What strikes one first about artist Scott Ligon is his ability to grasp complex, creative abstractions–interpreting unwieldy data into useful, articulate information. Surely that has something to do with his role as Coordinator for the Digital Foundation Curriculum at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Ligon is also an author and filmmaker, with his first book “Digital Art Revolution” having just been published. His short film “Escape Velocity” has been shown nationally, resulting in it winning “Best Experimental Film” at the USA Film Festival, Dallas, Texas. And in an essay that Ligon penned for Art Digital Magazine last month about the new reality of technology and art, I found myself reading one of the most lucid statements I’ve heard in the last 10 years, when Ligon wrote:
“Fully realizing the enabling potential of digital technology requires fluidity of thinking. It requires the ability to consider the potential relationships between elements rather than subdivide them into increasingly arbitrary categories”
That is music to my ears.
Getting the Big Idea
An interview with Scott Ligon
by Max Eternity
Max Eternity (ME): Hi Scott, welcome to AD Mag
Scott Ligon (SL): Thank you Max. I appreciate the opportunity.
ME: There’s so much I want to talk about, because you’re doing so many exciting things, but let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up?
SL: I grew up in the Washington DC suburbs, in Fairfax VA. I’ve always considered DC my native city.
ME: And what made you decide to become an artist? Was there a decisive moment?
SL: I was always interested in creating all kinds of things, including writing, drawing, making 8mm movies and writing music. I think that’s a big appeal of digital art, that I can synthesize all these different interests. I was a big comic book fan growing up and I learned to draw from studying comic books and the later making my own. When I made those comic book drawings, starting at age 11, that was probably the first time that I considered myself an artist.
ME: You’re also a bit of an art theorist too? I ask because shortly after we met, a couple months ago, I invited you to write a guest article. You accepted, and that piece was published last months at AD Mag, speaking to the issue of whether or not Digital art is a “metaphor” or “medium.” For those who haven’t read the article yet, recap for us. And if you will, tie it in with any other intersecting ideas that you may have contemplated as well.
SL: Digital technology has no inherent characteristics. Rather than a medium as it is traditionally defined, digital technology is more like an invisible, enabling structure from which things can be created, like atoms in the physical world. As the physical and the digital worlds become more and more seamlessly integrated, it might make sense to consider digital technology and digital art in a broader context. Beyond that, I’m simply a very vocal advocate of digital art and the world changing potential of digital technology. “Digital Art Revolution” is definitely written from that perspective.
I’ve always been interested in taking a philosophical, “big picture” approach to any given subject. This is kind of embarrassing, but I often have inner dialogues where I’m debating both sides of an issue in my mind, in order to try and understand it. My wife will often see me lost in thought, gesturing a little and tease me about it, knowing I’m debating a fictitious person in my mind. I never set out to be a theorist about anything, really, but I’ve always liked ideas and I like asking questions.
ME: So, you’re married—your wife is an artist too?
SL: Yes, my wife is Laura Sherrill Ligon.
ME: What does she do, her genre, and is there some collaboration between the two of you that takes place?
SL: She is a painter. We met in graduate school at Maryland Institute College of Art. We haven’t really collaborated in a literal sense, although we’ve had some two person shows together. I love her work, and I think that working in proximity of each other for so long has really influenced both of us as artists. She’s also a good and trusted source of feedback for my work.
ME: Any other family members who are artists?
SL: My sister is a painter. I have two sons, ages 10 and 13. They’re both creative and eccentric, but I’m not sure they’d identify themselves as artists at this point, although the youngest draws quite a bit.
ME: I’ve been reading your book “Digital Art Revolution”, which we can discuss more in a moment. Yet because its so well put together—such a seamless read—I’m curious to know how long it took you to write it?
SL: Oh god. It’s been a very gradual process. It took about three years to get from book proposal to the final book. Once the book was sold and the basic structure agreed upon, the final draft of the book was written in about ten weeks, including creating the exercises. Many sleepless nights!
ME: I’m sorry to hear about the sleepless nights, but the quality of the book shows real dedication. I’d like to bring in some art, asking you first about the cover image you chose for the book. Who created that and why, out of all the artwork you could have chosen, including something from your own portfolio, did you choose that piece to lead the way?
SL: The cover art is by Cindy Jerrell. Cindy is an artist in Athens, GA. She’s won a Georgia Council for the Arts Individual Artist Grant for mixed media work twice. I like her art very much and included several of her images in the book. The cover, however, was selected by Random House. I was not part of the process of selecting an image for the cover. The publisher invests a lot in a book as a commercial product and they have experience selecting images with mass appeal. From what I understand, it is fairly typical among large publishers that they will select the cover.
ME: Your book is broken down in to 10 chapters, totaling about 250 pages. Though before the chapters begin you have a section entitled “Welcome to the Revolution.” Within that part of the book you ask in a sub-section, “Is Painting Dead?”
Why do you ask that, and what response do you give to such a question?
SL: I think there are a lot of fears and misconceptions about digital technology, especially among older artists. On the other hand, many prominent art shows have placed an emphasis on digital art in the last few years, which has caused some people to say things like “painting is dead”, as if it had become old fashioned. My response to that question is “no”. Painting and drawing, I believe, will never become irrelevant.
Making a mark on a physical surface is a fundamental, primal act that is as relevant today as it was when people were painting on cave walls.
People also said that painting was dead when photography was invented. Instead, photography inspired painting to move in new directions. Digital technology blurs boundaries and integrates with physical materials but it does not replace them. If digital technology replaces anything it would be other, older technological processes.
ME: I’ve been revisiting your website over the last couple of months. Looking at your art, a few pieces jump out right away, like “Candy.” The proportions of the figure and items within the painting are well balanced—appearing photographic. And yet, the textured brushstrokes of the color and shapes in the piece are definitely painterly. Looking at “Candy”, I would say painting is alive and well. Could you talk about that piece?
SL: My family has done several large trips across the country. As we travelled, we’d often end up in a mom and pop store in some obscure location like the middle of a desert, using the bathroom and loading up on junk food. That part of the experience held just as much resonance for me as any other part of our trips and seemed representative of our journeys. The piece is photographically based, using two different photos. Some of my work is primarily painted (digitally) and some is primarily photographic, but I’m so used to integrating different approaches that I don’t really make a distinction between the two, except to acknowledge the source material. I was trained as a painter and I still approach everything I do from that perspective. My “Orange Man” piece in that same portfolio is a portrait that was drawn and painted but I actually used “Candy” as an underpainting for “Orange Man”. Integrating literal pieces of my work into other pieces, either recognizably or unrecognizably, ties them together visually. It’s also a chance to explore different tangents or possibilities suggested by a piece.
ME: I’m glad you mentioned “Orange Man” because that was the next piece I was going to ask about. Who’s the person—what’s the story?
SL: My dad. He passed away a few years ago and I was with him through the whole process, and it really effected me a lot. It’s easy to forget how impermanent we are until you experience death firsthand. It affected me profoundly and I’ve done a lot of work around my father and his passing. I did an installation video piece about this at the Washington (DC) Convention Center as part of a group show. When he died I realized I was the same age he was when I was born. Together we made a lifetime. This 12 second video is a montage of digital photos, beginning with my birth until the present, continuing directly into photos of my father from his forties until his death. It was created as a comment on the ephemeral nature of life. It’s on YouTube.
ME: Now, when I look at your work—some of it, not all of it—I really see traces of David Hockney, the way the images seem to be shattered apart and reassembled…intentionally disjointed with scrappy edges. I’m aware that you studied under noted abstract expressionist, Grace Hartigan. So where’s the influence coming from here. Any favorite artists, mentors or idols?
SL: I like David Hockney, so it’s possible he seeped into my subconscious. Grace is definitely an influence. There is a section in the book about “Mining a Vein”, about committing to an approach and finding a personal voice as an artist, that comes directly from conversations I had with Grace. When I look at the loose strokes of color in “Candy” I realize I’m really trying to make a digital version of the gestural paint drips in her work. Fellow abstract expressionist William DeKooning is also an influence. Picasso. Philip Guston. Robert Rauschenberg. I’m also completely and overtly influenced by pop culture and still have a strong comic book influence in particular. We’re bombarded by images in modern culture. Fragmentation and reunification is a strong interest in my work.
ME: Fragmentation and reunification is what I was getting at when I made the Hockney comparison—his mashed up, polyptych, photo montages. And when I think of pop culture and a bombardment of images, more broadly speaking, I see it as a bombardment of information. It can be overwhelming?
SL: Yes, the information overload is overwhelming, and at the same time it’s tremendously interesting, at least to me. We are exposed to more images and information on a daily basis than we can possibly digest, so we try to focus selectively and then find or make connections between these disparate elements. I try to take all these different source materials, add to them and weave them together into something broad but unified. I look for potential connections. I’m a child of television. I’m a child of pop culture. This is what I am most familiar with from firsthand experience, and it is reflected in my work. It’s ironic I suppose, that digital technology has drastically increased this bombardment of information and at the same time has emerged as a perfect creative tool to synthesize and unify all this seemingly unrelated material.
ME: A moment ago you talked about “Mining a Vein”, that’s in Chapter Nine: Finding Your Voice. How does an artist know when they’ve found their voice and what would you say, to someone who may not really know, is the purpose of an artist statement?
SL: Minerals will be discovered in an area and then miners will dig and mine this “vein” until it’s used up, until it’s no longer practical to keep digging, because they’re not getting much in return for their work, and then they’ll look elsewhere. This is the metaphor for developing a personal style or voice as an artist. If we pick certain methods or techniques that have resonance with us and then commit to and practice those techniques, we get better and better at them. When some of these techniques no longer challenge or excite us it’s time to introduce new challenges to the mix, and “find another vein”. When we select, commit, focus and practice, we get so good at the technical part of our work that we no longer have to think about it. This allows for something personal and distinctive to develop. When an artist has found a personal voice, we see something in their work that is so specific that we look at a work and know it’s theirs. It is unique and intrinsically tied to who they are as a person. No one else does things in exactly the same way. Many artists tend to dread making artist statements, but an artist statement can be helpful because it forces you to be clear on your intent and your motivations. If you haven’t articulated what you are trying to do, it’s hard to have a direction, or gauge success. It you do it right, it’s not just a series of art-world phrases, but a personal manifesto.
ME: I’d like to ask about another piece you created “Black Dahlia.” I like it, the contrasts—the electric green grass superimposed over grainy newsprint. Visually it’s striking, but I have no idea what the narrative is.
SL: The Black Dahlia piece was created specifically for a group show in Los Angeles. The Black Dahlia refers to Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress that was brutally murdered in Hollywood in the 1940’s. The Black Dahlia murder received very sensationalistic press coverage, and, I believe, was never solved. There’s still a lot of interest in this case, especially in Los Angeles. I had the assignment of creating a Black Dahlia work for this themed show. On the internet, I found dozens of pages of FBI documents about the case, and they all had really interesting textures. Lots of grain from bad photocopies, dirt, folds, scribbles, etc. I thought these documents actually had a really interesting and beautiful quality of their own. I made a montage of textures and text from these documents, added other textures, drew into them and built up the image on top of these documents. I like the idea of literally incorporating things into a work that are associated with its subject matter.
ME: In your capacity as an educator, what’s the lesson of Digital Art Revolution?
SL: A lot of Photoshop books that have “fine art” in the name are really about short cuts, or methods used to copy techniques associated with art history. “How to make your art look like Van Gogh”, for instance. Many of these books are very good but I thought there was room for another approach. Since the beginning of time, artists have been able to use the visual language to communicate a general feeling or quality through their work, even while creating something unique and personal. “Digital Art Revolution” takes those time-honored ideas of visual communications and combines them with the unprecedented new possibilities of digital art. These are amazing tools. We can use them not just to copy previous approaches but to invent our own vocabulary, appropriate to these new possibilities. We can use them not just to imitate art history, but to make art history.
ME: Scott, thank you for your time. I’ve enjoyed talking about your art, your book, your many ideas.
SL: Thanks very much, Max. I enjoyed it as well.
Additional images of Scott Ligon’s artwork can be found in the AD MAG Artist Galleries, and a full 3-year archive of AD MAG articles and interviews can be found here. Visit the Ligon-Art website here.