Artist Q&A with Josh Rowell
Josh Rowell generates his artistic vision by focusing on technological advances that shape our contemporary lives, communicating our increasingly mediated human interactions within the confines of visual art. The artist balances analogue techniques with the instantaneous nature of the digital age. This juxtaposition produces a language that explores and reshapes information, and celebrates the hand-made in a time that is increasingly being enveloped by the virtual.
Who is your favorite artist of all time?
This is sort of an impossible question to answer! It’s hard to choose just one because I have admired, followed and idolised so many artists; all for different reasons, at different stages of my life. But if I had to give you my favourite artist right now, I think I would say Leonardo DaVinci, his work has been at the forefront of my mind ever since seeing some of his paintings on display at the Uffizi gallery in Florence last summer. I think it is the combination of creativity, skill, mathematics, science and so on that makes him such an important artist, perhaps the most important artist to have ever lived.
How did you become a professional artist?
I grew up in a fairly creative family, I remember as a child my grandmother would teach me to paint and draw at the weekends. That, combined with some inspirational art teachers at school, I felt inspired to follow a Fine Arts education to Degree and Master’s Degree level. Upon graduating from university, I actually took up a position as a gallery assistant for a contemporary art gallery in Mayfair, London. I always say that this was perhaps the most valuable experience of my career so far, in the space of a year I learnt so much about the art world, the market, the way a gallery operates, the ‘behind the scenes’ operations; so many things that most artists are not aware of. Whilst working there I was able to build up a network in the art world that soon led to me finding my own gallery representation as an artist and I had enough contacts and support from the right people to become a full-time artist.
What are the influences and inspirations in your work?
My primary influence is the role technology plays in reshaping the world around us, and from that starting point I bring in other themes that incorporate language and media and so on. I suppose I’ve always wanted to make art that is very much of the ‘current day’ and I believe art functions at its best when it is addressing the contemporary themes within which it has been created. We live in a time of rapidly advancing technology which is redefining almost every aspect of our daily lives, and that is what I want to highlight and explore through my work.
How is your work different than everything else out there?
I don’t try to claim that my art is different to everything else out there, if artists are only striving for originality then, in my opinion, they are struggling in vein. All art is inspired and informed by other things, whether that is the work of other artists past and present, or things around us in our everyday lives, originality does not truly exist, rather all new artistic production is an amalgamation of varying sources of inspiration and reference points. And I think that is totally acceptable, progress is created by building upon what already exists. I suppose that what I like to consider my ‘USP’ as, is my approach to creating art that references the digital world, but producing it in a very handmade and tactile way.
When is a piece finished for you?
For me, this really varies from series to series, some are easier than others. My Painting Language series, for example, is based around a visual code for language and each painting contains within it a specific text. These pieces are all calculated and mapped out before the painting even starts and it is finished when the canvas is full, so it has a natural and obvious finishing point. Another series that I create called Virtually Fragile, in which I paint pictures based on images of broken computer/TV screens, is produced in a much more free and painterly way. This makes the decision of when to ‘finish’ a piece much more difficult. There have definitely been occasions on which I think I overworked a couple of these paintings, wishing I had stopped at previous stages, but this is something that comes with more and more practice and better decision making.
What’s different about your current body of work?
My current body of works represents my first move away from painting in about 6 years and I’m really pleased with the way it is developing and the freedom and new opportunities it is opening up for me. This latest series of works are mosaics in which I have taken inspiration from trending comment memes that you can find on social media platforms. These comments vary from comical, to weird, to alarming! Take the work ‘Toxic Relationship II’ (2020) for example, it was at one point trending across the comment sections of celebrity Instagram accounts. The thing that really struck me about these comment memes was the fact that they only seem to be popular for a short period of time, perhaps a couple of months at best, before they are then replaced with the next popular comment to copy and paste. I think this is indicative of the way in which we use social media. We are constantly updating and refreshing and posting. Building layer upon layer of information, and by digging back down through the history of our feeds, I want to capture these strange little moments. The idea to recreate them as mosaics was to play on this concept of the works being almost ‘archaeological’. There are real similarities between searching through the forgotten detritus of social media feeds, to digging up the earth and discovering some ancient artefact.
Tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career?
There have been lots of great moments that I’m immensely proud of. Specific highlights for me were my first solo exhibition, which was in Mexico in 2016, it was a large 30-piece show and represented a huge amount of work. Soon after that I came back to London and had a successful 2 person show with Rachel Libeskind which resulted in my works being acquired by some prominent private collectors as well as institutions including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, so this whole period for me, later 2016 into 17, was where things started to take off.
What’s coming up for you?
2020 was a challenging time in general and the art world took a hit just like everyone else. Nothing will replace viewing artworks and exhibitions in real life and art fairs are so important to the health of the overall art market. So, I am very hopeful that 2021 will make up for a lot of lost time in the previous year! My upcoming events are a group show in London that will run for the summer, and I am starting to collaborate with two new galleries which I am very excited about, Atipografia in Arzignano, Italy, and Firetti Contemporary in Dubai, UAE. There will be more news to come as projects emerge with both of these galleries.
What advice would you give to an artist just starting out today?
Never take anything for granted, apply for open calls and prizes as much as you can, immerse yourself in the gallery scene in your local city, go to exhibitions, go to openings, attend talks, say hello to strangers at these events, shake their hands, expand your network. As much as we like to think it is not true, the fact is that if you want to survive as an artist, you need a strong network of art world professionals around you that have your best interest at heart and will represent your art to the standard that you expect; those people will be gallerists, collectors, dealers, curators as well as people that simply admire your work. Listen to your peers, admire and support the artists around you. Do not take rejection personally, do not get down when things don’t work out, do not get overly excited when things go well, approach all situations with a calm head. Focus on always making your best work, never let your standards drop, never forget what your message is as an artist and always stay true to yourself. Be reliable, don’t miss deadlines. If someone tries to tell you what you should be making, they are not someone you want to waste your time working with. Stay grounded, don’t become obsessed, set realistic expectations, it’s okay to say no, remember to take care of your personal life and your relationships. I think in the early stages of an artist’s career there is a thing that I refer to as the 10:1 ratio, that is for every 10 things you apply to, 1 of them will come back with a positive result. For every 10 people that are genuinely interested in your work, 1 of them will turn out to be a real buyer. Of course, this ratio is not entirely accurate all of the time, but the point is that when you start out as an artist you need to be mentally and emotionally prepared for rejection, because you will have to face it. It is about how you deal with rejection that will determine how successful you are in the initial stages of building your career as an artist. As you grow and expand, as you begin to establish yourself as an artist, as your work changes from being something you are offering to people in the hope of a sale, to something people are clamouring to get a hold of, that ratio will naturally change in your favour, but it is a long journey and it will be full of ups and downs. Don’t get disheartened along the way, remember why you love making art.
Who are some of your favorite under appreciated artists that you don’t think get enough attention?
Dan Hays is one of my favourite painters of all time. I don’t know if it is fair to call him ‘under-appreciated’ but as far as I’m concerned, he should be having museum retrospectives and blue-chip solo exhibitions around the world right now! His work always blows my mind and I’ve had the privilege of being able to visit his studio on a few occasions and to talk in depth about his process. These are not my words but hopefully it gives a good explanation of his work: “Hays’ paintings present a paradoxical visual realm where immaterial pixel and physical brushstroke coalesce. The digital screen’s icy crystalline matrix, seamless deliverer of watery flows of information, is rendered by pigmented oily mud on a weave of fabric.”
I’d like also to mention Clarke Reynolds who is an artist and friend of mine. Clarke has been making a huge amount of progress in the last year or so and I want to highlight him for the amazing work he is doing. Clarke is a visually impaired artist and his work reflects his personal journey, he has dedicated himself to turning Braille into art and is attempted to push the boundaries of what Braille can be used for and how it can be understood. I really admire Clarke and his passion and I look forward to seeing what will happen to him in the coming year as I know he has lots of exciting projects ahead of him.
To learn more about Josh and his work, please visit JoshRowell.co.uk.