Q&A with painting virtuosi Lee Marshall
We spoke with English artist Lee Marshall about his work to coincide with his solo exhibition Deep Mind Day Dreams at Square Art Projects. Cambridge-born Marshall’s paintings are dense worlds of dreamlike images, built up like collage ensembles. Currently he is fascinated by the impact of AI on image- making and what it means for our future visual landscape.
Square Art Projects: Hi Lee, what are you working on at the moment?
Lee Marshall: I have been mainly drawing and thinking about how to approach painting again, having recently moved out of London and leaving a studio space there. To be honest I underestimated how much the move would interrupt things, but then there have been a lot of changes and interruptions to normal life in the last couple of years!
Re-engaging with drawing led to making the gouache works on paper in the show, which were a good exercise to bridge the gap between painting and drawing. I have intermittently tried to use gouache and found it to be less forgiving than acrylic or oil paint, but I enjoy using it as it has an immediacy and boldness.
Part of my thoughts around the direction of my painting practice are also being shaped by the rise of AI (Artificial Intelligence) generated art, which has developed quite quickly in the past few years and became much more prevalent and also more accessible recently. I am fascinated by the way in which AI generated imagery can potentially produce very surreal and unique images that are divorced from human logic or the inhibitions of human thought, but it lacks the material virtuosity or sense of enjoyment of craft that a painted picture has, so I am thinking about how it could be best employed within my artistic practice.
SAP: The working process is a key part of your work. Can you tell us more about it?
LM: Everything stems from a process of collecting visual material, which I always liken to sampling techniques in music production. I have physical folders of bits of imagery that were cut from magazines and books, but recently I have increasingly saved images when browsing social media and the internet into a folder in the cloud that I can refer to. Alongside this I’ll take photos of things that catch my eye. I'm always looking for things that resonate with me visually, even if it’s only on an instinctual or subconscious level at first. Sometimes I might just gather images that display a textural quality, such as stone or wood, as potential reference material.
Before actually starting to paint I'll usually look through the pictures I've found or just fragments of images in my files and try to unravel what it is that caught my attention. The removal of the image from its original context is key, as it allows me to reinterpret the imagery and begin the process of constructing a new picture. I’ll then spend time collaging imagery together, moving around the image fragments to build a composition that works for me.
I use digital processes to collage and manipulate images at times, but more recently I prefer the tactile and immediate quality of moving around cuttings on paper and pasting them in place. After completing a collage, I overlay a grid and draw it out on canvas, scaling it up to fit. During the drawing out stage I may make changes or add invented elements, which can either be used to balance the overall composition or to introduce a discordant element as a punctuation point in the image. Further changes and alterations may happen during the actual application of paint, with changes to colour or painting technique. I think about the process of making my paintings as a translation, an opportunity for miscommunication which brings the possibility of something new being created.
SAP: Being an artist is hard. What keeps you going?
LM: For me, there is a drive to develop my art and improve which keeps me going. I have found that making art is the only activity that allows me to fully clear my mind, so it has a therapeutic effect as well. There is also an element of curiosity and discovery that maintains my engagement, particularly when I am experimenting with materials and techniques.
SAP: Can you talk to us about the title for the show, ‘Deep Mind Day Dreams’?
LM: Deep Mind is an artificial intelligence lab that has developed a neural network that can learn to play video games and traditional games such as Go and Chess in a manner similar to humans. As a name I think “Deep Mind” is very evocative of a process of subliminal thought that I am trying to unlock when I am collaging images together to make my paintings.
Along with this I like the irreverent idea of an artificial intelligence daydreaming and the notion that if an artificial intelligence can learn to play or have a short-term memory, could it dream? At what point does an AI start to actually create and imagine and what would that look like? We are perhaps starting to see this with the increased prevalence of AI created art, but there is still a way to go.
Perhaps the broader and more vital point to me is how much we as humans are projecting onto the process of generating AI art, which reveals the underlying questions around how we define thought, dreams and creativity and where a ‘traditional’ creative process sits alongside this.
SAP: And finally, if you could exhibit your work alongside any artist - living or dead - who would it be?
LM: It would mean a lot to me to exhibit work alongside Simon Granger, who was my tutor at Norwich School of Art and Design and unfortunately passed away in 2018. His knowledge and enthusiasm for painting really encouraged me to develop my own practice while in art school, and his paintings of hybrid creatures and meticulous approach to making them resonated with me.
All text and images ©Square Art Projects 2022