Niall Ashley and Matthew Stone: Beyond Screen and Canvas

Prelude to an art practice of the future

Text Guy Mackinnon-Little
Published 08 Sep 2023

Niall Ashley and Matthew Stone are at home in hybrid realities. Both artists blur the boundaries between painting and performance, digital and physical, art and life. Stone got his start spearheading subcultural happenings in London in the late 2000s, while Ashley began minting work in 2021. But despite launching their careers on opposite ends of the sudden virtualization of everything, they share a fascination with the decidedly analog art of painting as a means of making sense of this transformation.

Born in Bristol and currently living in London, Ashley rose to prominence over the course of 2021 for their NFT “metapaintings”—looping performance videos in which Ashley uses augmented reality tech to make elements of their graffiti-inspired canvases spill out into the world outside the frame. Ashley will jump in front of a painting and suddenly be sporting the mask of the figure it depicts. More recently, they have leveled up their practice and begun working with game engines to deploy these painted avatars into sprawling 3D environments—such as in 1world (2022), their parafictional promo video for the inaugural FWB Fest.

But even when they are using rendering software, their sensibility is more that of a painter than a model-builder: avatars glitch to reveal raw motion-capture footage; dense cityscapes collapse and contort to form an impossible architecture. At once self-portraits and prototypes for possible selves, Ashley’s avatars reflect on their experiences as a Black, non-binary, working-class artist while gesturing toward a utopian beyond.

But the truth, which Ashley and Stone’s work makes clear, is that painting has always been a technology: the development of oil paint was as much a disruption to image-making in its day as widespread access to text-to-image AI is now.

Two decades into a career encompassing legendary South London squat parties with the art collective !WOWOW!, operatic performances at Art Basel in Miami, manifestos for “optimism as cultural rebellion” published in Dazed, and visual collaborations with FKA Twigs, Stone’s polyvalent practice as a photographer, sculptor, performance artist, painter, and self-described “art shaman” has converged on a similar terrain of technologically augmented painting. His most recent exhibition, Virtual Paintings (Unit London, 2022), comprises a series of works in which photographs of individual brushstrokes are digitally manipulated to adorn and envelope a cast of 3D avatars. Nested within these busy compositions are AI-generated paintings outputted by DALL-E 2 in response to inputs from Stone’s existing oeuvre.

Through these multiple layers of representation and reproduction, Stone stakes out a symbiosis between analog and digital, exploring technology as an extension of human expressivity rather than an interruption thereof. All paintings, Stone suggests, create their own virtual reality, conjuring a possible world in the viewer’s mind. It’s this appreciation for art’s multiplicity that excites him about NFTs, which he describes in this conversation with Ashley as a “foothold in the infinite.”

We are used to thinking of painting as an inherently conservative medium. Paintings are decorative playthings or market-friendly assets, holdouts from capital-A Art’s glory days. But the truth, which Ashley and Stone’s work makes clear, is that painting has always been a technology: the development of oil paint was as much a disruption to image-making in its day as widespread access to text-to-image AI is now. And as the old adage goes, technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. Ashley and Stone are less interested in bridging the divide between the digital and physical than they are in seeing what’s possible when we accept that there was never any divide to begin with. If screen and canvas are part of the same reality, then perhaps we can get to work on the more important task of expanding what that reality can be.

Guy Mackinnon-Little: Who are your north stars, creatively? Who’s informed your work the most as you’ve cultivated your aesthetics?

Matthew Stone: For me, it was Andy Warhol, but also Joseph Beuys. When I was at Camberwell [Arts College], I wrote about the spiritual content of Andy Warhol’s work for my dissertation. In different ways, both Warhol and Beuys were talking about everything being art. Warhol thought everything kind of already was art—so, a can of Coke can be art— whereas Beuys, as this postwar German conceptual artist, was saying that everything should become art. He was sweeping the streets as performance and things like that.

That was really inspiring in terms of thinking about living a life that is lived as art—about artworks not just being things that hang on walls, but collective, social, expanded happenings like Warhol’s Factory. For me, coming to London was about finding other people to make my factory with. Niall, I actually remember you mentioning Warhol and Basquiat in a Twitter Space. You liked Warhol, right? I feel like that was one of the touchstones that you mentioned.

Niall Ashley: I liked the Factory aspect, even though I was questioning things about it. I liked it because it made me think, “What if everyone could become their own factories through avatars, facilitating multiple branches of yourself or your identity?” You could create your own metafactory.

MS: So what’s the Factory to you, then?

NA: The Factory becomes yourself. With social media, we have a camera on everything. Every life has become performance. We’re all within our own little factories of cultural production. Everything’s become this thing of, “How does it look in this frame?” But if we acknowledge that condition, we can create something interesting.

MS: So you see social media and the virtual space that the internet opens up as an opportunity to expand creative identity? [A place] where performance doesn’t have to mean inauthenticity?

NA: No. I think it can mean play. I feel like the reason it means inauthenticity for a lot of people is that they try to duplicate themselves; there’s a pressure to represent yourself accurately.

MS: And perhaps also to present a version of the self that is assumed to be more acceptable. Maybe one reason why we are both excited about this technology is that we are open to that aspect of fantasy or creativity. You’re not trying to represent something directly; there’s an okayness with the subjectivity of making something up, inventing worlds. Creating something that is unreal in one sense, but allowing what is created to be filled with something that is authentic.

If NFTs grow and become something that all artists can credibly engage with as a way to make money and support their careers, then they don’t have to strategically leverage wall-based works anymore.

GML: How does Web3, where pseudonymity is often enshrined, fit into that? What’s the difference between having a pseudonym and having an avatar in the way you were just describing, Niall?

NA: Personally, I feel like with the PFP crowd, there’s no one point you can say everyone’s at. The address changes every hour. You burn the address and everything keeps moving. That’s how the Web3 space sees decentralization, but it’s kind of utopian. The difference with the avatars is that they add up to make one central figure. There has to be some sort of PO box.

MS: I feel differently. Web3 is ultimately an experiment in direct democracy, albeit a very imperfect one, as most experiments are. I understand the desire to have someone at the top who can be the final authority, but who gets to be that person and how do we make sure that they’re the right person? Ultimately that’s a collective responsibility. We are in it together, whether or not we act like it. The reason I’m interested in Web3 is that it’s not afraid to be utopian. It’s proactive, optimistic, and not just a passive critique.

GML: There’s often a crude framing where Web3 acolytes position the optimism of the space against the supposed performative criticism of the trad art world. How does your experience of those two worlds compare?

MS: I think that particular criticism of the traditional art world is a cynical and passive critique in and of itself. You look at certain areas of crypto, and there’s a lot of corruption. You look at certain areas of the traditional art world, and there’s also a lot of corruption.

When I was younger, most of my creative friends were working in fashion or music or magazines; friendship and collaboration were fairly easy, as there wasn’t direct competition for the same opportunities. I had fewer friends who were involved in the art world, and it felt like there was more competition or just a lack of an overriding sense of community with other artists.

I have had a complicated relationship with the way the art world functions and what it means to win within that, despite still wanting to do so. But coming into the NFT space, I very quickly had meaningful exchanges with people online that felt really wholesome. I was also just excited to be involved with a cultural moment that was geared towards imagining a different way of doing things.

GML: Niall, you’ve come up entirely within that world. What were your early experiences of the NFT space like?

NA: The first piece I minted on Zora was like the 600 or 500th mint, so there wasn’t that much else on there at the time. It was interesting seeing my stuff alongside other people’s stuff, seeing how they worked together, and then being able to hit up someone who was on there directly because there weren’t that many people using it at the time. Those times were really lovely. Then the money started coming in and with it more people, which was great because it was more exposure, but it was also a lot of noise. Even now, I’m happy that things are quieter. I was really interested in the idea of just minting something and being like, “This is the one of one. Here’s proof. It’s on the blockchain.” I couldn’t have done that if I had just posted on Instagram or TikTok and left it there.

Photography by Zaineb Abelque

MS: There are obviously so many facets to what you do. There’s the social media performance of it, the physical paintings, the videos, and then the NFT. Do you think there is an original artwork for you in a traditional sense?

NA: I feel like the original is the intersection point of all of those experiences. Every time I put it on a different platform, I present it in a different way

MS: I definitely connect to that idea of [the original] being the meeting point between things. Some digital artists say the original artwork is the file, which can then be 3D-printed or manifested in AR. For almost all painters, the actual painting itself is the original artwork, and everything else is just documentation. But I take the view that the artwork is everywhere—or everywhere that some mediated manifestation of the original creative impulse lands on somebody else’s consciousness.

The artwork is the digital file. It’s the social media posts. It’s the physical work. It’s other people’s photographs of the work. This is why NFTs are interesting: they provide a kind of foothold in the infinite. There’s all this networked creative activity, and with an NFT, the artist can say, “Well, actually, this is where it is.” If NFTs grow and become something that all artists can credibly engage with as a way to make money and support their careers, then they don’t have to strategically leverage wall-based works anymore. It can be anything.

NA: For so long, we’ve been trying to compromise with the digital and trying to thumbnail and render down our real artworks, taking photographs and whatnot. But I think the interesting part is to embrace the reality that most people are going to be seeing your artwork digitally, which is the most democratic way of viewing artwork anyway. Coming from Bristol, the first paintings I saw were just old paintings of the British royalty. That was my idea of artwork, [but] the things that stood out to me weren’t those things; it was the things that I saw on Tumblr or Instagram or YouTube. The idea that anything of value has to be on canvas is so limiting, because there’s only so much you can do with that one material. You can put anything on an Ethereum block, be it physical, digital, audio, whatever. There are way more creative possibilities. So yeah, I just think the digital is the real.

GML: What does making good on those creative possibilities look like? Where is this all going? Both of you seem interested in carving out new worlds through these technologies, without giving in to either cynicism or naive utopianism. I’m curious how each of you think about that balance.

MS: It comes back to this idea of taking up digital space— not necessarily as a reactive position to platform capitalism, but consciously and creatively defining virtual space and showing people that it’s not a done deal, that reality is still being created in the digital just as it is elsewhere. The resistance that some people have toward online life is wholly understandable because of the nature of social media. There’s a reason that people think that digital work should be free, [which is part of] why high-value NFTs were such a disruptive meme. It’s an idea that has been engineered culturally by platforms like Meta to get content without pay, so they can make money from that work. It’s no accident and it results in a cognitive dissonance where people often can’t see the things they’re creating or recognize their own digital labor.

I think it’s significant that almost everyone on Earth who has a smartphone is in some sense a photographer, an artist. That was the dream of many artists of the past: to inspire other people to engage creativity in their life. I think that the more people there are who are engaged with their own creativity, the less violence we’ll see in this world. I can only really go off my own experience, but I know that creativity in my life has been transformative and healing. Creativity in the digital sphere is not even the future; it is our current reality. I’m optimistic about pulling focus to that, because I believe in the creativity it unlocks, and not just my own.

NA: I don’t always feel that optimistic, I can’t lie. We’ve had so many of these conversations about Web3 tech and what it enables or how it empowers people. It’s cool, but at the same time, I think the more interesting part about it is the mediums that are coming out of it. I’m really interested in how we use those tools without it just being a magic trick—an “aha” moment. Even with my own work, I’m so bored with just breaking the fourth wall.

MS: You’re like, “It’s already broken ... It’s all one reality. There is no virtual, there is no physical.”

NA: And if there’s no virtual and no physical, what can we do with those tools? With Unreal Engine, for example, you have the MetaHuman plugin. You can make a 3D version of yourself for free. What can you do if you have a 3D version of yourself? You can place yourself anywhere. I can place myself in the Sahara Desert, and I can cut myself in and out of real time and digital meatspace. If people are playing with digital and physical meat space so much, it will eventually come to a point where we don’t know what is what—and if you don’t know what is what, then it means gravity can change for once.

We spend so much time suffering in physical space to make our digital selves look more appealing to other people, but what could we do that isn’t just about replicating a fantasy from the physical? What more can you say about yourself when you can easily render 3D models composed of millions and millions of polygons? What can we do that gets us out of this despicable moment and extends a narrative into the future? There’s reality in the digital and reality in the physical. Now that that’s established, what can I do that I couldn’t have done before?

ZINE - Niall Ashley and Matthew Stone: Beyond Screen and Canvas

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