Between Human & Machine
Interview with Vickie Vainionpää

Vickie Vainionpää oil painting titled Still Life with Parrots.
Vickie Vainionpää, Still Life with Parrots, Oil on canvas, 72″ x 92″, 2022. Courtesy of the Artist and The Hole (2022)

By Adam Hencz

Abstract painter Vickie Vainionpää’s work investigates the fragile relationship between humans and machines. The emerging Canadian painter is concerned with the impact of technology on the process of painting and her considerations are deeply reflected in her compositions. Based on 3D graphics drafted by generative algorithms and carefully painted by hand using oil on linen, her creative process entangles humane and digital processes.

This year, there was a lot of buzz around generative art with images—made using generative machine learning models such as DALL-E—filling social media feeds on Instagram and Reddit. Generative AI is changing art and design, and this constant change and interference should warn us and slow us down. Vainionpää joins a network of painters who reflect on this phenomenon and urges us to gaze upon physical paintings in a more considerate way.

Vickie Vainionpää in her studio.
Vickie Vainionpää in her studio. Courtesy of the Artist and The Hole (2022)

In conversation with Vickie Vainionpää

We sat down with the artist to talk about her unique painterly process amid the preparations for her next show for NADA Miami 2022 during Miami Art Week starting November 29th. Her solo booth will include works like the artist’s first immersive sculpture and a new series of oil paintings with shapes generated using eye-tracking data from Vainionpää herself.

Adam Hencz: You are based in Montreal, Canada, but there is a lot going on internationally. Where are you calling from at the moment?

Vickie Vainionpää: I am in Montreal right now, in my apartment. I was born in Toronto, but I came to Montreal about eight years ago. My studio is in the Southwest borough of Montreal, right on the Lachine Canal. It’s beautiful. I love it. My studio is in an old factory building. It was a textile manufacturer once upon a time. The natural light is great there. We have tall ceilings, huge nine-foot windows, and it’s gorgeous.

AH: To create some of your paintings, you apply generative processes, which is a very topical aspect of your work. Could you tell me a little about what brought you to generative art and what it means for your practice?

VV: I consider myself an abstract painter interested in the logic of the machine and the current post-digital condition that we’re all living in. So I didn’t start as a generative or digital artist. I started as a painter, and my process brought me to generative art. I was asking questions like: How can I make an abstract painting that’s relevant to the world around me, that straddles this digital and physical divide? What does it mean to have the computer make the first stroke of the painting?

The genesis of that series called Soft Body Dynamics came out of a painterly investigation of the stroke and the search for some sort of fundamental truth about that act of creation. I am interested in what it means to paint today in a technology-dominated world — what does it mean when the computer is at the start of scribbling a line or sweeping a stroke.

AH: You called your collaboration with the machine a tool that “solves that paralyzing fear of staring at a blank canvas.” How do you see your relationship with the computer? Is it a collaborator or simply a tool?

VV: It’s both. But yes, I’m definitely using it as a tool to avoid making that first move because, for me, how to start a painting is one of the biggest problems.

When I started investigating my relationship with code and technology, there was something so paintable about these 3D CGI graphics. I was so compelled to paint them. I fell into the generative aspects because of my questions surrounding the meaning of abstraction today.

AH: On the occasion of a group show in Beijing titled HER, you gave an interview describing your collaboration with generative algorithms and machines as “computer-assisted abstraction.” Can you talk us through the touchpoints of your creative process – from the algorithms that you use to generate the initial forms and elements of your compositions to the final touches of the painting process?

VV: I use a computer script that randomly plots points on the X, Y, and Z axes and then connects them into a bezier curve. It’s a custom plugin for the software Cinema4D.

The creation process starts with the randomization and the generation of those forms. Then I’ll compose a few, including maybe two or three in one scene, and I’ll play with how the light and the shadows fall.

I am also looking for specific curves that remind me of human forms, like fat deposits or curves that happen in a limb. I compose them and light them with colored lighting and texture, and finally, I’ll paint oil onto canvas. I don’t use any tape, and I don’t use any airbrush. I paint in thin layers of oil paint to build up the luminosity and transparency of the colors.

AH: It is impossible to transfer those painterly attributes onto a JPEG on a screen or a photograph.

VV: It isn’t easy because people see them online and think they’re digital images. But once they see them in real life, they understand. Even though I try to leave hints that they are actual paintings, like the raw canvas in the background, it’s a conscious choice and so important because it represents this idea of connection and continuity within the network of painting. But on Instagram, it just appears as a beige color. I’m also trying to leave some more brush marks lately so that people don’t mistake it for an airbrush, and they can see my hand as well as the hand of the computer. The best art goes beyond accurately replicating what’s in front of you. I hope people can see past those hyper-realist aspects, to go deeper and understand what the work is actually about.

AH: You will be presenting new works this month at NADA (The New Art Dealers Alliance) Miami in a solo presentation with The Hole NYC. Can you tell us about your solo booth and the paintings you bring to the fair?

VV: I’m bringing a variety of works. We’ll show works from the Soft Body Dynamics series, and I’m also bringing pieces from a new series I’m calling Gaze Paintings. For these works, I’ve mapped my gaze as a starting point for the bezier curves. I pick a historical work of art and, through eye-tracking software, use the hotspots where my eye rested the longest to directly visually map the spline based on that data. It’s a record of the visual pathway of my eyes going through this painting and using that as the source for my strokes.

I am also presenting a brand-new sculpture as well, which is going to be in the center of the booth. It will be a big, soft sculpture that people are invited to sit on and interact with. Miami Art Week is crazy, hectic and it’s a frenzy. I hope that people will have a quiet moment in this big, soft, inviting piece that you can nestle up to, and engage with and gaze upon the paintings in a more considered way. Another one of my goals with my paintings is for people to slow down. I’m hoping it will help to facilitate that.

AH: For your new Gaze Paintings series, how did you select paintings that you viewed while tracking your gaze?

VV: I’m still figuring out what I want the series to be, but I’ve done a handful of them at this point. The first one was Titian’s Venus of Urbino, arguably the most iconic reclining nude. The idea was to respond to this historical trope and reinterpret the idea of gaze since the nude has been historically tied to the male gaze. I’ve already tracked my responses to Bouguereau, Cabanel, and Gauguin, to name a few. Moving forward, I want to select paintings that also have some interesting interior gazes happening.

I recently did Las Meninas by Velázquez, which has so many figures looking in so many different directions. Even though the little girl is the center of the whole painting, there is a lot more momentum going on in the picture. Then there’s the internal logic of the painting that the artist consciously laid out for you so that you follow a certain path. As much as I tried with certain paintings, my gaze was following the same pathway. Often, the artist naturally guides you through a piece like that.

Painting by Vickie Vainionpää titled Las Meninas
Vickie Vainionpää, Las Meninas, Oil on canvas, 92″ x 72″, 2022. Courtesy of the Artist and The Hole (2022)

AH: Which artists have influenced your work? What work or artist has most recently surprised you?

VV: Last year, while I was in residence at Palazzo Monti, I saw Harrison Pearce’s show at Ribot Gallery in Milan. I was blown away because I had only seen his paintings and never his sculptural work. His paintings are meticulous, black-and-white representations of robotic forms. All his work is based on a diagnosis that he received about a brain anomaly. At the show in Milan, he animated three sculptures made of inflated silicone with robotic pistons, which were moving in response to a symphony with orchestral music that had been composed specifically for the piece.

The brain-machine interface that he’s now exploring, thinking about his own mortality and his own diagnosis of his brain not functioning correctly, was a work I was recently struck by. It was humanoid and very moving. It’s tough to describe in words.

In terms of historical painters, the number one that inspires me was Frank Stella. He was among the first painters to use computer graphics as part of his process. I love the smoke works, where he digitally scans abstract shapes created by clouds of smoke and uses them as relief elements. I also feel like he’s generally moved through his practice and his career with such integrity. He has such a long, successful career because he followed his instinct; he didn’t succumb to the pressures of the market.

The most important abstract painters, of course, also inspire me; like Hilma af Klint and Kandinsky. I’m fascinated by how they understood transcendence through abstraction. Early on, when I was in school, I was also watching from afar what was happening at The Hole. Kathy Grayson, who owns the gallery, had curated a show called Post-Analog Painting (twice!), and so many of my favorite painters were in that show and exhibiting at the gallery, to name just a few: Emma Stern, Ry David Bradley, and Caitlin Cherry.

The Two Bathers by Vickie Vainionpää
Vickie Vainionpää, The Two Bathers, Oil on canvas, 58″ x 48”, 2022. Courtesy of the Artist and The Hole (2022)

AH: What does gallery representation mean for you as an artist?

VV: I have three amazing touchpoints in three different areas of the world: Nicola Pedana in Italy, Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto, and The Hole in New York. I love working with all of them.

Kathy at The Hole is truly an artist in her own right. She knows how to curate and present work in exciting ways. She adds her own touch and twist to every installation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a white wall at The Hole. The gallery doesn’t do things in that traditional white cube way, and I love that.

AH: What series will you be working on in the future?

VV: I want to keep going with the Gaze Paintings and see where that thread leads me. I also want to do more large-scale sculptures in the future. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this first one turns out and how people react.

Wondering where to start?