An artist playing with images as one would play with Lego
Many of us used to play with Lego construction toys as children, building all kinds of imaginative worlds and giving an outlet for our imagination. Many of us, coming of age, left the activity behind. Several weeks ago, I was lucky to meet a man who didn’t. Josh Dykgraaf, a Melbourne-based photo-shop artist, is still highly involved in this creative process; however, rather than using hundreds of Lego blocks, he uses hundreds or even thousands of images that he shoots himself, building all the more immersive and awe-inspiring worlds.
Before giving his talk at fortyfivedownstairs gallery about his first solo exhibition, which intrigued me even before I got a chance to see it, Josh agreed to talk to me about his ideas of ‘what is art’, his inspirations, and his own practices as both an artist and a ‘commercial’ artist.
Anastasija: As soon as I moved to Melbourne, I researched all the contemporary galleries and exhibitions they have at the moment. That is how I found out about this show and about you. I have never seen work like that before and have never been to a photo manipulation exhibition, so it is quite exciting to be talking to you.
Josh: I have never been to a photo manipulation exhibition either [laughs]. Well that has been a bit of a transition. Photoshop work doesn’t really have the same kind of regard in the arts.
Anastasija: That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. I was looking into your biography and your website where you say that you are a graphic designer, and what I found interesting was that the boundaries between ‘art’ and ‘non-art’ are so blurred at the moment that graphic designers can have their own exhibition where people would come and experience their work as art. That made me wonder, how would you define art then?
Josh: Good question. I have been working as a commercial illustrator for about seven or eight years, and I think that at the simplest level, art is something that people actively want to look at and potentially have in their home to experience it for the enjoyment of it. However, commercial art, almost by definition, has a job to get attention.
Anastasija: Would you say you are a commercial artist?
Josh: Both. Commercial art has certainly informed the way I build and read the images. It’s a fine threshold, as you say, it’s blurred. In this exhibition, for example, the piece with a snake is, in hindsight, more commercial. It seems almost like a video game, which is not hugely surprising. For years I was an active gamer – not so much anymore but it is still a large part of who I am.
Anastasija: When you are making commercial work as opposed to making pieces for your own personal enjoyment, is it the same creative process at work? To expand on that, since I have read that you shoot all raw material yourself first and then put it all together, do you always know what it is going to be in the end?
Josh: With almost everything in this show, I have had a rough idea. It’s hard to picture the entire image, but I can easily visualise a certain part of it. Talking about the snake once again, I noticed that the rock formations in the Grampians had a scaly quality to them. In the case of the elephant, Ourea, I noticed the similarity between the texture of its skin and the texture of the rock formations in the Alps. And from that point it is a lot more experimental. In commercial art, in contrast, there is a definite ‘thing’ you are trying to make, there is not much play or exploration. This entire exhibition is an experiment.
Anastasija: On your website you were also saying that there have been some challenges which you saw as an opportunity to organise this exhibition, and I think that is the best approach. What would you say is the biggest challenge in your work overall?
Josh: Biggest challenge is commercialising it. When so much time and effort is required to make a work, it is sometimes hard turning that into a revenue to justify that. There are many other great photo-shop artists, of course, and many of them are much more skilled than I am. However, when people tell me they haven’t seen something like that before, that’s because not many other people are willing to do this.
Anastasija: Talking about other artists, do you think you get any influence from them?
Josh: Quite a few actually. The illustrator/artist who inspired me to do this kind of work is Justin Main. I saw his work for the first time in 2008 and thought: “I want do that for a living”. Another artist who influenced me is definitely Escher. I saw his work in high school and I still go back to it every now and then. The way he works with perspective is always something I aspired to.
Anastasija: You mentioned video games earlier, is it also where you get your inspiration from? And talking about your background in general, where did you get your education and when did you know who you wanted to become?
Josh: Firstly, I am a Lego kid. I like the process, and what I do now is not that dissimilar. Building things out of photos like you would do with Lego blocks. In addition to that, in the 80s or 90s there was this endless printed paper with holes on the sides which would go on forever, and I would draw on it and make paintings of mountains and flying jets and video games that I saw recently and would just keep going. As long as I can remember, I have been interested in that. However, I started out studying architecture at the university. I have always been into engineering and visual arts, which was my favourite subject in high school, and I thought that architecture was like a good midpoint. In my second year of architecture, I took a graphic design elective, discovered photo-shop and started making new images. And then I fell in love with it. By the end of that semester, I was spending so much time on photo-shop and kind of neglecting my coursework [laughs]. So I made the jump. Later, I went to study at James Cook University in Queensland and finished up in Germany in a city called Wurzburg.
Anastasija: Why Germany?
Josh: It was actually a suggestion from one of my lecturers who is German. It was an exchange program, and she studied at this university herself.
Anastasija: Do you think it helped fuel your inspiration further, going away and seeing some new places?
Josh: Absolutely. One lecturer in particular was pretty much responsible for the direction I took. I presented him with a few options for my thesis project, one of them being the flying cities, and he said that I should do that and guided me through the process. Going to Germany was very informative in that respect. Since my thesis project was collages of the cities, I spent days traveling around and exploring the cities, shooting images of buildings and then turning these images into constructions. I have never been really into photography though. It is more of a tool for me, and photography that works well as ingredients for these works [points at the exhibition] is not necessarily good photography in its own right.
Anastasija: Would you take this show overseas?
Josh: Absolutely. My objective for this exhibition was to break-even financially. On my birthday last year in October, I had some really boring corporate work to do and I just didn’t really want to do it on my birthday [laughs]. At the same time, I felt guilty about leaving the office. So I just set it aside and had an idea. The first one in the series was the elephant, Ourea, and since I had previously noticed the similarities in the textures, I just hashed it out and then made most of the image in one day (every other image in this series took about a week to finish). People responded very positively to it on social media and I kept making a few more. The next was Tatanka, the bison. Then I joined the group show in early February this year with forty or fifty artists and got a very positive response again. That’s why it all came together fairly organically. The idea of being an artist is kind of new to me, and I’m feeling a bit of impostor syndrome [laughs] but much less now that the exhibition is actually taking physical form.
Anastasija: Since you mentioned Tatanka and some other names of your pieces, how do you come up with them? I have been trying to figure it out but couldn’t.
Josh: Well, there are two sets of names. The first set of names comes from mythological creatures or figures indigenous to where I shot the images. So ‘tatanka’ is a Native American word for bison, ‘kipenzi’ is a Swahili word for loved one, referring to the baby giraffe image. That is, I’ve been trying to pull something that is native to them. The second set of names [laughs] is a bit of a joke. A good friend of mine, who sits over my left shoulder at work, started coming up with names and repeating them to me. She gave them all fairly mundane women’s names, and to this day, I cannot look at the elephant without thinking “Janet” [laughs].
Anastasija: Putting so many images together and layers on top of one another, how do you know when a work is finished?
Josh: Good question. There is an inner voice in my head and once it goes quiet, I know it is done. That inner voice is also a part of my psyche that reads the images and knows if something is lit or blended correctly.
Anastasija: How long does it take on average for it to go quiet? As in, to complete a piece?
Josh: I would say around 35-60 hours. I work in fifteen-minutes blocks. Fifteen minutes on, ten off.
Anastasija: I can imagine since all work is done on a computer, you definitely need some sort of a break.
Josh: Definitely. In that ten minutes I might respond to emails or get up and get coffee. And pulling this show together has definitely made me a bit more self-disciplined. My technical skills have improved pretty significantly in the last six months.
Anastasija: As I mentioned before, on your website you write that your best kept secret is that you shoot all raw material yourself. Is there another secret about your work?
Josh: I can tell you that I have hidden myself quite small in all the landscape images in this series. Either myself or a person I was with when I shot the material.
Anastasija: It is probably very hard to see it, isn’t it?
Josh: Yes, it is not supposed to be easy to find. It’s more of a little signature.
Anastasija: That definitely adds some kind of a mystery to the work. Did anyone ever find it?
Josh: On the elephant it is quite prominent. But usually they are not easy to spot. I don’t do that to all my commercial work though, you have to be very careful with that.
You can learn more about Josh Dykgraaf and his work at http://www.joshdykgraaf.com/