Ian Wright: Addressing the Message

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London-based artist Ian Wright may be a man of few words, but with over two decades of work under his belt, he can afford to let his imagery do the talking. While still unknown to many, Wright has carved a careful niche for himself over the years, using a variety of media and techniques to translate sound into images for countless commissions. From his work for Pete Townshend, Black Uhuru, and On-U Sound to his album sleeves for Factory Records and Cabaret Voltaire, Wright has made his mark on music culture.

After getting his degree in graphic design from the London College of Printing, Wright gravitated towards illustration. In 1980, he was hired by the highly influential music rag NME to create one drawing per week. It was here that he developed his love for process and play. Forced to work quickly, Wright took a different approach to each illustration, using materials as far-fetched as shoelaces and table salt (along with a healthy dose of Xerox) to keep things interesting.

His next big break was joining iconic designer Neville Brody's studio, which was responsible for the look of magazines like Arena and The Face. Also in the office was a likeminded young designer by the name of Ian "Swifty" Swift, who manned the visual helm of the emerging acid jazz scene. During the early '90s, Wright contributed extensively to the aesthetics of the movement, working with Gilles Peterson's Talkin' Loud label and Straight No Chaser magazine.

Always looking toward the future, Wright is excited about what might happen next. He has just completed his first solo show at NYC's Christopher Henry Gallery, and continues to freelance in addition to teaching illustration at the University of Brighton.

XLR8R: Illustrator, designer, artist. Where do you lie?

Ian Wright: All seem to be relevant at some time or another.

You love to work with different materials. How big of a role does your medium play in your work?

The restriction a material places on me helps me solve the problem/picture! I enjoy that process very much. It could link to the fact I studied graphic design at college and only started illustrating once I graduated. I like to change. Experimenting with materials is an integral part of my work.

Another common element in a lot of your work is symmetry. Why do you gravitate towards this sort of balance?

To give my work a design element. I saw a Mott the Hoople cover, Mad Shadows, in 1969 and it always stayed with me. But it took 12 years to become an idea in my work. I also loved the work of Karl Wirsum of the Hairy Who, who also uses a sense of symmetry.

What about portraiture? Is that a way to distinguish yourself?

I love drawing people, especially those I feel strongly about. It could be a way to link myself to a musical area, trying to portray a feeling about a subject. I'm usually frustrated with my drawing, so playing around with ways of mark-making and process gives me results I can't physically make.

Have computers had a big impact on your creative process?

I used to have use of a black-and-white process camera. I used to use it as I would a photocopier. We then got a photocopier, which I used to use as if it was a computer. I only really use a computer to process my images, or as a plan for a larger-scale image.

Rumor has it that Neville Brody's studio was one of the first to experiment with the Apple Mac...

True. I think it was around 1990. We had one Mac for about eight people! We all got good at playing a game called Crystal Quest. I still love using a program called MacPaint.

Some of those eight studio members went on to be quite prolific in their own right, didn't they? Is that where you first met Swifty?

Yes! My good mate Cornel Windlin was also there at that time, along with the great Tony Cooper (now sadly deceased), a truly inspiring and innovative designer; Simon Staines, who's now a creative supervisor at the Useful Company; and Giles Dunn, a designer currently working in London and New York (punkt.com). It was an exciting time, and a good place to be, upon reflection.

Has the overuse of computers and digital imaging turned you off?

I can see the advantages, but I still can't see a way forward for me with a computer. I usually need a collaborator!

Most people know you from your work on various music-related projects. Why are so drawn to the music side? Did you fancy being a professional musician first?

My dad had a speaker rigged up from a huge radio on our upstairs landing. When I was about eight or nine, I would be allowed listen whilst drifting off to sleep, the music seemingly coming out of the darkness, with radio static and hiss providing an ethereal quality. I was immediately hooked, and have been ever since. The Beatles–and then later, the radio DJ John Peel–provided my musical education. I never had any inclination to play an instrument, but I always loved hearing and watching drummers.

With technology rapidly taking over, what do you see for the future of music packaging? Do you think a digital copy of the album with little or no artwork will suffice, or do consumers still want something to hold and collect?

I would! I find it harder to remember particular tracks without a visual guide. With CDs I find myself referring to "Track 13" without knowing the name of the track. I find music packaging itself becoming more anonymous, throwaway. Money dictates. We are now aware of the price of music per unit. The convenience of playing and storing has taken over. It's not for me.

What are you listening to these days?

The usual mix-up, [including] Gilles Peterson's WorldWide radio show, loads of rare groove, Stevie Wonder, King Tubby, Dennis Bovell, Steve Barrows compilations for Blood + Fire, Hank Williams, The Beatles (always!), early Roxy Music, Beck, and Madlib in his many musical guises.

What do you hope to be doing in the next 10 years?

I want to keep the faith!