, another big question. The role of art changes over time. Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel was not necessarily made for me, someone living in the twenty first century, though I can try to put myself in the shoes of a fourteenth century Paduan and imagine the power of the images and the artist may have intended to convey, but that’s not quite good enough. Fortunately, Giotto’s art is able to function for me as images with which to engage in the discovery, recognition, and appreciation for more human qualities—fear, love, longing, hope, desire, pride, sorrow, joy, regret, relief, peace—than they are about getting into Heaven or keeping me from going to Hell. I would say that I am much more interested in art’s place in individual lives first, and then in how the art is a point around which individuals form communities by sharing understanding, behavior, rules, expectations, but also how art is about or provokes the opposite of those qualities: misunderstanding, misbehavior, breaking rules, failed expectations. That last part is actually a lot more interesting-rupture, confusion, questioning- than the former, though neither could live without the other.

Max: Do you see a difference between “graphic art and “fine art:”?

Chris: I see a lot of what I think is graphic art being too easily accepted as fine art. I’m not sure what more I want to say here without sounding judgmental or unkind. This rubs up against the question about defining art. I do think that the easy accessibility of cameras and helpful software is making for a lot of “graphic art” art, both good and bad, but I don’t see much more better or good fine art coming out of these tools some, but not much. The art is not in the tools or the medium. There are a lot of bad paintings that don’t have much art in them, either.

Max: Traditionally technology and art have had clear lines of delineation, however with the emergence and proliferation of digital technologies, that line seems considerably more blurred? Agreed?

Chris: Actually, I think art has always employed much of the technology of its time, so I’m not sure I would agree that there has been a clear delineation. For example, the steam engine: although as far as I know no artist has used actual steam engines to make art (not considering Jeff Koons’ recent proposal)—so there is that kind of delineation— when the steam engine was new it was a subject or character in many art works. Perhaps more importantly, the steam engine played an important role in Impressionism by making possible artists’ travel to places previously more difficult or time-consuming to get to. Trains took the French plein air painters out where they could paint on-site; that was something new, and one could make similar arguments about automobile or air traffic. The presence of technology may not always be overt in the art. The influence of photography and television on painting is by now pretty self-evident, and it’s quite likely that future historians will see even more subtle ways that the Internet, especially the web, has and will have on contemporary life, including approaches to art.

Digital technology of the last fifty years has been less visible in fine art as a tool, yes, and it is becoming more used, but I’m not sure this could be called blurring some line between the fine arts and, say, engineering and coding. Carl Andre was not a Bricklayer-Artist, if you know what I mean. In my attempt above at avoiding defining art I talked about the artist’s choices and concepts and the importance of the visual; I think that’s where the art will be found. Applying the word “art” to other fields, or broadening the definition of art to include other fields is very problematic. I don’t want blurred boundaries; I want delineations. I want architecture over here, and engineering over there, and I want art to stand alone. If one of these fields needs the other for a particular project that’s fine, but to want to be an engineer-artist, or even a digital artist, seems to me to not be clear about what art can do. You can’t have it both ways. If you want to be a hyphenated artist—say, a Software Developer-Artist—then you’re not an artist, and probably a crummy software developer, too. I’m going to draw that line; lots of people will argue about that one, but I’m not buying it.

Max: What do you think about the TADAE creative subset?

Chris: I didn’t know what this is, so I searched for the term, and it turns out it’s your idea: Traditional And Digital Artist Engineer. I think I understand what you’re trying to define, and you’ve certainly put a lot effort into defining it, but this isn’t something that I feel I can discuss or add much to, and as my previous answer shows, I’m not that interested in the subject.

Max: And about HTML, I think I have a clear understanding of how it’s done – how you draw this way. But for those who are unfamiliar with digital language (as it were) could you help that crowd, by providing a simple explanation of your protocol?

Chris: I use HTML tables. The set of tags used to make the tables is pretty simple, and anyone could learn it in a few minutes. Tables are now a practically deprecated set of tags; they’re not used much anymore. Tables consist of rows and columns, making cells. Each cell can be colored with hexadecimal code. To put it simply, I’m coloring cells in a grid. I make the tables do things they were never intended to do. The tables remain as code, and when they are delivered over the web to and rendered by a browser an image is displayed. But it’s not an image; you can’t right-click and save as a JPEG. There’s no image there; underneath it’s all text. They don’t print. They’re lightweight and portable and can be seen by anyone anywhere on the web. I could hand code these, but they get very dense and hard to manage, so I use a very old copy of Dreamweaver, one without all the features, to make these.

I call these drawings, not paintings. Drawing is a much more flexible term: tape on wall, stick in sand, finger on steamed mirror. Paintings, for me, require paint and physical presence. The HTML drawings are grid-bound– the grid is inherent in the medium. I spend a lot of time working against that grid, burying it, putting tension and interest into the image so the first thing you don’t say when you see it is, “Grid.” I don’t want the images to be labeled “hard-edged” and “geometric” other than as latent descriptive terms.

The drawings are shown one each day on a blog, everyday, where they accumulate chronologically. Work is grouped in monthly themes, motifs, or palettes. The blog is the primary context for this work. Additional meaning, which I think a lot of people miss, is in this day-to-day performance of posting an image on the web. About three years ago two Serbian artists who work under the name Manik wrote a fairly long essay about my work which clearly pointed out the performance aspect of posting work daily.

In addition I sometimes will focus in a series on using JPEGs found on the web as backgrounds for the table, and I “draw” on top of this. My goal with this is a kind of intervention meant to formally enhance the image and, sometimes, deepen its given meaning, as well as creating another layer of meaning on top of that image. In one month’s series I used timed and sequence animated GIFs I made in order to introduce movement; some of these were successful, but I’ve never repeated it. While the images I make appear “abstract,” there’s actually a fair amount of real-world reference in the images in terms of form, space, color, and a sense of gravity in the composition. Like many artists I like walking the line between abstraction and representation, and occasionally I’ve crossed that line a bit towards overt figuration, sometimes quite explicitly, and then I feel free to go pretty far right back across that line to abstraction.

In order to show them on a wall, in the gallery context, I produce the images as inkjet prints and show them in groups, typically arranged as the shape of the month on a calendar, the same month during which they were made. Three times I have shown an entire year’s worth of drawings, all three hundred and sixty five; these are titled, surprisingly, “365.” I only print them on 11 x 8.5 paper, and I often show them simply, unframed and pinned to the wall. It’s important to me that the object carrying these images and how it is shown is as basic, inexpensive, humble, and dumb as the code that originally made them.

Max: As well, if I understand correctly, you create a new HTML drawing/painting everyday? Is there a back-story that you’d like to share about how that came about?

Chris: I started exploring blogs in 2000 as a possible writing and collaborative tool for educational technology for K-12 teachers and students, a field in which I worked at the time at a university. I realized early on that the practice of writing and attracting and maintaining an audience requires regular, reliable, fresh content, so I developed the habit of regular posting. Because I’m an artist, at some point early on I wanted to bring art into the blog. Although I know these tools well, I did not want to get into Photoshop and FTP and all that; I had no interest in making JPEG drawings or whatever, and I can see how easily making images with sophisticated tools can get out of hand. I mean, how big of a box of crayons do you really need to make something meaningful? I find Photoshop to be kind of a trap; it does all of these cool things, and before you know it, it looks just like someone else’s fooling around in Photoshop.

It occurred to me that tables could be used for more than placement or layout, which was actually their original purpose. I started occasionally making very minimal images as a lark—two squares side by side or one inside the other; a ladder; a simple face. After a few months the art took over the blog from the educational content, and slowly the images became more complicated. Within a year I realized that this could become a viable medium, but at the same time it was so dumb and basic it was almost embarrassing. Here I was putting this out in public everyday; as one friend put it, I was, “playing with colored blocks.” Every once in awhile I’d think, “OK, that’s it, you’ve gone as far as you can with this,” but I’d find one more twist: an effect; a way to mix color; a way to tweak the grid. I made the first drawing in summer of 2000, and now here it is 2009; that’s a lot of drawing everyday. A handful of people who saw them on the web early on recognized and valued what I was doing, saw that the images were good and that the overall enterprise went deeper than that; I’m grateful to those few people for their early understanding and encouragement. Invitations a few years ago to show these images forced me to think about how to move them out of the blog and into actual space in a way that I felt maintained the integrity of the overall project, and at the same time figure out how to make them saleable objects. I’ve really appreciated those opportunities.

The HTML puts a lot of constraints on what I can do: no diagonals; limited color; crisp edges; browser-scaled sizes, etc. However, I have found these constraints to be both enormously freeing and good things to constantly bump up against. It forced me to make something out of a really small box of crayons. Some time back in the 70’s I read a critic (I think it was Peter Plagens, but I’ve never been able to confirm this) say something like, you know, the really good artists can make something great with a #2 pencil and an 8.5 x 11 sheet of typing paper. The idea was you don’t need expensive materials and a twelve foot square canvas to make something serious and meaningful. That idea has been pretty important to me ever since.

Max: In your mind, your opinion – has digital art reached a point where one might attempt to call it mainstream?

Chris: Well, art itself isn’t even mainstream in society, really. You know, you see it all the time- I know this sounds arrogant or exclusionary, but only a small minority of people really know how to look, and from that feel and think. If you mean the art world mainstream, sure, the art world is typically open and big enough to consider a lot of different things as capable of being art.

Max: Any ideas about the future of art – digital art?

Chris: I’m just an artist. I don’t make digital art, and I don’t really think about digital art, per se. There are artists whose use of various technologies is very interesting, very personal, and perhaps even quirky. I’ll just name a few people who I think made good art; most of these are all people with whom I’m slightly acquainted, probably because our work tends towards the more handmade or low-tech, an inclination I would guess probably has to do with more than a little skepticism about technology and its tendency to dominate: Tom Moody, Joe McKay, Marisa Olson, Cory Arcangel. I think Sally McKay and Lorna Mills are routinely doing very interesting things on their shared blog. That’s a small selection off the top of my head, and I’m leaving a lot of names out here. All of these artists make art, not digital art. I don’t mean to sound contrary, but to put it very simply I don’t think there is a future in digital art, but rather in art that is made in various ways.

Max: It is my observation that a certain stigma exists when it comes to the semantics of applying/affixing the word digital, and by proxy thus implying whatever cognition one has of that word, to the word art. With the subjectivity of one’s experience being kept in mind, would you care to share any thoughts you might have on this seemingly cursed (if you will) issue; if in fact you even consider it an issue at all?

Chris: The stigma for me about the term “digital artist” is the possibility of being typecast via a label which then allows someone to think they understand me and my art without fully engaging with it. You can flip through any art history book and find a lot of labels, and when you read the literature you often find that the artists to whom those labels are attached vigorously, even violently, eschewed the label. I can’t recall any Abstract Expressionist who claimed that label. Pop Art, Minimalism—those are slippery labels. They’re historic terms, really, applied to a period and an outlook and way of working, but these labels leave a lot of other things from that period out of the picture, and don’t fully take into account what came before and after. Some artists called themselves a painter or a sculptor, but not painter-artist or sculptor-artist. I find that even just telling someone that I’m a painter usually sets in motion a whole bunch of inaccurate assumptions. It could also be that in the marketplace there’s some kind of hierarchy, with painting at the top followed by sculpture, drawing, installation, or whatever. Prints and digital art are kind of low on that list. Perhaps simply using the term “art” is a way of leveling the playing field. I think one general bias about what is being referred to as “digital art” is that somehow software makes the work for the artist, that there is some automation or process that the artist engages by simply pushing a button. Another bias is that digital art isn’t really original; I mean original in the sense of one of a kind or limited edition; potentially, a digital image is infinitely reproducible. That’s a problem in the marketplace. But mostly I think that the “digital” art I like works against the technology, even attempts to corrupt it or make it do something it’s not supposed to do, all in service to the artist’s concept, subject, and meaning, and while remaining open to the viewer’s experience and associations.

Max: We come to the end of the interview. So Chris, on behalf of the readers of AD Mag, I want to thank you for taking the time to share your art and intellect, in what has turned out to be an engaging and enlightening discussion.

– Visit Chris Ashley’s Website –

As well, please be sure to check out more of Chris’s work in the AD Mag Artist Galleries.  And in closing,we leave you with a few views of Chris’ work, as presented  — digital prints on paper —  in 2007 – 08.


Chris Ashley: installation view: WYSIWYG, Chambers Gallery, Portland, June-July 2007


Chris Ashley: Jukebox, 2007, 2007, 31 inkjet prints, 11 x 8.5 in each, 55 x 59.5 installed, Marcia Wood Gallery, Atlanta, June 7 – August 25, 2007


Chris Ashley: 365 (2007), 2008, 365 inkjet prints, 11 x 8.5 inches each, 132 x 263.5 inches installed, David Cunningham Projects, San Francisco, August 7 – September 13 2008


Chris Ashley: Himmel und Masse, 2007, 31 inkjet prints, 11 x 8.5 in each, 55 x 59.5 installed, Root Division, San Francisco, September 7 – 29, 2007


– Max Eternity, 2009

  1. […] was recently interviewed for the new online publication Art Digital Magazine. Max: I’d like to start by getting some background information. How long have you been an […]

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