Josh Rowell: Rhizoma between nature and technology

Josh Rowell talks about the evolution of his pictorial research on technology and language, arriving at the energies and networks that cross the digital and natural worlds.

What does it mean to make art in the 21st century?

This is the question that the English artist Josh Rowell (Kent, 1990) seems to answer with his practice as a “digital painter” continually searching for the many ways in which technology can influence, to the point of modifying it, the reality in which we live today.

In particular, in the Rhizoma solo show at Atipografia in Atipografia until 20 January 2024, the artist explores the concept of network by staging a parallel between communication systems: the natural one, the rhizome, and the digital one represented by the internet .

A nucleus of paintings, coming from his best-known production (Painting Language) and his latest evolutions (Walking Pieces), together with his first environmental installation (Rhizoma), thus accompany us ” in the intricate dance between nature and technology” towards another level of connection, in which there are no hierarchies and boundaries, but only the choral dimension of coexistence.

>> sources and insights at the end.

Josh Rowell

Portrait of Josh Rowell

What does it mean to be a “digital painter”?

Josh Rowell: I suppose, at its core, a digital painter is quite a simple concept; it is about taking inspiration from the digital world that we all inhabit in the 21st century and translating those ideas through the more traditional technique of painting.

Often when we think of artists that deal with digital themes, or ‘post-internet’ art, we associate them with new media, video, installation and so on, but I have always felt inspired to address these contemporary themes through more traditional, handmade, means.
The digital world is one that exists within a virtual space, we cannot touch it, so by making my works as physical objects I believe it opens up an interesting area for investigation.

The desire to explore this comes from a personal position of inner conflict and debate, one that I suspect is shared broadly amongst people living today. We are witnessing more and more of our daily lives shifting into this intangible virtual space, is that a good thing?

I don’t know the answer, but ultimately that’s why I choose to turn codes into hand painted canvases instead of writing a basic programme and printing them. I’m trying to mimic the computer whilst saying that we as humans still have ability and utility within our advanced technological society.

Perhaps being a digital painter plays on the idea of nostalgia, or perhaps it is simply an extrapolation of the position that we find ourselves in, straddling the boundary between the real and the virtual. We are constantly flitting between the two, so it makes total sense to me to make paintings that occupy that same position.

Josh Rowell: The Temptation of St.Antony, 2020 – acrylic on canvas, 124×182 cm

The “Painting Language” series is rooted in the process of translation.
How did you develop your personal binary code, which in the observer becomes an act of reading and vision at once ?

Josh Rowell: I first created the Painting Language series, in part, as a response to the era of mass data that we are currently living through.

The idea that a painting can also embody data, data can transform into code, code can serve as a representation of language, and language can be conveyed through colour seemed to me, in some way, a circular concept.
I believe that this idea allowed me to represent something that is truly indicative of our age, whilst still applying the knowledge I had gained as a painter.

So, by taking text I decided to create my own code, one that was visual and functioned through colour.
Everything is contained within the painting, including the capitalisation of letters, punctuation and paragraph structures, but just as a computer code would, it operates within a defined set of rules and parameters in order to achieve an outcome.

These works are my homage to the invisible architecture of the digital age.

I am fascinated by the idea that all artists are creating their own form of visual language, and each individual practice requires some form of deciphering or translation to get to the root meaning, and the Painting Language series also leans into that notion.

Josh Rowell, detail: The Temptation of St.Antony, 2020 -acrylic on canvas, 124×182 cm

In the Rhizoma exhibition we can see the latest evolution of the “Painting Language” in the great work Growth: Fibonacci // Internet (2023).
What are its most distinctive aspects compared to other similar works of the same type, such as
The Temptation of Saint Anthony (2020) exhibited on the upper floor of Atipografia?

Josh Rowell: The distinction between these two works really highlights the breadth and versatility of meaning that I try to communicate within the Painting Language series.
One is about representing data in a new form, whilst the other touches on the idea of ‘artistic legacy’.

The piece titled “Growth: Fibonacci//Internet”, was a work that had been brewing in the back of my mind for a long while now. I’ve become increasingly interested in the parallels that exist between the natural and digital worlds, two realms that we often dismiss as the total antithesis of one another, and I was searching for a way to portray this parallel through the limited capacity of my Painting Language series.

I decided to turn to growth patterns, as all things, man-made or otherwise rely on a deep rooted and inherent necessity for growth, literally, conceptually and metaphorically speaking.

The three green canvases in the bottom half of the installation contain the opening numbers of the Fibonacci sequence. To anyone unfamiliar, this fractal sequence is a pattern that appears inherently throughout the natural world, from the number of petals that appear on flowers, to the way in which the branches of trees expand outwards. The natural world is littered with Fibonacci numbers, and it can be understood as the underlying order beneath the surface of the organic world.

Contrasting this, on the four blue canvases in the upper half of the installation, I have mapped out the growth of the internet through user numbers since its infancy in the early 90’s. The internet is the poster boy for the digital age, the one thing above all others that has changed our lives so drastically, the fulcrum which drives much of our human experience today.

The idea to create the work as a cluster of interconnected hexagonal canvases is another nod to the inherent patterns that seemingly exist within the natural world, as seen in the honeycomb structure, cooling volcanic stacks, insect eyes, turtle shells and so on. The way the hexagon interlocks creates the most efficient structure and is yet another example of the natural intelligence.

So, what does it mean to put these two growth patterns side by side, and further still, what does it mean to represent them through the guise of the Painting Language series?

At its heart, this work is about providing an understanding that all things, natural or digital, adhere to certain rules, just as the digital world relies on codes and sets of instruction, so too does its biological counterpart.

Everything contained within the universe is, on some level, predetermined by something far bigger. There are laws, structure and order, even in the seemingly chaotic or spontaneous.
The digital world is not a man-made anomaly, it is a mirror of all the things that preceded it and will serve as the basis for that which succeeds it in the centuries to come.
Networks, systems and interconnected relationships, devoid of centralised powers, these things are all ancient.

Contrasting that, the work ‘The Temptation of St Anthony’ although also from the Painting Language series, touches on slightly different concepts that I have dubbed the Legacy Series. Saint Anthony is an oft-repeated subject throughout art history, the supernatural temptation faced by the Saint has been depicted throughout the centuries by artists such as Michelangelo, Bosch, Cézanne, Ernst and Dalí, to name but a few.

By re-telling this story through the Painting Language series, using a transcript from Jacobus de Varagine’s 13th Century publication, the ‘Golden Legend’, I am attempting to explore the importance of artistic legacy and how certain art historical narratives can be expanded on within a contemporary framework.

The resulting piece is both a ‘response to, and an ‘interpretation of’ the artistic legacy that exists around the Temptation of Saint Anthony. As Michelangelo or Dali were inspired to paint ‘The Temptation’ in styles pertaining to their period, genre, movement etc, so too am I now inspired to paint it through the eyes of an artist living in the 21st century.

This work is designed to both reflect on the past and comment on the contemporary; taking inspiration from the same literary source as the aforementioned behemoths of art history but reinterpreted according to my practice.

My dream is that in 500 years’ time art historians of the time will look back on such artistic legacies as the one which exists around the Temptation of Saint Anthony and I hope that my 2022 version will be spoken about in the same conversations as the versions that came before it, and the versions that will surely follow it.

These two works show the versatility of the Painting Language series and highlight the importance of the text being translated.

Exhibition View: Josh Rowell – Rhizoma, 2023, Atipografia (Arzignano-Vicenza) | work: Growth: Fibonacci // Internet, 2023 – acrylic on canvas | Ph. Luca Peruzzi

Virtually Fragile” is a series based on images of broken screens as a pretext to create new visual landscapes, applying a geometric and ordered approach to the initial random structure.
How is the virtual fragile?

Josh Rowell: Virtually Fragile’ is a series that takes its inspiration from images of broken screens in order to paint digital landscapes of complex colour and form, simultaneously geometric and spontaneous in their composition.
Working from found images of a variety of broken devices, I have sought to highlight the fact that the digital world, despite its seemingly limitless potential, is not yet immortal.
Like all things, our personal relationship with the virtual realm is temporal; as we enter the digital world through our screens, the gateway through which we travel can just as soon be taken away from us with one false move, one simple drop of our cell phone.
Ultimately, we can understand here that the digital world is still answerable to the physical world.

The function of the screen in contemporary society lends itself naturally to my work. Screens represent the border between our natural, tangible, and potentially limited reality, and the intangible yet expansive realm of the virtual.
Through painting broken screens I aim to take away from the common conception of ‘digital perfection’, and instead create a dialogue that is arguably more accurate, or ‘real’, than the falsehood of flawlessness.
In this sense the ‘Virtually Fragile’ series can be understood as hyperreal, both on a conceptual and aesthetic level.

The series’ title is inspired by the position we find ourselves in, although we invest more and more of our time and energy in our internet selves, we are never far away from losing it all, hence the ‘fragility’ of the situation, running in parallel to the fragility of the devices themselves.

For me, on some primal level, as long as you can still pick up a rock ad destroy a computer with it, there is some sort of inherent level of authority that the real, physical world has over its virtual counterpart!

Exhibition View: Josh Rowell – Rhizoma, 2023, Atipografia (Arzignano-Vicenza) | work: Virtually Fragile (serie) – acrylic on canvas | Ph. Luca Peruzzi

In the new series of “Walking pieces” (from 2023) the representation of the landscape becomes explicit.
Could you tell me why you introduced a discussion on nature in your investigation of technology?

Josh Rowell: Throughout my artistic journey I have always drawn inspiration from the virtual realm, whether through the adoption of coding in my paintings, or the exploration of emerging cultures on the internet; taking inspiration from the digital is always my starting point.
Through the Walking pieces and the Rhizoma exhibition at large, I am, for the first time, moving beyond the concept of digital vs handmade and starting to look at the pre-existing relationships between the digital and the natural world.
We often assume that the natural world around us is the total antithesis of the internet obsessed society that we live in, but I am seeking to communicate an alternative perception.

Having spent the last few years, namely since the Covid19 pandemic, immersing myself in nature, it seems ever clearer to me that the natural and digital worlds are, in fact, highly similar in the way in which they operate.
Both rely on sets of interconnected networks and systems through which information and messages travel.
Just as immeasurable amounts of data transfers from place to place within the internet space; so too does information move freely within the natural world from plant to plant through complex networks.
For me, I want to challenge the assumption that networks and systems are man-made inventions, and instead suggest that we are merely copying that which has always existed.

These themes came about as a result of a shift in my personal life over the last 2 years. I made the decision to move away from a busy city to a very rural location, it has been a hugely significant moment in my life and has naturally impacted my work, becoming the main driver for most of my practice ever since.
In particular, the difference in lifestyle between living in a fast-paced city and a more relaxed countryside way of life is very pronounced.

A lot of my early ideas came when living in London, a mega-metropolis where you rely on apps to navigate the complex transport networks, where 10 million humans live confined within an alarmingly small area and many more arrive each day to work.
There is a relentless daily grind that is unique to city life, it is an environment that does not sleep, does not stop, and increasingly requires the use of technology to survive. Apps to get a taxi, apps to split bills with friends, apps to navigate the underground, apps to buy tickets; without technology you are lost in this environment. I loved my city experience, but I knew I could not sustain it.

As of last year, my partner and I are now residing on a farm in the Southeast of England. Our closest neighbour is a cattle shed about 250 metres down the farm track, when I open my bedroom window in the morning all I can see are fields all the way to South Downs.
This is a vastly different lifestyle and one that we have chosen intentionally.
I do not need to get on an underground tube to go in search of green space, I simply walk out of my door. I can grow my own vegetables, my dog can run freely, the air is fresh, the change of the seasons is much more noticeable. I enjoy all of these things and there are many more I could list; but crucially, it is this shift from the technologically driven life of the city to the slower paced way of life in the countryside that has inspired large parts of the Rhizoma exhibition.

I have spent much of my time getting lost in the woodlands around my house over the last year and it is just the growing understanding of the natural world that has really struck a chord with me. The sense of connectivity that exists in these places, paths that might only by trodden by human feet once a week, that is what I want to express through my work.

In the 21st century we all have a push and pull relationship with technology, I suppose that I am in a period of my life where I am trying (not necessarily succeeding) to push further away from that fast-paced, technological way of life.

Exhibition View: Josh Rowell – Rhizoma, 2023, Atipografia (Arzignano-Vicenza) | work: Walking pieces (serie) – acrylic on canvas | Ph. Luca Peruzzi

Time becomes a central element in the Walking pieces, but it has always been fundamental to your practice. Can you tell us about it?

Josh Rowell: The new series of walking-based artworks builds upon an earlier series, delving into the temporal division experienced in the 21st century between the real and digital worlds.
As I embarked on various walks in the picturesque countryside surrounding my home, I carefully gathered datasets to map and illustrate the growing intrusion of the digital realm into our daily lives.
The resulting pieces begin with a photograph captured from each walk, the image is then meticulously divided into specific rectangular segments, with each segment symbolizing one minute of the journey.

Some segments are blocked out in vivid fluorescent paint, signifying the minutes in which I was engrossed in the digital world, whether writing a message, capturing a photo, taking a phone call or so on.
These works vividly convey the concept I refer to as the ‘digital distraction’, a phenomenon that all of us grapple with in today’s technologically advanced society. The more time I invest in my phone, the more obscured the once-pristine natural world becomes; invoking a sense that the real world is gradually disappearing and raising questions about how we all choose to invest and use our time.

These works deal with the concept of time in a quite literal way, the pieces themselves become representative of timelines; but my broader practice uses time and its contradictions as a continuous thread.
My mosaic series, for example, takes inspiration from internet culture, memes, viral tweets and so on, and recreates them as physical mosaics. This is about a reversal of the fleeting nature of the internet, a viral meme has a very limited lifespan before it is replaced by the next popular thing. The desire to them recreate these as mosaics is about a reversal of that temporality; mosaics are very permanent, tactile, physical objects that can last for centuries or longer.

Exhibition View: Josh Rowell – Rhizoma, 2023, Atipografia (Arzignano-Vicenza) | Ph. Luca Peruzzi

We can also read the relationship between nature and technology in the luminous words “never alone / always connected” that accompany the installation of three trees which are interconnected via a luminous cable.
Could you explain the concept behind this work?

Josh Rowell: Rhizoma is a large-scale installation consisting of three elevated trees with their roots exposed, delicately connected by pulsating LED strips that extend towards adjacent walls, projecting phrases that read ‘always connected’ and ‘never alone’ in swirling hues of blue and green light.
Through this installation I invite viewers to embark on a journey that explores the complex interplay between the natural and digital realms and is my most ambitious work to date.
The intentional contradiction between the organic nature of the trees and the starkness of LED lighting serves as a symbolic bridge, linking the functions of the natural and the digital. This deliberate pairing challenges viewers to consider the coexistence and interdependence of these seemingly disparate realms.

Exhibition View: Josh Rowell – Rhizoma, 2023, Atipografia (Arzignano-Vicenza) | work: Rhizoma | Ph. Luca Peruzzi

‘Always connected’, ‘never alone’, they are open ended phrases, they allow the viewer room for interpretation, but for me they are highly specific and carefully selected. When we talk about connectivity in the 21st century we tend to do so in terms of the digital world, are you connected to the wi-fi? Are you connected to your mobile data? If you haven’t logged into your social media apps for a while people start to wonder why, there is almost a pressure to be always connected to the internet. But that is not my reason for using this phrase, for me it is much more about liberation from this constant pressure, a freedom that I experience when I am in nature and the result of a realisation that you do not need your device or the internet to be connected at all.

In fact, I have felt a greater sense of connectivity when in some of the most isolated places, lost in a forest or next to a lake, than I have in the middle of a busy city.

Byron once wrote, ‘There is pleasure in the pathless wood, there is rapture on the lonely shore, there is society where none intrude, by the deep sea and music in its roar. I love not man the less, but nature more.’ It is this concept and realisation that there is just as much of a sense of connectivity within the natural world as there is in the digital. You are always connected, life itself is an infinitely complex set of interconnections and we are very much a part of that.

Exhibition View: Josh Rowell – Rhizoma, 2023, Atipografia (Arzignano-Vicenza) | work: Rhizoma | Ph. Luca Peruzzi

‘Never alone’ speaks to the same idea; no matter how isolated or lost in the natural world you might be, you are never truly alone. However far away from human contact you might be, you can take comfort in the fact that you are surrounded by millions of years of evolution. Your biological body is in harmony with those others around it and if you allow yourself, you can feel a far more profound sense of connection in this environment than you can achieve through any device.

Rhizoma is an autobiographical work, a personal manifestation mapping out a journey from a life that wasn’t working for me, to one in which I feel totally at peace.
To me it symbolizes the fact that in life we need to take risks and follow our instincts when necessary. But through the work I encourage viewers to embrace life by recognizing the beauty in both the organic and technological aspects of existence in equal measure. The installation challenges preconceived notions of connectivity, suggesting that true connection extends beyond the digital landscape.

By fostering an appreciation for the richness of life on Earth and encouraging moments of freedom outside of the digital constraints, Rhizoma is about the very essence of feeling alive!
It is about understanding that all living things are so intricately connected that it is impossible to truly feel alone. It is a visual and conceptual celebration of the profound interconnectedness that defines our humanity, inviting us to explore, appreciate, and feel truly alive in the intricate dance of nature and technology.

Exhibition View: Josh Rowell – Rhizoma, 2023, Atipografia (Arzignano-Vicenza) | work: Rhizoma | Ph. Luca Peruzzi

At the Atipografia headquarters, you engaged with installation for the first time.
How did it go?

Josh Rowell: I am very pleased with the result of the Rhizoma installation! I think that, as an artist, whenever you do something new and put it into a public setting, there is always an element of vulnerability or anxiety about how it will be received by the public.
But I am incredibly happy with the result and also the feedback I received.

It has also massively opened up my practice and given me a platform to push on with more expansive installation work in the future, it’s an exciting feeling to move beyond 2D! I am always looking at ways to expand my practice and push it forwards, and I am sure that installation will play a pivotal role moving forwards.

I particularly enjoy the way in which you can occupy a space through installation work, something that can’t be achieved as easily through paintings and other wall-based works.


official wesite: Josh Rowell (link)

JOSH ROWELL – Rhizoma (link)
curated by Andrea Maffioli
Atipografia, Arzignano (Vicenza – Italy)
06/10/2023 – 20/01/2024

Alice Traforti

Founder e Redazione | Vicenza
#artecinetica #arteprogrammata #tecnologia #robotica #fotografia #newmedia #digitalart #percezione #identità #mercato #fiere #gallerie

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