Insight: In conversation with generative visual artist Tyler Hobbs

Tyler Hobbs 'By Proxy, Yellow 1' 2021, graphite plotter and oil pastel on paper (38.1 cm x 25.4 cm) ©The artist

Artists have long been fascinated by new processes and inventions. Think of Joshua Reynolds’ camera obscura, Andy Warhol’s polaroid artworks, or more recently David Hockney’s embrace of immersive art.

Writing in 1919, the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich made this observation: “Art advances inexorably… Life develops with new forms; a new art, medium and experience are necessary for every epoch. Not seeing the modern world and its achievements means not participating in the triumph of modern transformations.”

As one of the leading generative artists, famed for his 2021 Fidenza series which became one of the most highly sought-after fine art NFT collections of all time, Tyler Hobbs is also exploring new technology, in his case machine learning and AI.

Hobbs has a straightforward, systematic way of making artwork: it involves processes, procedures and algorithms. His generative art combines abstraction with information and communication technologies. He may write code to develop programmes that generate artwork, knowing the programmes will lead to a distinct creation. Or he may give in to chance.

Currently on show at Unit London (‘Mechanical Hands’, 7 March to 6 April 2023), and heading to Pace Gallery in New York (‘QQL: Analogs’, 30 March to 22 April 2023), we caught up with the Austin-based artist to get a fuller picture of what it means to be working with generative art and in Web3. 

Tyler Hobbs 'Jacquard Legacy' 2023, acrylic and ink on linen (152.4 cm x 121.92 cm) ©The artist

Can you discuss your generative art and your unique making process?

The heart of my artistic practice is a systematic approach to creation. I use processes, procedures, and algorithms to create my work. Often, I write code to develop programs that generate artwork. Randomness plays a large role. I try to find a balance between order and disorder, or between structure and chaos. I want my programs to produce a certain kind of thing, but I also want to give the programs the freedom and ability to surprise me, and to escape the limitations of my imagination. Randomness is the ingredient that creates that opportunity.

When did you begin to work in this way and what attracted you to the medium?

I first involved the computer and programming in my work in 2014. Prior to that, I worked in a traditional manner, with a big focus on figure drawing. My work was not abstract, and I generally used pencils, pens, and paints. That work was not bad, but it did not feel like it was entirely mine.

I knew that I needed to integrate programming into the artwork in some way. I studied computer science in college, and afterwards worked as a programmer. Writing code had reshaped how I looked at the world, and established the mental models I used to organise my thoughts and solve problems. It was such an important part of my life that my artwork felt incomplete without it.

Eventually, I had the idea to write a programme that created a painting. The results were immediately fascinating to me. The ideas felt fresh, and there was a huge opportunity for exploration in front of me. Later, I learned about generative art, the history, the tools, and the scene. I was grateful to learn more about the art form, but also grateful that I had taken the first steps on my own. I think this helped me to establish my own particular approach and aesthetic.

You are working through the human and the computer lens, both of which are directed by you. How do these two spaces relate to one another?

In terms of their ‘default aesthetics’, these two are quite different. Computers like to do things perfectly, with smooth lines, even spacing, and consistent coverage. When we work by hand, it’s the opposite – everything is subtly distorted and imperfect. I tried to use a systematic, procedural approach in both spaces, because I felt that best showcased the unique fingerprint of each. I also felt that using the hand to execute digital, algorithmic designs helped to make them more approachable, and more relatable from a human perspective.

Why engage mediums such as airbrush and charcoal which can be messy and cannot be controlled. They offer an element of surprise, which seems like the polar opposite to the neatness of algorithms?

Yes, I think that’s what attracts me to them. In my purely algorithmic work, I have to labor to create that messiness or surprise. One of the wonderful things about these mediums is how much they do for you, and how much they give to you. As the artist, you have to give something up. They are risky, and they do things you may not want or anticipate. But they give back in richness, in complexity, and in variety.

And pencil, the humble artist tools, features so heavily in the London show. 

With some work, it can be important to strip away anything that distracts from the key elements. I like how clearly the pencil shows its marks, and how readily it brings texture to the surface. It is an incredibly subtle and sensitive medium. This allows a lot of the process to come through in the finished work, and as you pointed out, the process is a key component of the show. In some works, it is nearly the only element.

What has the experience of exhibiting your work in a physical space, whereby the artwork communicate with the building, but also with one another and the human viewer, alter their meaning?

It is hard to overstate how much of an effect the physical space has on the work. First of all, spaces are amazing tools for putting us into a particular mood and mindset. A good gallery space can help the viewer to slow down, open their mind, and observe carefully. This allows certain work to be successful that might never be appreciated on, say, an Instagram feed.

I also think it’s particularly important for the viewer to be able to move around, interact with the art (even if it’s a static drawing), and take in the fine details. The current lack of ability to do this in a high quality way for purely digital artwork is a shame, although I expect that to improve in coming years. 

The way you translate digital ideas to the physical world, the interchangeability of the two, seems reflective of our lives. As an artist, do you feel art should engage with current topics?

I don’t believe that art should always engage with current topics, but I personally wanted to create art that felt like it was from ‘this time’ and was made using the tools of the day. Our lives are very much split between the digital and the physical. We spend most of our waking hours engaging with digital environments, but at the end of the day, we still exist in physical bodies and our strongest experiences still come from our physical senses. To me, it feels important for art to span that divide as well, if it’s going to express something about the reality we currently live in.

Images: Tyler Hobbs ‘By Proxy, Yellow 1’ 2021, graphite plotter and oil pastel on paper, ‘Jacquard Legacy’ 2023, acrylic and ink on linen ©Tyler Hobbs. Tyler Hobbs working on the Unit London Gallery’s 2023 exhibition ©Sarah Kaplan for Avant Art. Interview: Nargess Banks.

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Tyler Hobbs working on the Unit London Gallery's 2023 exhibition ©Sarah Kaplan for Avant Art
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