Tiffany Calvert’s work considers a dense weave of historical material. Her practice “connects painting’s history to our current visual culture, which is shaped in often confusing [and concealed] ways by algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), and blurred boundaries between real and virtual. Using image-generating machine learning models trained on Dutch and Flemish still life paintings to create new invented images, she then prints and utilizes stencils to protect parts of the printed images she paints upon. These masks create hard edges where the paint meets reproduction.”1
The milieu of digital popularism infiltrating Western culture is beginning to catch up to Calvert’s process, her work becoming more timely as awareness of AI becomes heightened with further integration. Over the past year, she has added several processes to her approach to painting that integrate the oscillation between the static 2D surface of painting with the multiplicities and calculated renderings of responsive interfaces such as digital screens. These interfaces appear as paintings physically layered on top of monitors displaying videos of ‘latent space’ generations2 or projecting those same videos onto paintings. By utilizing transparencies that are secured upon live screens or using projectors that have been shielded from her audience, Calvert leans into examining abstraction as a painterly truism that was as incidentally present during the height of the Dutch still life as it is now. Here we discuss how that exploration of abstraction as a practice in painting works within her practice, and how it appears throughout myriad points in history–primarily during the height of the Flemish Still Life, to Cubism, to Post-Digital Painting.
In this interview, Tiffany and I started by discussing the myth of Painting’s “death”3 that John Yau had considered in Calvert’s work in “Painting’s Divided Legacy,” published in Hyperallergic in 2020.4 This evolved into discussing her most recent research focus and a walkthrough of her methodology.
Tiffany Calvert: I feel like, in terms of the death and rebirth in painting, I have a thousand answers, and it also doesn't concern me because it's obviously not dead.
Megan Bickel: The argument just becomes a theoretical one?
TC: It does, but it also becomes a way of talking about how painting responds. Not that it would actually die, but that it would talk apocryphally. Then you get to pretend for a second, right? Ask why would that matter, which is a perfectly fine mental exercise. Some art historians discuss painters as if [painters] are thinking theoretically. But most of the time [when I’m painting], I’m just thinking about the painting. For me and many painters I talk to, there is much about why we paint that can't be articulated—which is, in fact, the point. It's a type of intellectual pursuit only expressed as painterly engagement.
I don’t want to categorize painters as some kind of idiot savant, either. "Painterly knowledge" can be reduced to a type of gut or primal "instinct" about paint. But [instinct and theory] coexist—they're different, but you need both.
MB: Are theory and practice divorced, for you, or are they just separate languages?
TC: You could talk about paintings as objects divorced from the artist, which many people want to do. Maybe rightfully so. [I’ve been in an ongoing conversation with] my colleague, Zirwat Chowdury, where she and I discussed this Constable painting. She's developing some ideas around landscape painting to control the landscape. The way is expressed through these paintings of sluices5 holding back water—the paint is literally pushed around earth. My argument to her was that the sky in this painting deliberately gained its highlights both from added whites in the clouds and the white of the ground [the layer of paint under the visible layer], which was revealed by painting with a hog brush on a wet surface which picked back up and erased out paint to reveal the ground. [A] writer, whose name I cannot recall, had expressed it as a mistake to paint on too wet a surface, and I disagreed. The larger argument was that all painters are abstract painters that, despite having to remain within pictorial conventions of representation, are always just painting, with abstract concerns in their mind, exactly the way I paint now with all permission to be abstract.
In some ways all of that theorizing seems very disconnected from painting itself. We're not going to stop anybody from painting; it's literally the most fundamental way to make an artwork.
I’ve been thinking about shifting perceptions a lot. I think it's why [I gravitate towards literature about] Manet, and Painting, and Cezanne. . . as well as media theory.6 I’m developing a paper that proposes [some evolutions in how contemporary painters depict space]. To start, there have been three conditions of artistic space: perspectival or illusionistic space, which uses [rules of] perspective. Second, Modernist space, thinking about flatness and geometry, and I think now—desktop space. Desktop space is so different from Modernist space because we ‘live’ in this flat world all the time now. It’s not quite flat because it's both translucent and shallow. Our imaginary desktops are supposed to be a picture of this [references a physical desktop surface]. However, we view them vertically to our bodies, like looking out at a landscape. The research that is necessary for the remaining hypothesis actually appears in my [recent] paintings. Still, I’m working on finding a cluster of painters who I think are using a different approach to space-making that appears to be impacted by the digital screen but who aren’t actively thinking about desktop space.
This would mean not looking at people like Charline Von Heyl, who is thinking about, and also appears to be thinking about digital flatness. Or Trudy Benson, who is clearly thinking about digitality. Not them, because they use a visual vocabulary that reads of digital anachronisms, right? They can make you think of Mac Paint and web pages.
MB: Are you thinking about painters who consider digital space tactically versus people who are thinking about the visual language of digital space?
TC: We have a way of discussing painting in terms of semiotics, right? Brushstrokes have a language, and their meaning has been built over time. I think that is where Trudy Benson or Laura Owens fit in. I don't mean tactically digital because that would be deliberate. [Instead] I believe the field of painting, and how space is currently depicted in it, is impacted by desktops and the constant habitation within desktop space, but not necessarily intentionally about that [as a subject]. The problem is that it becomes a process of elimination when considering artists for this study, right? You can get caught up very quickly in what ‘desktop space’ refers to. Is it digital light? Visually altered images? Or even cinematic space? None of that's what I mean. I’m [strictly referring to] planes of Modernist space. But again, I'm still trying to figure out where I see it. I’m kind of figuring it out by painting. At this point, I can only clearly define the problem and what it's not.
In my work, I've been trying to find ways to make [painting] contend with [the digital] equally. So for this show I recently had in Nashville, as an example, two pieces are offered. One is, you know, a large format print with paint on it the way I normally do and then a [looping] one-minute video projection onto it. It’s a projection of the Runway’s7 output, compiled into frames and projected as a video. It’s all these frames morphing into one another.
MB: Can you speak to your process for creating images? Particularly how you generate images?
TC: Yes. I want people to play with [these tools]. Artists often use new tools for disruption; the fact that they're new makes them good tools for disruption. More of that disruption and artist deployment in the larger conversation is super important; and selfishly, I just want to talk to more people about it.
I use Runway ML, and I accessed that in its beta stage. My first suggestion for new users is to go back and look at the code provided and try to piece together what [lines of code] are causing what [action].8,9
In Runway, they have a tool called ‘latent space walks.’10 They compile all the frames between where it had stopped and produced an image. While running this video, the software allows you to pan around, and it doesn't quite work right, it creates a lot of glitches when you move faster than the frame rate because it has to generate the images. It’s amazing to watch.
MB: As if you’re observing the computation?
TC: Yeah, it's also like exploring outer space. It’s like, “Oh, what's over here? Nothing. Until we get there.” At Tinney Contemporary, I had paintings [that used a print from] a frame that I extracted. In fact, four of the paintings in the show are frames from the one [latent space] video. Then, for those four, I have this projection of that video of the images generated onto them. And for each painting, there is a moment when the video is projected on it, aligning with the printed image I’ve painted. The idea was to have the projection and the painting be equal. It's dimly lit so none of the three things: the painting, the print, or the projection, dominates. You can still see the painting, but the video morphs on the surface. A lucky thing happened, which I wanted to happen but wasn’t confident it would: some people believe the projection to come from behind the painting, which is awesome. For them, the projection looks as if it is inside the painting.
I consider Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013) when I consider desktop space and these overlapping themes. It's a video of all these panes open, and there are all these still and moving images. I think about that piece all the time and how much it says about codes and systems and how we live with them.
MB: And the digital overwhelm.
TC: Yeah! Everybody's desktop looks like that. And in it, there are still and moving images. This is what I like about my new pieces paired with the projection. Together, they are good examples of that tiny drop shadow space, but it’s still moveable.
MB: Can you tell us a bit about your process of designing shapes to paint within for these surfaces? They never appear to be fully connected to the composition, the connection is made through camouflaging of the paint and print, meaning the shapes are formed through a mimicking of color provided by the inkjet print.
TC: You know how they say that the Cubists were painting all of these different points of still life, and in doing so, they were thinking about space and time? There are all of these different spaces and times coalescing and living in the same space simultaneously while not moving, and you are moving around them. There is an intense tie between how we talk about Cubism and how we talk about desktop space. Many of the shapes I design onto the vinyls and remove [and fill in with paint] are all inspired by Cubism. Vectors feel like [Adobe] Illustrator Cubism.
MB: [laughs] Yeah, like Vector Cubism.
TC: You can just go crazy on the page and then delete the shapes created by the crossovers. It's such a recognizable digital gesture drawing. Still, when you do that, that deletion has a relationship to Cubism, and they look just like a Picasso or just like a Juan Gris collage.
All those shapes only touch at their points, and they don't overlap. It becomes all about representation. This then connects really nicely to something that I think about regularly: this idea from Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. He proposes that floral still life paintings are [what he refers to as] shallowly diagrammatic.
Diagrammatic because the painters are not trying to convince you of any three-dimensional space. They’d rather show you the perfect specimen of each flower. So they end up being diagrammatic, nearly built on a grid because they're all turned out and facing the viewer. When thinking about desktop space and its shallowness of space, and considering Cubism, I begin to see that all of these ideas incorporate time differently. Still lifes are always about time. That explanation of that research feels a little all over the place but I, like most artists, do not necessarily want to have a succinct conclusion.
MB: You want to explore. What about your decals? Those are predesigned vinyl sheets, yes?
TC: Yes. I've been using the masks. I stick the vinyl material on the painting. Then once it's stuck on, I just cut it and pull out all the negative shapes. Recently I’ve been doing it manually, making the cuts, I mean, because I felt like I was starting to get tight. It's nice because I needed [the change] because the newly printed images were becoming so concrete. I've been leaning on these pictures for so long and just needed some intuitive freedom.
I prefer to stay in that exploratory zone, which makes it very difficult to package for grants and so forth. However, I think it's fair to acknowledge a caveat [in your research] noting that these connections are scant, unjustifiable, or confusing, and that’s entirely how I like it.
MB: It’s also important to leave room. It develops a path for others to further that research. If you leave little pockets, little holes, it allows other artists space to think about the ideas in context with other ideas that may coalesce outside your realm of consideration.
- Calvert, Tiffany. Artists Website. Accessed July 15th, 2023. http://www.tiffanycalvert.com/about
- Latent space is typically defined in computer science communities as a representation of compressed data, or hidden data. When Tiffany produces images using Runway ML, the AI generates many images that don’t end up becoming available for use. They stay in a latent space, because when an AI is attempting to create an image, or text response to a prompt, it creates many options before landing on final output. The data that doesn’t become output stays in a liminal space as they are mathematically less ‘probable’ than the images produced as output. However, Runway offers a ‘latent space video’ which compiles these ‘unprobable’ images into a video which appears as a sort of morphing still life, as is the case with Tiffany’s dataset.
- In approximately 1840, French painter Paul Delaroche is rumored to have taken one look at his first daguerreotype and declared then, “From today, painting is dead.” Beginning a debate on the necessity of painting for the incoming century.
- A sliding gate, or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate.
- Media theory focuses on the effects that can come from utilizing new media, often digital media, but more broadly it is applied to new textual experiences and new ways of representing the world.
- Runway ML (Runway Machine Learning) is an AI research company that offers tools in video editing and a generative AI tool that utilizes text, video, or image prompts to generate new material.
- Googling a line of code will often bring to a bundle of sites that will explain what is happening and how it’s happening.
- Another tip from Tiffany: “Also note that if you're looking at Runway, which uses StyleGAN and text-to-video editing, their models are different from, say, Stable Diffusion, and your output will display that.” StyleGAN is an extension of the adversarial generative network (GAN) model. A good place to read more is here. Stable Diffusion is a deep learning, text-to-image model released in 2022. It is primarily used to generate detailed images conditioned on text descriptions, though it can also be applied to other tasks such as inpainting, outpainting, and generating image-to-image translations guided by a text prompt.
- Latent space, when discussed within the context of machine learning, refers to a representation of compressed data. A fairly straight forward explanation of this process can be found in this article by Ekin Tiu
Megan Bickel [she/they] (MFA, MA) is a trans-disciplinary artist, data analyst, writer, and educator working at the intersections of painting, new media, and data visualization. She is the founder and organizer of houseguest gallery in Louisville, Kentucky.
︎ Tinney Contemporary, Nashville
Tiffany Calvert, #419, 2023. Oil on water based latex print on canvas, 40 x 50 inches.
Tiffany Calvert, #367, 2020. Oil on water based latex print on canvas, 55 x 68 inches. All images courtesy of the artist.
Tiffany Calvert, #397, 2022. Oil on inkjet print on canvas mounted to wood panel, 11 x 14 inches.
Tiffany Calvert, #383, 2022. Oil on water based latex print on canvas, 55 x 68 inches.
Tiffany Calvert, #419, 2023. Oil on water based latex print on canvas, 40 x 50 inches.