Interview – Clayton Campbell – Belgrade Art Studio Online Residency

6. Self Portrait from Lockdown City

Can you tell us a little about your art and your background?

My earliest drawings were made after my studies at the Art Students League in New York City with Robert Beverly Hale in 1965-7. I continued to study at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts in 1968 with John Burns, and then with Professor Ernst Fuchs in Vienna, Austria,1969-1971.

My first 8-10 years of my practice were mainly spent drawing, learning the craft of this medium, while trying to find my voice as a creative person during a turbulent time in the U.S. Over time my work explored styles and methods of appropriation, photography, collage, Xerox art, image and text, and social commentary. I had a strong affinity with fantasy art, symbolism, surrealism, and spirituality in art. I gravitated towards figurative, narrative, and representation in painting and drawing. These interests were cultivated by exposure to the art of the Vienna Fantastic Realists, the San Francisco Bay area psychedelic painters, and an older generation of surrealists and symbolist painters like Rene Magritte, E.C. Escher, and George Tooker.

In Vienna, my time studying with Ernst Fuchs and observing his practice was truly formative. Ernst Fuchs was the first fully committed artist I had known and he was my mentor. Fuchs’ studio was set up as an apprenticeship. I would work on still life drawing during the morning, and in the afternoon assist him with his work. In the evening I was expected to do my personal work. I spent many hours visiting the Vienna Kunsthistoriches Museum to study the paintings, drawings, and prints of Brueghal, Bosch, Durer, Cranach, and 19th century Jugendstil (art nouveau) objects and design.

I also learned from studying the graphic work of Samuel Palmer, William Blake, and Piranesi. Each had a unique pictorial approach and quality of line. During visits to the British Museum, I had the opportunity to view the celestial cartography and engravings of Robert Fludd and illuminated alchemical manuscripts by Solomon Trismosin. They still are a source of fascination I love many forms of cartography and medieval manuscript painting.

The Hudson River Valley and Luminist painters, in particular Martin Johnson Heade, Frederick Church, and Thomas Cole, made a significant impression on me because of their immersion in nature, allegory, and notions of an aspirational Arcadia. On trips to Italy, I looked at as much Caravaggio painting and Bernini sculpture I could find. The contemporary graphic artist Peter Milton’s work made me think about how to design a picture with layers of meaning in one picture frame. Of great importance was the friendship and support of two artist colleagues, Mark W. Spencer and Stephen W. Curtis.

Growing up in New York in the 1960’s I was working with mixed media work combining photographs with drawing and painting. I became absorbed with Xerox machines and created a series of one- of -a kind photo-static mixed media works on photo paper. Throughout my career I have looked at and admired many artists, including Pop artists Marisol, Warhol, and George Segal. James Rosenquist’s monumental F-111 painting has always been one of my favorite large-scale paintings and compositions because of the non-linear way he put images together to make social commentary. Leon Golub’s paintings on un-stretched canvas of oppressors and victims moved me for their brutal honesty. Francis Bacon’s singular art is unforgettable and inspirational. The freedom of Pollock’s approach to art making and the grand vision of the Mexican Muralists took my breath away. I admire Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, the pastel flower paintings by Odilon Redon, and ethereal watercolors by J.M.W. Turner. Many contemporary artists are making incredible work, especially other photographers. Miwa Yanagi from Japan and Thomas Struth from Germany are terrific artists I have learned from. Numerous movies with innovative special effects have impressed me. My colleague and friend Michael Fink’s Computer-Generated Imagery movies Blade Runner and Constantine, for which he over saw the special effects, are examples.

My process has been to absorb these different influences and let them consolidate into an ever-evolving approach to picture making. Emotionally, I have needed to tell stories about who I was becoming and what shaped my identity. Often, I would do this through an autobiographical approach using and making images of myself, family, friends, familiar landscapes, and objects that meant something to me. On a parallel level, I wanted to investigate and understand what our political, religious, and social orders were becoming.


How did you start getting interested in visual productions and digital art?

Before there was digital art and computers my interest in photography and mixed media came about in the 1970’s and 80’s when I worked extensively with Xerox art, collage, photography, appropriation of photographs, and Photostatic prints. My Photostatic prints are somewhat unique, and I have not encountered other artists who have developed this one-of-a-kind print to the same degree. It is a combination of photography, xerography, printing, spray painting, stenciling, masking, color dyes, and other materials resulting in a mixed media work on industrial Photostat paper. Photostats were typically used for layout and design and generally went out of use when digital technology replaced this photo-based reproduction system. Between 1993 and 1998 I produced several dozen commissioned mixed media portraits. I photographed the portrait subject in a formal sitting. Next, I manipulated and distorted the photograph on a Xerox machine. Those xerox prints were glued to canvas, and painted over with pastel and spray paint. This style prefigures the Glitch software applications now so common to Smart Phones. At this time I would have been loosely associated with The Pictures Generation in New York.

In 1995 Apple marketed the first affordable digital camera. Other companies quickly followed suit. This same year a friend and collector of my work gave me a Sony Mavica digital camera. It recorded thumbnail images, 17 in all, onto a floppy disk. I brought it with me to an artist residency I was invited to be part of at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Ireland. Not quite knowing what my work would be during the residency, I ended up experimenting with the camera and a pre-Photoshop software program, Photo Deluxe. I was off and running for the next 30 years using digital cameras and computer technology to produce much of my art.

I found digital photography to be a great tool in performative work. I work in series and used it in the series The Artist Clayton Campbell Referees the World Heavyweight Champion the ‘Real Deal’ Evander Holyfield. I began to liberally experiment in many of the series with manipulation, such as Bullet Train Blues, 68 Heroes, 1 Heroine, and Bombmakers. Other series evince a more digitized painterly approach, as in The Divine Comedy and American Heroes (After Houdon). Lastly, I had a break through when I discovered how to corrupt JPG files and use them as a jumping off place for further visual exploration. This led to extensive development in my work that began with the After Abu Ghraib series. All of this work was made while I was living in Los Angeles, California and working as the Co-Executive Director of the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. My studio was at the Center. My day was divided between going between my studio and my office at 18th Street; a non-profit arts organization that had studios, galleries, and performance spaces for all kinds of artists. It was an invigorating environment to be part of that added to my art practice. I was exposed to artists already absorbed in digital art and technology and learned from them. There were photographers with digital printers with whom I shared resources, like Michael Barnard, the filmmaker, or Michael Masucci, founder of EZTV. I met Christian Knudsen, a young computer specialist who became a longtime collaborator and master printer for me. We worked on many of my images, websites, and projects together.

In 1998 the photography scene was still arguing about whether digital photography was acceptable as photography. The purity of the photograph was brought into question by the advent of the digital technology, and while the argument raged in photographic circles, it all but died out when social media democratized the photographic image. Within a decade digital technology improved to the point that almost all photographers and artists included it in their toolbox. Soon after that anyone with a good iPhone could take a great photo and jazz it up with any number of phone applications. The world was awash in digital imagery, a lot of it inventive and engaging. And now we have AI and it is changing again, radically and with unforeseen consequences to art and digital artmaking.

Learning digital techniques, both the camera and the computer are essential to the making of the work I have undertaken. They are the tools, as much as pencils, paint, and brushes, were for any of the handwork I have done in my career. It is a constant arc of practice, and learning the new tools and software applications that change regularly in the evolving digital universe. Much time was spent trying to figure out computer crashes, troubleshooting issues with images, learning how to make Photoshop effects, and simply practicing over and over again the techniques needed to make an effective work of art. It was no different than the many hours I spent drawing with Robert Beverly Hale in the life class at the Art Students League or copying still live set ups in the atelier of Ernst Fuchs in Vienna, Austria. Digital technology, being new, means the learning goes on at an incredible pace and volume. This to me was an exciting privilege, having the luck to be born at this time. In my painting, I had to contend with a long established lineage and find my authentic voice within it. It was a great challenge. When I transitioned from painting to digital art, I was able to bring those artistic and pictorial traditions forward, and improvise with them in a way that opened up new visual possibilities that I hadn’t considered.


What subject matters interest you?

I have explored a number of themes that relate to my artist statement:

Throughout my practice I have focused on photo-based art.

We live in a time of intense creative, spiritual, social, technological, and environmental change. My practice responds to these transformations by making art exploring, observing the behavior of people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

I believe in non-violence.

The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.

I tend to work in distinct series. Photographed in Rome in the Piazza Garibaldi. I made the series 68 Heroes, 1 Heroine, a meditation on monuments, conflict, and how memory forgets the urgency of temporal political warfare. Another series is entitled Bullet Train Blues. These images were shot from the window of a Shinkansen Bullet train traveling one day between Osaka and Tokyo. I had expected the landscape to be natural and beautiful, passing Mount Fuji that would rise from the clouds. Instead it was an unrelenting industrial, polluted landscape that dashed my expectations and assumptions about Japan outside of Tokyo. The series became a visual journey seeking beauty where natural beauty did not exist in the urban landscape, I was passing at 150 miles per hour on the Bullet Train. It was my first environmental work, a theme I am deeply committed to.

Nuclear proliferation is a theme I investigate in Bombmakers by exploring the histories of women who had worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, developing the atomic bomb. I had access to the archives in the Laboratory Museum Library, and was re-photographing the Identity Cards of these women. I also began to discover what happened to some of these women after they had knowledge of their participation in the project. The Bombmakers project was brought to an abrupt end by the United States Homeland Security Department, in 2003, which classified the previously public information I was using in the archives. Both environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation are the two overarching themes I find the most important. The others I work with seem to be subsets of them.

In 2003 I created the series, The Artist Clayton Campbell Referees the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion ‘the Real Deal’ Evander Holyfield. I was involved with the video taping of a music video featuring the current world Heavyweight Boxing Champion Evander ‘the Real Deal’ Holyfield. In it he was going to fight for four rounds with a sparring partner, and they needed someone to be the referee. I volunteered, and this “performance” became the basis for this series of still photos that later were exhibited in Northern Ireland as a metaphor for The Troubles, or civil war. Men, conflict, and mediation of conflict is at the heart of this work.

Soon after I created fairly complex series of 45 photographs that comprise the suite, The Divine Comedy, from 2005. I view Dante’s work as a distinct political, social, and spiritual document, relevant to the times I live in. The Divine Comedy is divided into three sections with fifteen images for each section: the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each is approached with a different style, but with a distinctly Los Angeles flavor.

I followed with a series, After Abu Ghraib, a series of large scale ‘corrupted’ photos based on the photographs of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison. This call to human rights was a social practice project. I soon followed with a large, 15 year project, Words We Have Learned Since 9/11. The 9/11 Words Project has been presented in numerous venues and captured the public zeitgeist. It is a participatory photographic project that now consists of over 1300 portraits of persons who pose holding signage on which are written new words they have learned since 9/11. It has been exhibited nationally and internationally at Unit 24 Gallery, London; The Higher Bridges Arts Center, Enniskellen, Northern Ireland; the Nam Jun Paik Art Center, South Korea; the Aaran Gallery in Tehran; The Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, Paris; the WYSPA Institute for Art, Gdansk Poland; Outdoor Projection Installation, Warsaw, Poland; Scope Basel, Switzerland; the International Center of Contemporary Art, Bucharest; Photo Galerij Lang, Samobor; City Museum of Dubrovnik, Batana, Rovinj; City Museum of Vodice; the Three Shadows Photography Art Center, Beijing; the University of Capetown, South Africa; The Museum of Mobile, Alabama; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Barrick Art Museum, University of Nevada Las Vegas; Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery; The Wonder Institute, Santa Fe; Pitzer College Gallery, CA; The Skid Row Archive and Museum, Los Angeles.


What is more important for art, the idea or the execution?

Both the idea and the execution are important in art. While a strong concept or idea provides the foundation, the execution is what brings it to life and allows it to resonate with the audience.

I have always been drawn to work that has its foundation in a fully realized craft, so the execution of the concept and idea no matter the form are clearly realized. I find it difficult to express the idea without putting in the time on what is needed to execute the idea. It is kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of practicing for 10,000 hours……..


You experiment with different computer-generated forms. Could you tell us about the process of creation? Where does the process begin for you?

When it comes to computer-generated art, the creation process often begins with the artist conceptualizing an idea or visual concept. This can be influenced by various factors such as personal experiences, cultural references, or experimentation with different techniques. Very often I begin with meditation, which clears the noise in my mind. What is left is the beginning point.

I also spend time building a pictures archive that I pull from for my raw material in the digital art works I make. The collection are my own photos, public domain images, and the like. There are about 25,000 images in my archive.


You also write, curate …. Which field do you find the most exciting?

What excites me the most about language is its ability to build a bridge of communication. Helping people express their thoughts, providing information, and engaging in meaningful conversations is my primary purpose. I try hard to stay away from judgement.

I don’t really curate, that takes a specialized training. I organize exhibitions but I do curate residencies, that I have been trained in.


What are some of your favorite projects you are proud to have been a part of in your career?

I have helped individuals and organizations in various creative endeavors, including writing, brainstorming ideas, and generating content. It makes me in some sense a Cultural Producer. My own project, Words We Have Learned Since 9/11 I am proud of because of its true international reach, the 1000’s of persons it engaged, and honest and deep conversations of healing that ensued. As an Artistic Director and curator of artist residencies I know I helped hundreds of artists to gain experiences they wouldn’t have otherwise, developing relationships that continue to this day. I funded them, organized them, and often sat late into the night negotiating with partner countries to gently convince government officials how important artists are in helping shape the peace and cooperation so important for us all.

So it is a combination of my own work as a practicing artist, and as a cultural producer who has given back more to his community than he has taken out of it. Therefore I am proud of being the Director of the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica for 15 years and the President of Res Artis.

I really dislike how artists are forced to compete against each other for grants, exhibitions, galleries, jobs, money, all of it. Over time it has become more and more toxic, at a time when we need community more than ever. That is why I am proud that the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs awarded me the distinction of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Lettres. I received this award without knowing I had been nominated, and it truly was on merit for my work in international cultural exchange. It represents to me recognition of giving back more to the arts community than I took out of it.


To what extent does the pandemic influence your depiction of art? Does it generate new inspiration?

Absolutely, and it is still underway. It is too soon to say, but the new Trance of Thought series is a manifestation of this. That said, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the art world. Many artists have found new inspiration in their experiences and the shifting social and cultural landscapes. The restrictions imposed by the pandemic have also led to an increased reliance on digital platforms and virtual spaces for art exhibitions and collaborations. While the pandemic has brought challenges, it has also sparked creativity and innovative approaches within the art community. This is the good news.


How do you feel about being involved in an online residency program? How important is it to stay connected with the international art community?

Being involved in an online residency program can be a valuable opportunity for artists to connect with the international art community and showcase their work to a wider audience. It allows for collaboration and exchange of ideas with fellow artists from different backgrounds and cultures. Staying connected with the international art community is important as it promotes dialogue, facilitates the sharing of knowledge and experiences, and opens up possibilities for collaboration and growth. It keeps the free flow of information moving often in places where freedom of information and speech are curtailed by the government.


What are your thoughts about the theme ‘artist on standby’?

The theme “artist on standby” suggests a state of waiting or being temporarily inactive. It could be interpreted in various ways, such as artists reflecting on their practice during periods of inactivity or exploring the concept of waiting as a metaphor for personal or societal experiences. The project associated with this theme would likely delve into these ideas and present them through visual or conceptual means. My own take is how I have had to look inwardly during a period of quarantine and take a deep look at myself and my motives for making art.

By the time I was selected for ‘artist on standby’ the pandemic was over and the WHO had already declared it over as a world health emergency. But the after effects remain. So I asked Chat GPT two questions that I felt were important:

  1. My question becomes, were conditions in the arts and society equitable before and during the pandemic?

Conditions in the arts and society have always been complex and varied, with equity being a persistent challenge. Prior to the pandemic, there were existing inequities in the arts, including access to resources, opportunities, and representation. Certain groups, such as marginalized communities, women, and artists from underrepresented backgrounds, often faced barriers and systemic biases that limited their participation and recognition within the art world.

The pandemic further highlighted and exacerbated these inequities. The global health crisis disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, both in terms of health outcomes and socioeconomic consequences. Many artists, particularly those who relied on in-person events or venues for income and exposure, faced significant challenges and financial instability during lockdowns and restrictions.

Moreover, the shift to online platforms as the primary mode of engagement further emphasized the digital divide, with those lacking access to reliable internet or digital tools being further marginalized. Remote learning and virtual exhibitions, while necessary for continuity, posed challenges for individuals without the necessary resources or technological literacy.

However, it is also important to note that the pandemic prompted discussions and initiatives focused on addressing these inequities. Many art organizations and institutions made efforts to support marginalized artists and communities, offering grants, resources, and virtual platforms to showcase their work. Increased attention was given to the need for diversity, inclusivity, and representation within the arts.

Overall, while the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing inequities, it has also fostered important conversations and actions toward creating a more equitable and inclusive arts community. Efforts to address these issues should continue beyond the pandemic, with a focus on dismantling systemic barriers and creating opportunities for underrepresented artists and communities.

  1. What then are the possibilities of systemic inequities to be corrected in the arts after the pandemic?

The post-pandemic period presents an opportunity to address systemic inequities in the arts and work towards greater fairness and inclusivity. Here are some possibilities for correcting these inequities:

  1. Increased awareness and advocacy: The pandemic has brought heightened attention to existing inequities, and this awareness can serve as a catalyst for change. Artists, activists, and organizations can continue to advocate for a more equitable and inclusive arts sector, raising awareness of systemic issues and advocating for necessary reforms.
  2. Funding and resources: Governments, foundations, and arts organizations can allocate funding and resources specifically aimed at supporting marginalized and underrepresented artists. This can include grants, scholarships, mentorship programs, and initiatives to provide access to necessary tools and technologies.
  3. Representation and diversity: Institutions, galleries, and curators can prioritize representation and diversity in their exhibitions and collections. They can actively seek out and showcase the work of artists from diverse backgrounds, challenging traditional narratives and amplifying underrepresented voices.
  4. Education and outreach: Efforts can be made to provide arts education and creative opportunities to communities that have historically been marginalized or underserved. Collaborations between schools, community organizations, and artists can help bridge gaps and ensure that arts education is accessible to all.
  5. Mentorship and networking: Establishing mentorship programs and fostering networking opportunities can provide marginalized artists with guidance, support, and connections within the art world. Mentorship can help break down barriers and provide pathways for professional growth.
  6. Policy changes and institutional reform: Institutions and organizations can review and revise their policies and practices to address systemic biases and inequities. This can involve adopting transparent and inclusive selection processes, diversifying decision-making boards and panels, and implementing policies that prioritize equitable representation and fair compensation.
  7. Collaboration and solidarity: Artists, organizations, and communities can come together in collaborative efforts to address systemic inequities collectively. By sharing resources, knowledge, and networks, they can create a stronger and more united front for advocating change and promoting equity.

It’s important to note that achieving systemic change requires long-term commitment and sustained efforts. The post-pandemic period offers an opportunity to build on the momentum generated during the crisis and work towards a more equitable and inclusive arts sector. By addressing these issues head-on and implementing meaningful reforms, it is possible to create a more just and diverse arts community.


Tell us a bit more about your project… What do you want to achieve before things return to normal if it is to happen? Any future plans/projects?

Regarding the creation of art, digital art, and visual productions, these fields have gained popularity due to advancements in technology and the increasing accessibility of digital tools. Many artists have found inspiration in the possibilities offered by digital mediums and have embraced them as a means of creative expression. While it seems democratized, it also has given fiascos like NFTs and crypto currency. Nevertheless, I am still waiting to see how it evolves and if it can be legitimate. I may want to get involved; we’ll see.

I am experimenting with Chat GPT to assist me in various creative endeavors, including writing, brainstorming ideas, and generating content.

The restrictions imposed by the pandemic have also led to an increased reliance on digital platforms and virtual spaces for art exhibitions and collaborations. I might explore some online exhibition platforms like Kunstmatrix and mount my own exhibitions.

I have downloaded the Photoshop beta program Generative Fill and am going to learn it and see if it works for me, and has a place in my tool box.

But the main plan is to stay on mission, to adhere to my artist statement. That is my real goal.