Pyramyd, September 2010
Published : 01/Oct/2010
Hardback: 120 pages
Ian Wright is back in New York. Returning from Los Angeles, having spent a gruelling three Californian hot summer weeks holed up in an urban warehouse working on a commission for Nike, Wright is in reflective mood regarding the project - ‘It just all went a bit weird in the end,’ he explains, ‘the last 36 hours were crazy; I redid the entire piece almost from scratch, having spent three full weeks working on it before chucking it in and starting again.’
Working under pressure isn’t an entirely unusual practice for Wright – here is an illustrator / image-maker on a self-set quest to constantly evolve his work and setting his own goals and challenges remain crucial aspects of his working methodology. ‘I’m constantly trying to set up my own rules, make my own paths,’ he admits, ‘I just want to make it harder for myself – focus in on what I want the work to say and even now, after all this time, still feel that I’m very much working it out. In some respects I have only just got started.’ Not exactly what one might expect to hear from an artist who has remained in constant demand since he emerged from the London College of Printing (now London College of Communication) some four decades ago.
Take a cursory glance at any one of Wright’s images and it is easy to assume that this is the work of an artist half his years. There is more than an air of the contemporary, more than a hint of cool, that typifies work being produced by any number of hip young gunslingers, fresh out of art schools from across the planet. But look again and one can see years of accumulated insider knowledge; the visibly evident refined stylistic skills that Wright employs to make such seemingly simple images. This isn’t easy – this takes time. And Wright, now well into his fifties, has certainly invested time and energy, yet isn’t interested in standing still anytime soon.
Wright’s works remain contemporary, without following fashions or trends. Wright’s works are cool, without being over-achingly hip. Wright’s works are sophisticated yet simple; never neither over-designed nor over-complicated. With a back catalogue spanning the late 70s, the entire 80s, 90s and 00s here is an illustrator that continues to remain ahead of the pack, though less by design and more through the relentless pursuit of an agenda that insists that he constantly evolve his approach to making images. Wright revaluates and reinvents his work endlessly – ‘I’m really only interested in moving things forward,’ he explains, ‘I’m interested in the potential of things. For me stuff pops up everywhere and suggests experimentation and new ways of working – I’m just moving things around, exploring the possibilities – it has to keep evolving.’
From the start of a career in London ‘doing drawings’ for the New Musical Express, during it’s heyday at the fag end of the ’70s, to an international client base and representation by a New York gallery at the twilight of the ’00s, Wright has certainly come a long way, yet in many ways he has also come full circle. The portrait, evident throughout Wright’s entire body of work and his initial starting point, has in recent years returned to the forefront; the human face is both fuel and inspiration.
It was his early portraits of musicians for the NME, many well recognised and established artists and just as many complete unknown newcomers, that enabled Wright the opportunity to explore and experiment with forms, materials and messages; his trademarks. Constantly pushing and testing various ‘found’ materials, in a resolutely pre-digital era, Wright utilised a distinctly leftfield approach to ‘drawing’ – creating portraits from rubber stamps (John Cooper Clark), recording tape (Sting), letter-forms (Matt Johnson of The The), salt - imitating cocaine (Grandmaster Flash) and human hair clippings (Jack Nicholson). No material was out of reach or out of bounds for Wright to draw inspiration from and to ‘draw’ with.
An early adopter of the photocopier as a tool to make pictures with, having advanced from the PMT (Photo Mechanical Transfer) Machine, Wright excelled at pushing the technology to the limits – moving originals in mid-copy to create newly distorted images, changing the colours of ink cartridges and toners, hand feeding and re-feeding various weight papers and cards through the machine and generally exploring and exploiting new ways and means of making visuals.
Utilising early digital hardware and software, Wright leapt upon MacPaint – a now defunct pioneering painting application launched with the first Apple Mac in 1984, embracing new ways and means of making images with a vengeance. Yet Wright’s work has often imitated digital working methods, remaining of the analogue world rather than inhabiting a digital domain. By employing the use of symmetry, suggesting a mechanised perfection, or replicating pixels on a screen through the gridded use of Hama Beads, Wright continues to playfully adopt and adapt both analogue and digital working methods to suit his outcome and his intended audience.
Alongside the Hama Beads that make up numerous recent pieces, Wright has continued to explore the potential of everyday materials – incorporating the use of badges (buttons), paper cups, mascara brushes, pushpins, torn paper, upended crayons, carpet tiles, cut ribbon and luggage tags to make images in the creation of his works. Alongside this extensive and impressive role call of diverse materials, more humble and traditional materials still reserve a special place in Wright’s work – whether paint simply applied with a brush, sprayed through a stencil or drawn and dripped and folded Rorschach-style, he continues to experiment with the everyday as well as the avant-garde.
Having returned to NYC from LA, Ian Wright is back in the gallery / studio he works from in SoHo - ‘I can work anywhere,’ Wright offers, ‘I do like mad intense working environments; music, people and activity,’ the places and spaces he works in tend to turn out that way, ‘but equally I need new experiences to feed into projects and my work’. British-born Wright relocated to the US, some 5 years ago, in a bid to find new clients, new opportunities and encounter these ‘new experiences’. Occasionally surprised by the longevity of his career, Wright doesn’t take his popularity for granted – ‘I’m a Pro – I get the job done and I know this game is as much about survival as much as anything else. I think I’ve earned respect by hanging around long enough,’ he adds in a typically self-deprecating way.
Wright, through both his work and a decade in teaching, remains a key figure and a leading light in contemporary illustration. Influential images and influential opinions set Wright apart from so many of his contemporaries – refusing to stand still or stall has ensured his work leads, rather than simply reflects, the zeitgeist and always from an outsider’s perspective. ‘I’m always striving to stay relevant,’ Wright declares, ‘never current – I don’t care about that’. Operating on the fringes, straddling the divide between commercial and nonconformist, Wright’s visual aesthetic has pushed forward, moved on, and always before the pretenders have caught up. ‘I’m really not interested in being current,’ he states, ‘I’ve never wanted to be at the centre of the circle. It’s better to creep around the edges…’
Lawrence Zeegen - educator / illustrator / writer
educator - Head of School of Communication Design, Kingston University, London.
illustrator – Contributing illustrator to The Guardian newspaper.
writer – Author of five books on contemporary illustration.