Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Art Space Talk: Aidan Hughes

Aidan Hughes, also known by the pseudonym “Brute”, is a commercial artist from the United Kingdom. Aidan usually works in a very high contrast style, often black and white, but more often black and white accented with one other color. The artist has noted that his influences include the woodcuts of Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, the comic art of Jack Kirby, the propaganda posters of the Russian Constructivists and Italy's Dynamo Futurista and the paintings of John Martin.

His work has been exhibited in group shows alongside Damien Hirst, Shepard Fairey, Yoko Ono, and Gavin Turk-- among others. He is an artist known for crossing mediums as well as boundaries. One could say that his work is a visual fixture of the counterculture scene considering the influence his imagery has had on a new generation of artists.

Aidan has maintained his freelance design business, BRUTE! Propaganda, for nearly two decades. BRUTE! Propaganda is probably best known in the United States for its work with the German industrial rock/metal band KMFDM. Aidan has created record sleeves for the band since 1985. In 1993, he produced and directed the KMFDM music video "A Drug Against War," based on several of his covers for the band-- followed by “Son of a Gun" in 1996.

Brute! Propaganda is a full service freelance design business with nearly two decades' experience in illustration, design, animated and live video, computer games and multimedia. Past clients have included Warner Bros. Records, TVT Records, Pepsi, The Royal Bank of Scotland, Coors, Bulmers, Blitz, MTV and the BBC.

Brian Sherwin: Aidan, your work is noted for having a very high contrast style. You often utilize black and white accented with one other color-- which reminds one of Russian propaganda posters. Can you briefly discuss that influence and perhaps go into detail about other artists and events that have influenced your work directly?

Aidan Hughes: The Russian influence grew from discovering a magazine called the Leader in 1983 which was a British propaganda weekly that was distributed in the UK during the Second World War. It had a very distinctive populist style, all bold colours and shouting caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler, and it was this that spurred me to investigate the Vorticists and via them the Russian Constructivists and Italian Dynamo Futurista.

I think it was more the cartoons of Vladimir Mayakovsky that drew me more than the prouns and abstracts of Rodchenko and El Lissitsky because, as opposed to portraying some impenetrable artistic philosophy, Mayakovsky was trying to reach the people in a very direct way, using archetypes and bold text. Ditto Fortunato Depero with his design work.

In the early 80's, a few of us were working towards a common goal of more direct graphic design (Neville Brody was well influenced by the Soviets, as was Ian Denning who created the Miner's Strike posters of the early 80's) and the work of the Russian avant-garde was very much to the forefront at that time.

My work combines many different influences and it would be unfair to single out the Russians as the biggest of them. I was also majorly influenced by the wood-cut artists Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel years before I discovered Constructivism and American Golden Age comics and pulps decades before that. I think its an amalgamation of those sources that have led to what I do today. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are uppermost in my mind when drawing active figures, for example.

BS: You are very open with the fact that the Russian Constructivists and Italian Futurists serve as an inspiration for your work. You have named names of specific artists from those movements and so on. In that sense, you don't disrespect the message that they fought for-- you don't, from what I've read, forget what they were about, so to speak. Unfortunately, there are several artists today drawing from those same creative pools who bastardize the historic value of those artists and add further insult by not acknowledging their influence openly. Does that concern you as an artist? The fact that in many ways artists are tapping into history-- specifically the visual aspects of social movements of the past-- only to create new art with little to no acknowledgment for the origin of their inspiration? Or would you say that everything is fair game?

AH: Because the Soviet artists were perma-linked to Bolshevik propaganda, much of what they did seems quite repetitive today so a newer interpretation was called for. As we no longer have totalitarian regimes to design posters for, it seems natural that contemporary artists would take the style and convert it to other uses. I personally feel though that the style has been done to death in recent years, rather like the Superman-style figures they use to sell everything from printers to car spares and its become boring.

Of course, there are a number of artists who work in the media who have co-opted the Russian style now and again but so what? Its commerce, not an art lesson. If people are turned on by the imagery, they should hunt down the originals for themselves, like I did.

BS: Back to your work-- what are the specific social implications that you assign to your work? For example, themes of dominance and repression are common in your work-- yet one can sometimes sense the hope of a better situation, or perhaps world, just under the surface. Are those themes fueled by any specific concerns that you have for society as a whole?

AH: I'm a commercial artist so the demands of the marketplace are paramount when I come to make an image. Believe me, when I storyboard a TV ad or design a logo, themes of repression or whatever don't come into it unless the client demands it. KMFDM have cornered the market in industrial post-modern angst and so my work reflects that. My own personal philosophies are less political and are more concerned with interaction between characters, not beliefs or agendas. I am a futurist and therefore see whatever comes as a way to the inevitable next step in evolution.

I'm also a bit hesitant to endorse people who advocate non-violence and yet use powerful images of fascist rallies and troops to make their audience sit up. That's pure advertising. I remember seeing Test Department years ago and laughing at the hypocrisy of an art form that uses what it hates to protest against it. If they put images of their own slack, hippy philosophies up on the screen, no-one would watch so they put up a sexy, scary Nazi show instead.

My own message is non-political: Don't Spit on the Floor, Feed a Child's Mind, Kick out the Jams etc. Luckily, I am in the position where people want me to concentrate on my own style so I am able to keep an artistic continuity and broaden my skills while making money. I don't get many clients asking for air-brushed puppies or manga fairies.

BS: Aidan, you have illustrated record sleeves for the industrial band KMFDM since 1985. You also produced and directed the animated KMFDM music video "A Drug Against War,"-- which was based on several of your covers. Can you discuss the connection that your art shares with the music of KMFDM? Does music, in general, inspire your work?

AH: I just don't have the time to listen to music (I won't wear headphones in case a ninja sneaks up on me) and no, music doesn't inspire me unless I'm on the dance floor. I find modern music to be the least cultivated and exciting of all art forms with its lazy attitude to construction, melody and pace. Young people are incredibly interested in this most bland of theatres and little realise how lacking in imagination the videos and tunes they consume are or how boring it makes them as individuals.

You only have to go on Youtube, Facebook or MySpaz to see how these kids DEFINE themselves by these depressing groups and their weak lyrics. From the Jonas Bros. to rap to the latest in so-called 'experimental' music, its one pale, recycled dirge from beginning to end. Apart from blasting out 70's funk to rattle my emo neighbours, I rarely listen to any of it and certainly never when I'm working. One way to get me really red in the face is to say 'I couldn't live without music' within my earshot.

BS: Can you briefly discuss your process? Do ideas for images pop into your mind, so to speak? Or do you view reference material until the spark of creativity is unleashed? Tell us about that process…

AH: Every night before I fall asleep, I try to construct the script for the most perfect spy thriller ever made. Its really hard to do when you're tired: to come up with original ideas and not revert into cliche night after night. In fact, without outside input, true inspiration comes to an artist very rarely in his or her career. Most of the great works were inspired by events, other artworks, conversations between colleagues etc. and I can only think of a couple of occasions where an original thought has just appeared in my head like that.

I teach art occasionally and one thing that holds the kids back is this burgeoning state of integrity they feel they must maintain in order to create and that holds them back from doing so much. Being true to your art to that extent entails rejecting all outside information and creating an inner world which can only serve to alienate the audience. Although I can see how it might not work for some artists, my involvement in the media has given me a valuable insight in how to create bold, dynamic and direct visuals very quickly.

When you work in advertising, you have to put all that art school, starving-in-a-garret ideology behind you quick. You have to come up with 200 ideas by lunchtime and to do that you have to scrape every barrel to the bottom before the guy next to you gets the lead. Unhealthy? No way. Working like this is excellent exercise for the creative mind.
Of course the client might be an idiot, the product boring and the result commonplace but the actual regime of stretching your brain like this is something all 'artists' should do. Getting your work in front of the public and getting paid for it is the big kick, not having a oil painting stuck away in some rich bloke's drawing room, although you shouldn't turn your nose up at that either.

People who don't draw or paint seem to think it's good to have a client who says: 'Do what you like'. I've had a couple and it was a nightmare. Its much better to use whatever ideas from whatever sources and involving the client makes them feel as though they are contributing to the finished thing while you use their seed ideas as your creative springboard. Of course, once they have agreed to an image, the field is yours but I always send the clients roughs and then regular updates so they can never say, 'I didn't authorise this busty, gun-toting 12-foot lesbian'.

BS: How does your thought process change when creating personal work compared to work for a client? Or is the process similar?

AH: When I'm not doing work for clients, I rarely draw for myself. I'm either working on film projects with my partner or writing articles for my satirical newspaper, the Wirral Groan.

BS: What are your thoughts concerning the internet and how artists can utilize the world wide web in order to promote themselves and sell their work? It is obvious that change has come to the art world in the sense that many emerging artists will have a better chance of representing themselves instead of trying to carve their way into the traditional system of gallery representation. How do you see this change progressing in the future due to the internet?

AH: Well, as someone who has been selling their art online since 1996, I'd be one of the first to extol the benefits of working and selling on the web. Anything that removes the gallery owner from the equation is fine by me. Also, as a multi-media artist, it's great to be able to have all your skills up there instead of just exhibiting in the narrow-focused forums and formats of the real world. There, I'm just an artist but on the web, I'm an animator, a director, a writer, an illustrator and a humorist without having to claim any one as my main 'career'.

I can also sell the sorts of populist merchandising looked down upon by traditional galleries, such as skateboards and cheap posters. Finally, the input I receive from fans on Facebook, plus the way I can coordinate events and post items through my blog, makes art so much more exciting than it was twenty years ago.

Then, there's the work process. Back in the day, I'd have to cart these huge boxes of reference books around with me whenever I moved to a new city. But now, I can access most of the images online which minimalises my work area considerably.

BS: Aside from your website, where can our readers view your work in person? Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

AH: I don't do exhibitions anymore as it becomes a non cost-effective way to sell art, in the long run. First off, you have to over-price your work to give those greedy fucks their 50-65%. But instead of asking anyone influential, they invite their broke, freeloading art chums who inhale the free wine and schnibblies before pissing off to the next gallery. I've said 'no' to shows before but the last one I did was such a fiasco, I have been put off exhibiting for life. I can make more sitting on my boney ass at my desk than I can in those places.

BS: What is your stance on artists rights? For example, do you support current copyright protections? Have you ever had problems with people profiting off of 'bootleg' images of your work or referencing your work without permission--- copyright infringement and so on? Such issues are discussed at length online within the context of the art community and there is a lot of confusion-- even with established artists-- about what is legal and what is not. The defense of parody or social commentary has been used by some to exploit the works of others when in truth the artist using said defense has little understanding of copyright in regards to those issues. What is your stance on copyright and the rights of artists?

AH: One day, one of my sons pointed out that he'd seen an image of mine used in an advertising campaign for a well-known sportswear manufacturer. When I tracked down the company responsible, I found that they had not only used one of my designs for their own campaign but had franchised it to hundreds and thousands of shops all over the world who carried their brand. I had no idea how I could find out just how many T-shirts and caps had been printed as the image was sold as part of an advertising package thus I had no idea exactly how much I could sue them for.

This is the problem and it cannot be overcome. Big companies only get that way by ripping off artists and getting them to work for nothing. T-shirt companies have been making money from ripped-off designs for years. Although there's literally nothing to be gained except a temporary publicity surge, its always worth seeing how far litigation can get you. I mean, did Kirby and Simon ever sue Roy Lichtenstein for his blatant re-renderings of their work? Will the graphic designer who created the Campbell's soup can ever get his kick-back from Andy Warhol's estate? I don't think so, especially now with images floating around for free on the internet, from where mine was taken. Even if laws were changed, would any of these artists really have the cash to take them to court? I did, but it cost me all of it and a lot of mental stress to win the case.

Then, there's the other side of the argument. Like it or not, that company who ripped off my designs were inadvertently spreading my image over the planet without me having to pay a penny in promotion. Today, kids from all walks of life are running round in my T-shirts and that has got to be better than the paltry amount the company would have given me had they bought the design outright.

BS: Finally, when everything is said an done what do you hope viewers gain from your work?

AH: A hard on.
You can learn more about Aidan Hughes by visiting his website-- -- or blog-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

No comments: