Matthew Stone’s AI Paintings Reflect a Changing Art World

“Personally, I think every artist should just explore this technology, because it’s a paradigm shift,” says Matthew Stone of the proliferation of AI in an artistic context. Technology has long been integrated into his practice, used to create patchwork forms in his fantasy scenes, including the symbolically rich illustrations on FKA twigs’ second album, Magdalene.

In his latest body of work, the intersection of digital tools and manual techniques is further highlighted. Virtual Paintings, held at Unit London, is his first solo exhibition in the UK since 2016, and sees him debuting pieces that incorporate AI into his process for the first time.

Stone’s new workflow involved grabbing his past parts as image references in an early access build of Open AI’s Dall-E 2 (although he describes the system as “an enterprise version of a tool that should be free to use”, and recommends stable streaming instead). He then took the raw AI output and incorporated the generated images into larger pieces, created with his usual 3D modeling software, using them as brushstrokes and textures.

Top: The Red Studio, 2022; Above: The basement studio, 2022

As with his past works, these new compositions feature moving textures, spaces and figures. His signature digital brushstrokes get smudged, while the bodies and faces that inhabit the artfully chaotic studio environments are caught in mid-action halftime. The theatricality of the pieces pays homage to the creative circles in which he grew up as an artist, notably the time he spent living and working in squats within a collective.

“People coming together and creating social environments and playing, and there’s a deep, sweeping sense of acceptance of people manifesting exactly who they are, that’s very beautiful to me,” he explains. “There are a lot of references to historical painting and things like that, but I guess I always want to mix some of that grandeur with a contemporary, fun, upbeat sense of aesthetics.”

Virtual paintings by artist Matthew Stone
The Blue Workshop, 2022

Stone’s digital portraits line the studio spaces depicted in his pieces. It recalls the use of mise en abyme by personalities who buried their own pieces in larger scenes, such as Roy Lichtenstein with his Artist’s Studio series. Like Lichtenstein, Stone makes direct reference to Matisse in this new corpus, as well as to Nicolas Poussin’s masterpiece, Danse sur la musique du temps.

Above all, the transient energy of the works reflects the state of flux that pervades the world of visual arts and creativity, as technology rapidly transforms everything from modes of production to the attribution of value. Stone is acutely aware of both and believes that more artists should engage in the debates sparked by AI in the context of image-making.

“I think what’s really interesting about AI [is] there’s a kind of natural conversation around effort and what determines good art. And I think there’s this pervasive idea that things that take a long time, things that rely on a skill set that took a long time to develop, are inherently valuable,” he says. (Arguments of this nature aside, he was surprised to find that using AI still involved a long process.)

Virtual paintings by artist Matthew Stone
Dance (after Matisse), 2016-2022

He is interested in changes to “the way we think about creativity once the creation of high quality images is in everyone’s hands, so the democratization of image creation in a sense, the same way camera phones made everyone a photographer.” And I think we all know that there is still a lot of room for excellence in this field and interesting creative productions.

“I think when the creative industries are so competitive and often underpaid and underfunded, creatives are driven to want to keep the opportunities and their identities as unique and special individuals. I think that’s completely understandable because it’s a tough environment, but at the same time I really believe there’s an abundance of creativity and creative opportunities that can be in the same way, in referring to the iPhone, a democratization. I don’t think anything is threatened at this level, in terms of the potential for human creativity.

Virtual paintings by artist Matthew Stone
Good Vibes Only, 2022
Virtual paintings by artist Matthew Stone
The Hungry Painter, 2022
Virtual paintings by artist Matthew Stone
Makeup tutorial, 2022

Matthew Stone: Virtual Paintings is on display at Unit London until September 10; unitlondon.com

Christopher S. Washington